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What ‘School’ Should Be

Two creative thinkers share their dreams for education.

In April, The Richmond Forum brought Ken Robinson and Rafe Esquith to the Landmark Theater in the state capital to spend an evening discussing ideas for the transformation of American education.

Robinson is an internationally-known  author, speaker and advisor on education and creativity, and frequently speaks to government, non-profit, education and arts groups.

Esquith is an innovative, multiple-award-winning teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, where he has taught since 1984. He’s written several books about teaching, and his annual class Shakespeare productions have been the subject of a documentary film.

Both offered presentations and then fielded questions from the audience. Below are excerpts from the question-and-answer session.

Truly revolutionizing our education system seems like trying to tear apart and reinvent an airplane while it’s flying at full speed full of passengers. Is it really possible, or are Band-Aids and incremental changes all that can really be achieved?

Robinson:  I do. I don’t think it’s like an airplane; it’s like a boat that’s sinking. But yes, it is possible. The thing I cling to is that the system isn’t monolithic, and there are great things happening already. I think part of problem is that a lot of politicians—I wouldn’t speak about all of them, but a lot of people who come into education and see any policy positions don’t really understand how this works. They think of it as more like a data-driven manufacturing process, [which] inclines them towards trying to get short-term results that they can quantify because they’re also in very tight election cycle. So they look for things that they can brag about. What they don’t learn is that the most successful systems don’t behave like this.

Finland has a very successful education system. It comes out regularly either at or near the top of the international comparison charts in math and science and those areas. What’s interesting about Finland is that the schools have a very broad curriculum. There is a good arts program alongside a good science program. All the kids in the schools get musical instruments. And there is no standardized testing, interestingly.

But the point I wanted to make is, and what a lot of great schools demonstrate, is that there is more room for freedom and improvisation in the system than people commonly recognize. If you’re the teacher, for any given child the education system is you. If you’re a school principal, the education system is the school those kids go to. And you can do a lot in the school already to change, you can move things around. There’s nothing to say you have to run the school in 40-minute blocks. There’s nothing to say you have to have separate subjects. There’s nothing that says you have to keep the kids apart all day according to different age groups. And if enough people flex their elbows a little bit in the system and start to do the right thing, if enough people do it, that’s a movement.

And that’s how revolutions happen, when word starts to spread, and people start to connect, and they see that this is a better way of doing things. And in due course, if enough people do it, the system will transform.

Esquith:  I have a two-part answer to that. The negative in me says that we can’t fix it. I haven’t seen it fixed yet. I’ve been there for thirty years, and every year somebody comes to our school [and] they have a new way of reading, a new way of teaching math, a new way of disciplining the children, and it’s going to change everything—and it hasn’t changed.

But I’m still there, so I must believe it can change. And if an ordinary guy like me can run an extraordinary classroom, and forums like this get the word out to create art, and to [include] your own passions—if you’re a teacher who loves gardening, you should be gardening with your children every day because they can learn the same thing gardening that my students learn doing Shakespeare. I think the system can change, but I think it’s going to be from teachers in the trenches showing a better way to the politicians.

Robinson:  There’s a consciousness that’s spreading that we’re wasting resources. When I was a student, everybody I knew smoked. Everybody smoked. If somebody had said to us then that 10 years from tonight it will be unacceptable to smoke in public, you would have laughed at them. But it is. Often the movement is slow and it happens without you noticing. And I think there are big shifts happening. Our job is to encourage them, accelerate them, and to get people to understand it’s the right thing. This system won’t be replaced by another monolith; that’s the whole point. What we’re looking for is a system that’s diverse and customized, and is much more like a rich ecosystem than a kind of flatbed of conformity.

To what extent do you support the separation of learning, such as traditional math or history classes, and what are your thoughts of blended learning courses which combine multiple disciplines?

