Monday, October 8, 2012

If You Build It, They Will Come: The Importance of School Structure

This post was originally published on the Catapult Learning site, at:

"There are several ways," Dr. Breed said to me, "in which certain liquids can crystallize--can freeze--several ways in which their atoms can stack and lock in an orderly, rigid way." That old man with spotted hands invited me to think of the several ways in which cannonballs might be stacked on a courthouse lawn, of the several ways in which oranges might be packed into a crate. "So it is with atoms in crystals, too; and two different crystals of the same substance can have quite different physical properties…."

"Now think about cannonballs on a courthouse lawn or about oranges in a crate again," he suggested. And he helped me to see that the pattern of the bottom layers of cannonballs or of oranges determined how each subsequent layer would stack and lock. "The bottom layer is the seed of how every cannonball or every orange that comes after is going to behave, even to an infinite number of cannonballs or oranges."
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

My teaching career began in a small high school for students who had dropped out or been kicked out of a variety of public and private schools. Some of the students had severe learning disabilities. Some of the students were grappling with drug addiction. Some of them had been in trouble with the law. We had ”rednecks,” “preppies,” “stoners,” “Goths,” and less-easily defined outcasts. The only thing the students had in common was the fact that traditional schooling had not worked for them.

The building looked nothing like a school. It was a small, tastefully decorated house near a college campus with big work tables in every room. Students arrived in the morning, met with their advisors, and made a plan for the day based on monthly and semester-long plans that had been created earlier. There was no such thing as “seat time” at this school; there was a list of graduation requirements, and students worked their way through them in their own way, at their own pace. Students were free to work wherever they liked, including outside in the garden. They were free to go into the kitchen and get a bagel or a cup of coffee when they were hungry.

The school ran on a handful of rules, including “no fighting” and “don’t let the cats outside.” Given the track records of the students, one would have assumed that fighting, vandalism, and other bad behavior would be serious issues, at least among the newer students. But in the four years I taught there, this was never the case. There was never any fighting. There was never any vandalism. Not one incident, ever. Whatever bad behavior these students had exhibited in other schools, it never manifested itself within our walls. The students did not require an adjustment period. They adapted themselves to their new environment in the blink of an eye. Apparently, once they no longer needed to lash out a world that didn’t fit them, they stopped lashing out.

I have no doubt that if we had taken one of those students back to his old school, he would have reverted back to his old ways just as quickly, and with just as little thought. We humans are an amazingly adaptable species. We have migrated to every corner of the globe and have adapted ourselves to every conceivable type of environment, from mountains to plains, from tundra to desert. And we have not simply managed to survive in different environments; we have thrived in them.

There seems to be something within us—something deep, in an ancient place in our brains—that helps us understand new environments and adapt to them quickly. It seems to be something deeper and more primal than reason or logic. It just happens. We see new opportunities and new challenges, and we act upon them. It may be what we do best.

When I think about my old school and I let my mind spin out crazy thoughts about the human race, it makes me wonder if setting higher academic standards for students and new professional expectations for teachers are enough to make real change occur. If we are hard-wired to fit ourselves into whatever environment we find ourselves in and do whatever is necessary to succeed and, then new ideas grafted onto old structures may be doomed to failure. The structure of our environment may be the “seed” that determines the structure and behavior of everything that “stacks and locks” on top of it, from the way students act to the way teachers behave.

Our schools were not designed randomly or arbitrarily. The structure of American public schooling was thoughtful and deliberate. Its original goal, back in the 1800s, was the homogenization of an increasingly diverse population of immigrants, so that young adults would be employable, manageable, and able to fit reasonably comfortably into the larger, white, and Protestant society. We can decry the fact that we “batch process” children in our schools (to use Sir Ken Robinson’s phrase), but it is no accident that we do so. The machine was built with a particular end in mind, and it is an excellent and productive machine… as long as you want what it produces.

In industry, it would seem obvious that an engineer cannot demand or expect a different end product unless he first retools the machine that produces the product. And yet, our expectations of American schools change radically from decade to decade without most of us feeling the need to “retool” those machines from the inside out. We may tinker around the edges, but the guts of the machine remain essentially unchanged.

This may explain, at least to some degree, why sustaining educational reforms is so difficult. Using Mr. Vonnegut’s imagery instead of my factory metaphor, imagine trying to stack oranges in a different pattern half-way through a crate. A pattern has already been established. Several layers of oranges are sitting there in the crate. But you want all the new levels to be stacked differently. Can you do it? Of course you can do it—you can do anything through brute force. But the minute you take your hands off those top layers, what’s going to happen? All of the top-level oranges will slide back into the original pattern.

Early this morning, I went with my wife to our local middle school to meet with my son’s counselor and academic team. School has been in session for about five weeks, and my son, new to the world of junior high school, has been having some trouble. His core teachers sat around a table with us and shared anecdotes about his performance in class, and we strategized together about how best to help him. I was surprised and pleased to see how well they worked together, how well each of them knew my son, and how “on the same page” they were. I was surprised and pleased by the whole event, and it struck me that nothing like this had ever happened when I was in junior high school. Nor had it happened in any of the schools I taught in… except for my first school.

Looking around the office, I noticed a large whiteboard listing the schedules of all of the school’s teachers, and I saw that discrete teams of teachers taught discrete groups or “houses” of students, and that teachers had quite a lot of individual planning time built into their schedules, as well as time to meet together as professional learning communities. The structure of their day was very different from the structure of the days I spent as a classroom teacher, and the structure within which they worked facilitated the expectations that were being set by the school leaders. The teachers knew their students well. They knew each other well. They worked—all day long—as a team, focused on a particular group of students. And they did so not because they happened to be nice people, or dedicated people, or even wise people. They did so because it was built in.

Every machine is perfect. Every machine delivers exactly what it was built to deliver. If we do not like what we’re seeing at the end of the production process, we can certainly yell at the machine (if it makes us feel any better). We can harass and insult the engineers (who were hired to build and maintain exactly what is sitting in front of them). But neither of those things will change what comes down the assembly line, year after year. The pattern has been set.

The mad scientist in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel was right. If you want a different stack of oranges, you have to start at the ground level and change the pattern in which they’ve been arranged. If we want a different set of schools, or teachers, or students, we may have to do the same thing and work from the ground up. Change the “seed” and you change the pattern. Change the pattern and you change everything.