Saturday, July 10, 2010

Curriculum 21: new program structures

I am currently immersed in the book Curriculum 21, edited by Helen Hayes Jacobs. We were given it by our principal to read over the summer. I love that about our school! Not only do I love it that we are expected to be learners but I am thrilled to see that it is becoming an expectation in our school that we become a 21st century school. We are coupling this summer’s PD reading with a professional learning inservice in the fall and continuing PD throughout the year. We will have professional learning communities instead of staff meetings (always nice to dream!) and we will share our learning with each other. A bit like Fedex days at Google?! There will be on-going support for our teachers provided by our in school technology PLC and downtown consultants. Sounds great? Sure does.

Problem is that there is much research that says unless we make sweeping changes to existing program structures, we are about to fail. Even if we mean to follow the steps of the change management model ADKAR (awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement), we may be doomed to failure. One author suggests (Christensen, Disrupting Class)that the only way we will become a 21st century school and use technology effectively is to separate from conventional schools or form a charter school.

In the first chapter of Curriculum 21, Jacobs clearly states what we need to do is not to renewal schools. We need to find new ways to do school! In addition, she says that we should not describe this important process as change, we should describe it as growth instead. I personally like the word transformative. Jacobs says change is seen by too many stakeholders as temporary, as trendy and superficial. Most importantly, she states that there are four important program structures of traditional schools that affect student and curricular success. Anyone who has worked in a school or gone to a school (think about that!) should know about the current restrictive program structures of most of today’s schools. They are:

1. the schedule (both short and long term)
2. the way we group our learners
3. personnel allocations
4. use of space (both physical and virtual)

She argues that (paraphrasing) the existing structures are dated, inhibiting, even negative. There is currently a kind of entrenched monotony that is being supported by our existing structures. The actual design of the physical space of schools limits the types of learning experiences that students can have as well as how frequently teachers will have the opportunity to interact with one another. She says that multi-aged groups, accompanied by thoughtfully grouped personnel for our young learners, have proven to be especially effective, yet we isolate teachers in separate classrooms. School structures need to match the times in which we live. Form should support function and not the other way around. We have 1930’s schedules, grouping patterns and spaces, and so the curriculum follows. And now, more than ever, we have new forms to work with that do not seem to be breaking into and replacing these existing structures.

What does this mean for the structure of my classroom? I have not perfected my classroom just yet, so I don’t have a definitive list. I know I need to schedule time differently. No more ½ hour writing, then a new teacher coming in to teach art for ½ hour. There could be specialist teachers assisting with integrated inquiry work instead of teaching separate subjects. There need to be longer periods for more creative work, more out-of-school learning, more grouping of students according to interests, movement between classrooms for teachers and students, using the computer to extend learning outside our walls, developing personal learning communities on line, critical thinking and differentiated learning….and so many more! Much of this will take a collaborative effort by stakeholders at our school.

Do you agree with Jacobs’ assessment? What do these words mean for your classroom, your building and your concept of what school should be? Our staff will meet in the fall and begin the journey together as a school community. My dream is that my vision will be expanded and improved by our school community and our students will benefit as we move closer to our goal of evolving out of the past, away from a broken model of school and of learning.

I have been learning about 21st century classrooms for a long time. I am sometimes discouraged by the challenges of change, even just in my own room. Jacobs is the first author that puts into words some of the real obstacles schools face. Without addressing these archaic program structures we cannot fully embrace the principles of 21st century education. The down side of inaction is too scary to ponder. Let’s do it together and soon!

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