As I let my imagination run wild, I was led to an interesting finding in the research: what happens inside of the school matters more than the school type (see Hattie & Zierer, 2019). Although hindsight is 20/20 and this now seems obvious, I am amazed at how often I have focused on the outside (i.e., the school type) and completely missed what was happening on the inside (i.e., high quality teaching and learning). Please tell me that I am not alone – the title of the school grabs our attention, the amazing architecture of the building leaves us amazed, the state-of-the-art furniture gives us the feeling that learners learn well here, and the technology, oh the technology. Yet, we have found ourselves disappointed to find that the learning outcomes are not as amazing as expected, regardless of how they are measured (e.g., test results, report cards, or, student projects, interest in learning, and/or overall engagement, etc.). Simply put, we see no noticeable change in student learning.
If I could open my own school, I would strive each and every day to make the focus of the work, the work of my colleagues and me, on what is occurring between the teacher and the students and the students and their peers. This is exactly what Mehta and Fine (2019) were talking about when they engaged in the quest for deeper learning in America’s High Schools. However, that does not help me, you, or any of our colleagues for that matter, understand how to keep this focus. What if there was a particular perspective you and I could take, a frame of mind we could use, or a guide for ensuring that we continually kept our eyes on what was happening inside of the school and not distracted by the outside? Put differently, how do we foster an internal environment or culture that promotes and sustains collaborative work to maximize student learning?
As it turns out, Garmston and Wellman (2016) wrestled with a similar idea in their research on what they call the adaptive school. An adaptive school builds the collective identity and capacity of teachers, teacher leaders, and instructional leaders so that they actively collaborate, inquire, and dialogue about learning (Garmston & Wellman, 2016). When my colleagues and I revitalized the framework for professional learning communities, or PLCs, (see Fisher, Frey, Almarode, Flores, & Nagel, 2020) we used this idea of an adaptive school to help all of us respond to the complex, dynamic, and nonlinear characteristics of 21st Century schools and classrooms to create a different approach to PLCs. Returning to our driving question in the previous paragraph, adaptive schools research provides the “how” behind fostering an internal environment or culture that promotes and sustains collaborative work and maximizing student learning.
So if the “what,” or outcome is greater student learning and the “how” is the collaboration, inquiry, and dialogue about student learning, is that enough to ensure that the focus of the work, the work of my colleagues and me, is on what’s occurring between the teacher and the students and the students and their peers? It turns out that the answer is no. Simply placing teachers in a room, asking them to collaborate, inquire, and dialogue no more results in greater student learning than standing in your garage for two hours turns you into a Cadillac. There is one more piece missing from this conversation – something that drives the entire work of a school or classroom. The “why.”
The Why Matters
If I could open my own school, I would start with my “why.” Simon Sinek (2009) describes the concept using three concentric circles, the center circle representing the “why,” surrounded by the second circle representing the “how,” and finally, the outside circle representing the “what.”
However, it is just as easy to think of it this way: your why is your purpose, cause, or belief; your how is your values or principles that guide how you bring your purpose, cause, or belief to life; and your what are the results of your actions. Please do not get bogged down in the details here. To make this relevant to our present conversation, think of this concept this way: if we don’t have a purpose, cause, or belief about what we are doing in our schools and classrooms, we will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to collaborate, inquire, or dialogue about student learning. We simply won’t see the purpose and cause of these actions. As a result, we will likely not achieve our “what”, greater student learning.
If the Why is Missing
To drive this point home, I often reflect on my own teaching and my explicit goal for learners to learn mathematics and science. In Algebra, I wanted my learners to solve equations and find the beauty in mathematics. In Physics, I wanted my learners to solve authentic problems involving distance, velocity, and acceleration and find the beauty in how the world works. That was my “what.” However, I did not give any thought to my purpose, cause, or belief. I did not reflect upon my values. As a result, I often jumped on any educational fad or bandwagon that even hinted at the possibility of making Algebra and Physics fun. The end result: little to no change in my students’ learning outcomes. I was missing my “why” and my “how.” I focused more on the packaging of the content and not on the interaction occurring between my learners and me and my learners with their peers. If we are not clear on our “why” and our “how,” we can do the same thing in our schools. Focusing more on school type or the packaging and less on the internal environment or culture that promotes and sustains collaborative work to maximize student learning.
If I Could Open My Own School…
Whether the desire for deeper learning, the implementation of a genius hour, assimilating advanced technologies into teaching and learning, providing targeted interventions for learners that are not making progress, each of these are not likely to have an impact if they are not aligned with purpose, cause, or belief about learning and guiding principles that bring that purpose, cause, or belief to life. Flexible seating, staggered start times, one-to-one laptops, courses in environmental literacy, coding, or project-based learning are not likely to have an impact without a strong “why” and “how.” If I could open my own school, I would start by developing a clear statement of purpose, followed by a clear articulation of the values or principles to guide how I bring the school to life. That way, each time I have to make a decision about “what,” I have a way to ensure that this aligns with the “why” and “how” and thus increase the chance that I will achieve the desired outcome: greater student learning.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., Almarode, J., Flores, K., & Nagel, D. (2020). PLC+ Better decisions and greater impact by design. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Hattie, J., & Zierer, K. (2019). Visible learning insights. Routledge: New York, NY.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why. How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin: New York, NY.