Esquith:  I always tell my students that we learn the same lesson all day long. If you don’t think you’re doing math when you play music, then you don’t understand music. And if you don’t think you’re using math when you play baseball—of course you are. We don’t call it any fancy name. This idea that reading is a subject—it’s 9:30, it’s time for reading—I’ve never understood that at all. So I wouldn’t even know how to put a schedule plan in my room that now it’s time for math, now it’s time for reading. We blend everything all day long, because that’s what real learning is. Everything else is just getting ready for a test.

Robinson:  In the world things are mixed up. Disciplines are conveniences for the purposes of organized education. They don’t correspond to the real world. If you’re an architect you’re doing math, science, design—all of those things. In schools they get separated out in their component bits so they can be taught. And I love this idea of blended learning because we’re blending stuff that should never have been separated.

There is a very serious point in this question, which is that all this stuff is actually going on. It’s a terrible situation for teachers. It’s being driven by this accountability movement. And [we’re not] arguing against accountability. I’m not, myself, arguing against standardized testing in itself; it can be very helpful in some areas.

If I have a medical examination I want some standardized tests. I want to know what my cholesterol level is compared to everybody else’s. I don’t want to be given an answer on some scale my doctor made up in the car: “Your cholesterol is what I call level orange.” If the testing is diagnostic, then that’s fine. And it’s true in medicine you need some diagnostic tests. But then you want a prescription that’s addressed to you as a person.

What advice and inspiring words can you give to teachers, students and designers of schools?

Robinson: The first priority is that our role is to facilitate engaged, active, imaginative and enthusiastic learners. That’s the heart of what we’re trying to get done. Everything else should be suited to that. If you think of it, education has several related elements. One of them is the curriculum, which is what it is we want people to learn. I believe that a school for the twenty-first century should, and should always, by the way—have been based on parity between languages, the sciences, the humanities, physical education, and the arts. I can see no case, economically or culturally, personally or socially, for distinguishing between the value of these different disciplines. The arts are four-square important.

So the first thing I would say is look at the curriculum and make sure there’s a proper balance there, and do not build your curriculum on the idea of subjects. If you talk about subjects it suggests that things are defined by their subject matter. And mathematics is not a subject; it’s a discipline. It’s a set of processes, ideas, concepts, procedures, practical and intellectual skills, like music is, like theatre is, like history is. History is not a subject, unless you think the content is everything that just happened. It’s a way of reinterpreting the past. I think discipline is a much better idea. So I’d pay very careful attention to the balance and the dynamics of the curriculum, and make sure there is a lot of free flow in the design of that.

Do that before you get around to planning the schedule. Very often it works the other way around. People plan the schedule to try and make it all work, and then they push things out of the curriculum because they can’t make it work in the schedule. Start with the curriculum and what you want, and then make sure you can make it work.

Secondly, the big area of education is teaching. Hire great people and support them, and respect them, and give them freedom, and let them get on with the job. Don’t prescribe everything they have to do. And hire people who want to work with each other rather than just hide away on their own.

The third big part of education is assessment. And I’m all for assessment, but it has to be assessment that’s supportive and individualized. There’s a difference, really, between the descriptive functions of assessment and the judgmental functions of assessment. And a lot of assessment in schools is very judgmental and not at all descriptive. The best example I have of this is I remember talking to a girl who had done a four-year program of dance in a school. It was a great program. And I said to her, “What did you get out of the course?” She said, “I got a B.” Well.

The fourth element of great schools is partnership. Schools should be hubs so there’s lots of connection with outside agencies, other adults coming in, other communities being part of the process and enriching it. And that’s one of the ways of keeping teachers fresh and alive as well, and revitalizing their spirits.

The final bit of it is the physical environment [which] has a huge bearing on the state of mind of the people who are working there. Very often, I think, architects are commissioned to do buildings and they’re working off an old model. So don’t let the architects get near it until you’ve designed the curriculum and everything else you want, and have them as part of the process. Otherwise you live with the architect’s conception of what a good school could be, and it may not be the school you have in mind at all.

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