Like most potential homebuyers, my wife and I looked at a bunch of houses when we moved to Santa Ana. One of the houses we looked at was in the perfect neighborhood. It had the right number of bedrooms, and a great little backyard. The only problem was that the house was a monstrosity. The floorplan made no sense. It was like each owner over the years had added a special little room and the result was a house with no flow, rooms with disparate design principles, and a lot of square footage with little appealing living space. There was just too much going on and we couldn’t make sense of it.
Schools can sometimes suffer the same fate.
Now, this post isn’t primarily directed at school architecture or design – although those are topics I find immensely fascinating. I’m more interested in the architecture of the technical core of the school. What are the strategies and pedagogies that make up the expected, or at least observable, teaching practices in any given school?
Generally speaking, schools have a predictable rhythm. Teachers have grown accustomed to coming back to school after the summer and encountering the new school improvement focus. Sometimes the new focus is marginalized as just the next flavor of the month. Now, I have written previously about the benefits of embracing new learning and new initiatives as a vehicle for professional renewal. But there is still a problem. We layer on initiatives without giving much thought about how this year’s focus will influence and change the technical core of the school in the long term. To return to our house metaphor, sometimes in the rush build the new addition, we lose site of the broader flow and identity of the house. To a newcomer, the house no longer makes sense.
So my primary problem of practice begs two questions: 1) how do we build meaningful systems to document our new learning and make sense of new strategies in light of the overall technical core of the school and 2) how will we develop new staff in the future who didn’t participate in the collective learning experiences of the school in years prior? I’ll consider these questions one at a time.
How do we build a meaningful system for documentation and archiving?
In order to make sense of the improvement work you are doing, you need people to talk and write about it. The process of making shared meaning is the endeavor of human communication, and you cannot take shortcuts. You need to find ways to systematically capture evidence of the learning – pictures, videos, learning artifacts – but also combine that with the commentary and annotation of your learners. The internet is littered with thousands of videos of teacher practice or student work, but absent the insight and commentary of the learner, it’s hard to understand what we are seeing, hearing, or reading.
You also have the challenge of making this material accessible and appealing to future learners. In our own district, we’re having conversations around blogs, gamified digital platforms, and other mediums for helping past learning experiences stay alive and relevant. Whatever the platform or process, we need to find ways to make our materials and learning engaging and inspiring to future users.
This call for meaningful documentation and archiving takes thoughtfulness and time. That’s why we often skip it altogether. Yet if we want something to really have staying power in the professional culture and technical core of the school, we need to invest in the long term viability of new ideas and practices.
How do we develop new staff who weren’t here when we first learned about the new practices?
We need to be purposeful about how we socialize new staff. I could write an entire dissertation on this topic (okay, I’ll admit, that’s what I’m currently doing in my evenings). In all seriousness, we aren’t nearly as strategic about how we socialize and onboard our new staff to our schools. We allow the prevailing professional culture of the school to do that for us. Unfortunately, the prevailing professional culture of most schools is “figure it out on your own.”
When we design the professional development focus for the year, we should simultaneously be asking ourselves – “ how will teachers next year have access to what we are doing this year?” Of course we can’t recreate for new teachers multiple years of professional development in just a few days before school starts, or even over the course of one year. Indeed, many new teachers are struggling to simply figure out classroom management, to say nothing of formative assessment, project-based learning, or differentiated instruction.
Over time, however, those new teachers will be ready to adopt and strengthen new practices. The degree of readiness will certainly vary by individual teacher, and so we need to think about how we are going to provide a differentiated socialization and professional development experience for our new staff.
In the future, we envision new teacher development apps and video series that introduce new staff to both the tools and the implementation reflections of staff from past experiences. Since we were thoughtful about how we documented and stored these materials, we can be equally thoughtful about how teachers can unlock access as they learn and develop.
Schools are complex organizations. While we may never completely resolve the challenge of making sense of years of layered improvement efforts, we can and should be more deliberate and strategic about finding ways to make the core elements of our technical core and instructional framework more accessible, usable, and appealing.