Monday, May 29, 2017

Imagine the Possibilities: Romancing SBL

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about why SBL is so important. For the past 8 years, this has been almost our sole focus, first as classroom teachers trying to make it work, and then as instructional leaders, helping others make it work. And after almost a decade, we are not yet burnt out; in fact, despite frustrations and obstacles and curveballs and exhaustion, we are more energized than ever. Why? Because SBL has the potential to transform education in really cool ways.

If you haven’t yet watched Dr. Robert Duke’s amazing lecture at Cornell University, clear your schedule for the next hour and do so. It’s called “Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach,” and centered within 50 minutes of insight and humor, he talks about the balance between romance and precision. So often, Duke says, we think learners need to master the details--precision--before they can truly experience the romance of a discipline or a subject or a topic. But the problem is that the precision is hard. It requires patience and perseverance and reflection. It requires sweat and failure and doubt. All of that is important--vital, actually--but why on earth would anyone struggle through all of that precision? Why take the time to sweat and fail and doubt and practice and reflect and repeat? Because of the romance. Because of the possibilities that precision open up.

The same is true of SBL. It’s so easy to get caught up in the precision of the transformation and forget the romance. We spend so much time on targets and scales and assessments and reporting; we dive into the measuring and the calibrating and the tracking so we can more accurately communicate about learning. This is all vital. And it’s hard. So hard (See: This SBL Thing is Freakin’ Hard). We want teachers to be patient, to be reflective, to persevere, to fail, to sweat, and to keep trying. We say it’s better for learning (true), and that it will improve engagement (true), and that we will have much more honest and clear communication (true). But if we don’t balance that precision with the romance of possibility, then we risk getting lost in the details and losing sight of what can be.

So, set aside your targets and scales and grade-books and KUDs and common assessments for a few minutes, and let yourself be romanced. Imagine the possibilities that SBL allows!

Imagine if we had no bells.

What if the schedule was driven by interest and need rather than by bells? Bells were instituted in schools to efficiently move large numbers of students in and out of classrooms. They are a system of control that signify the start and/or end of usually equal blocks of time someone has determined is necessary. Google “Bell Schedules” and poke around at the first few you find. Here are some interesting things we found:

  • A school in Connecticut: 5th period is from 12:13-1:06
  • A school in California: Period 2: 8:48-9:36
  • A school in Arizona: Period 6: 11:19-12:12

In some schools bells ring every 28 minutes (to accommodate middle and high school needs with a single bell system), some ring every 53 minutes, and some every 90 minutes. In some schools there is a bell to signify the start of class, a bell to signify the end of class, and a warning bell to signify that the bell that will signify the start of the next class is about to ring. When you stop to think about it, it’s nuts. When was the last time you met a friend for lunch at 12:13? When was the last time you had a meeting with your financial planner at 9:36? How can any learner, particularly adolescent learners, be expected to reach any understanding or depth when switching activities every 28 or 42 or 53 or even 87 minutes?

We could overhaul the schedule. Imagine what it could look like (and sound like!) if students moved when we and they determined it was time based on learning needs and interest. Students might build their own weekly or monthly schedules (with help from an advisor), and may spend 28 minutes on certain tasks and 3 hours on others. If we have a way to track and monitor learning--and if students understand their own strengths and challenges more than they ever have--then we no longer have to live by the bell. If we are working together as a school on transferable skills, then we will no longer need to chunk the day into equal-size blocks, and can instead flex our time to meet the needs of our learners. What would it look like? How would it be organized? What are the obstacles? No idea. But imagine if we could figure it out.

Imagine if we had no disciplines.

What if we didn’t sort learning into content areas? Content or discipline areas allow us to organize sets of knowledge, skills, and understandings into manageable silos. Students talk about having “history work,” or doing “English” or going to “science class.” But we all know that’s not real. None of us break our days into disciplines. Sure, we focus on different types of tasks throughout the day, but could you actually label your tasks based on discipline? Scientists do science, but aren’t they also communicating through writing (English) and calculating (math) and looking at historical precedence (history) and graphically expressing findings (art)? Writers are writing, but aren’t they also pitching their ideas (public speaking), researching background (science or history) and depending on the topic of the writing, incorporating all sorts of other content areas? Life is not sorted by discipline.

We could reorganize learning. Imagine what it would feel like to be in a building organized by topics or themes rather than disciplines. Students might be based in a sustainability hub, working to solve problems and make the community a better place. To do so, they would need to learn relevant math and history and science and art and language, but these would all now be in service to the central theme or topic. Teachers with expertise in a certain areas would do deep dives with students, acting as mentors and facilitators and even at times, lecturers. Hubs would need to be grounded in transferable skills, and together we would work to create learning targets that help students push their current abilities and challenge existing understandings. Students could track their own learning (with lots of guidance and help from the teachers), set goals, and reflect constantly; we could graduate students who are curious, self-directed, and who are not only prepared to change the world, but have already been doing so. What would it look like? How would it be organized? What are the obstacles? No idea. But imagine if we could figure it out.

Imagine if we had no locks on the doors.

What if school never closed? When I was in college in New Hampshire, we made a yearly middle-of-the-night trek to Freeport, Maine to visit LL Bean. While we could have made the two hour drive in the morning or afternoon, knowing that we could show up at 2:00 in the morning was just novel enough that it made it irresistible. If you aren’t from New England, you may not know that the store in Maine doesn’t have locks on the doors. They are always open--weekends, nights, holidays. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Most schools open their doors around 7:00 am and close around 4:00 pm, with exceptions for some club or sporting events. This is true 5 days a week, 181 days a year. There may be a few summer school classes, or an innovative evening class for students, but for the most part, school runs at predictable and regular times for limited hours, days, and weeks.
We could reimagine the days. Imagine what it would be like to come into the building on a Saturday morning and see dozens of students and a handful of teachers working on a project together. Students might decide they need access to the stage, so they sign up and show up. A teacher might decide to run a three hour workshop on a Tuesday night for anyone who wants to attend--students or community members. The school might decide to offer night classes for juniors and seniors who need their sleep during the day, or who want to be part of internships. Families could learn together in the summer, community organizations could take advantage of the facilities, teachers could pursue their own learning, and students could offer to teach courses to students. While many of these activities are allowed at schools now--often with special permission and lots of planning and money to pay someone to show up with a key--they could become the norm. If we are focused on transferable skills and have ways to document and track learning, then that learning can truly become the constant and how and when students learn can be so much more creative and flexible. What would it look like? How would it be organized? What are the obstacles? No idea. But imagine if we could figure it out.

Romance and Precision

It’s amazing to imagine the possibilities for the future of public education. There are so many cool, innovative ideas out there, and even more that no one has thought of yet. Each year we learn more and more about the brain and learning, and each year our world changes faster than we ever imagined it could. SBL is a result of those understandings, and each year we struggle to make changes to our systems that align with what we currently know while anticipating needs for the future.

We must dive deep into the precision of the work, learning how to write effective targets and scales, learning how to assess transferable skills rather than content knowledge, learning how to instruct students at all different readiness levels, and figuring out how to track, report, and respond to the learning. We must dig in and determine the best way to communicate about learning with students, with parents, with colleges, with careers, and with each other. We need to challenge our own experiences and understandings in order to challenge our students. And all the while, we need to keep doing the daily work of building relationships with our learners and maintaining enough sanity and energy to do this effectively (and sustainably). That’s not easy. The precision required for SBL will take time and sweat and failure and perseverance and reflection, and we may even want to give up. That’s why we must continue to imagine the possibilities...and keep the romance alive.

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