How would you finish the sentence, “If I could open my own school, I would…”. If you have the time, stop reading this post and wrestle with that sentence starter for a while. Without concern for the bottom line or budget restrictions, let your imagination run wild about the opportunity to start your own school, from scratch.
- Did you first imagine what the school would look like?
- Was your thinking immediately drawn to the innovative technology you would want in the classrooms or hands of the teachers and students?
- How did you envision the teaching?
- What would happen inside the learning spaces in your newly opened school? Are there even designated learning spaces at all or a more open environment?
If I had to wager a bet, somewhere in your mind wandering you also directed your thinking, with laser–like focus, towards what we often claim is the over-testing, over-standardizing, and mile-wide, inch-deep learning of our students. Am I right? You likely said to yourself, or maybe you felt so strongly that you announced out loud: “My school would not be tied to standardized tests or packaged, scripted, and programmed instruction and focus more on deeper learning.”
These mental calisthenics around opening your own school are both fun and therapeutic. I don’t know about you, but I often engage in this lighthearted daydreaming to help me escape the reality and challenges we often face in the day-to-day work of schools – internal and external pressures that distract from our goal, our singular mission, or the why behind how and what we do. I have said, on many occasions, “if I had my own school, I would…” But what if this fantasy became your focus, this picture of a perfect school became your purpose, these mental calisthenics evolved into your mission?
What the Research Says…
Okay, so maybe you will never have the opportunity or desire to open your own school. And, as research has pointed out, there may not be an overwhelming benefit to just stepping out and starting your own charter school or partnering with your local church to initiate a private option in your community. Using the Visible Learning database constructed by John Hattie, you can see that charter schools have an average effect size of 0.04 while religious-affiliated private schools have an effect size of 0.24. Each of those effect sizes fall below the average growth associated with one year’s worth of school (see Visible Learning MetaX). Yes, you read that last sentence correctly: Overall, those schools do not seem to account for one year’s worth of growth in learning. However, overall school effects post an average effect size of 0.43 and school climate posts an average effect size of 0.48 (Visible Learning MetaX). How do we explain this apparent contradiction? Simply put, when it comes to student learning, what happens inside the school matters more than the school type. Looking at successful schools, both traditional public schools as well as non-traditional schools (e.g., professional development schools, laboratory schools, specialized STEM or arts schools, charter schools, and religious schools), those that have a major impact on student learning do so because of what happens inside of the building and not simply because they are, well, professional development schools, laboratory schools, specialized schools, charter schools, or religious schools.
To see how this all connects, return to your thinking generated in response to the sentence starter at the beginning of this post: “If I could open my own school, I would…”. Again, you may never have the opportunity or desire to open your own school, but if you are reading this Corwin Connect post, you likely find yourself in a school or school district. If you are in a leadership position, what happens inside of your district or school matters more than most other influences outside of your classroom. This same principle can be extrapolated and applied if you are a classroom teacher: As far as student learning is concerned, what happens inside your classroom matters more than most other influences outside of your classroom. Let’s look at a specific example.
In 2019, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine published their findings from a six-year study of thirty American high schools (Mehta & Fine, 2019). This research looked at successful American high schools that served disadvantaged learners and sought to understand what made them successful. Organized around the concept of deeper learning, which involves the intersection of the development of mastery in a domain, becoming invested in that domain, and then transferring learning to something new (p. 366), they found these common characteristics in schools that promoted deeper learning. These schools:
- had a clear and specific vision of high-quality teaching;
- provided a process for the continued professional learning of the adults in the building;
- practiced what they preached – how they wanted their students to engage as learners mirrored how they engaged as adult learners;
- student work was visible;
- a shared commitment to the work of the school; and
- tight alignment between the processes and the vision of the school (p. 370).
As you might suspect, these researchers uncovered characteristics of classrooms that supported deeper learning as well. These classrooms:
- possessed deep knowledge of their fields;
- treated the learning of content as an open-ended process;
- had strong command of teaching approaches and interventions;
- believed that they were activators of student learning and not simply transmitters of information; and
- experienced deeper learning in their own educational trajectory and that experience left a lasting impression on them as learners and now, teachers (p. 375).
If I Could Open My Own School…
I frequently wrestle with the same sentence starter thrown at you in the opening sentence of this post. Looking at the research of Mehta and Fine, if I could open my own school, I would:
- collectively and collaboratively work to develop a clear and specific vision of high-quality teaching with the instructional leaders and teachers that would be in the school;
- work to develop processes and structures that would foster, nurture, and sustain the continued professional learning of all adults in the building;
- strive to engage with my colleagues in a way that would serve as an example or pattern for those learners that will be carefully watching us each and every day;
- use student work as visible evidence that would drive our professional learning as educators;
- build the collective efficacy of the school to support a shared commitment to the work of the school;
- develop and monitor the logistics, day-to-day work of the school to ensure the vision is reflected in those logistics.
As a teacher in this school, I would engage in professional learning around my field and how best to teach content in my field, to ensure that I could be an activator and engage my learners in the open-ended process of learning. To do that, I would share with them my own experiences as a learner and how my own learner journey lead me to this very spot – their teacher.
Again, you may never have the opportunity or desire to open your own school, but the best part is that you can do all of the above characteristics identified by Mehta and Fine (2019) in your own classroom. You can start tomorrow, regardless of what type of school you are in at the moment. Imagining what you would do with your own school in the future is fun and therapeutic, but the mental calisthenics can lead to amazing changes in your school or classroom today. Then, if the time comes to open your own school, you will be ready.
Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2019). In search of deeper learning. The quest to remake the American
high school. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.