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EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices, School Community

Educating Our Schools

How Miss Jean Brodie might "lead us out" of our current conversations about change

The following is the first in a series of entries inspired by CEA’s What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education event, held October 21-22 in Calgary. As a member of the facilitation team, I did not have the opportunity to fully participate in all of the rich and engaging conversations that took place around the room, but I am looking forward to using the vision statements, table reports and artifacts collected from the event to offer one perspective on the question that inspired so many to participate.

JEAN BRODIE: To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root “ex,” meaning “out,”and “duco…”I lead.”
To me, education is simply a…a leading out…of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.

HEADMISTRESS: I had hoped there might also be a certain amount of putting in.

JEAN BRODIE: That would not be education, but intrusion…from the root prefix “in,” meaning “in,” and the stem “trudo…” “I thrust.”
Ergo, to thrust a lot of information into a pupil’s head

There’s an important nugget of truth in this bit of dialogue between the young, creative heroine and her principal in Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s a truth that, no doubt, resonates with many of us who actively participate in conversations about school change. And it’s a truth that was certainly winding its way through many of the table group discussions that took place this week when the Canadian Education Association convened over 300 educators, students, parents, political leaders, system administrators and members of both related profit and not-for-profit groups from across the country in Calgary. For me, it’s a truth that directs our attention to one of the most essential points around which the question that inspired the event turns: What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education?”

I”m not suggesting that we need to take a this or that approach to the conversation about the purpose of schools, but I do think that Miss Jean is right in pointing out that we need to be careful about how and when we use the term education. I would go even further by predicting that, if Miss Brodie were to visit a typical Canadian public school next week, she would be forced to observe that much of what is happening there is more intrusive than it is educational. In fact, I would argue that our schools aren’t designed to honour the fact that students—and, increasingly, teachers, bring much of anything to the table.

Consider, for example, the way that curriculum is designed and organized. The lock-step set of expectations that become the law of the classroom for most Canadian educators doesn’t leave a whole lot of space for drawing out the interests, talents and passions that lie deep within the souls of students or teachers. Think about the way that physical space is arranged. The one-teacher-to-many-students classroom, complete with standard seating, relatively small space allocations are accompanied by the underlying belief that real teaching should be centered on instruction rather than construction. It becomes a challenge to imagine many alternatives. Oh, some have been successful in accepting that challenge, (Read the story of change that Calgary teacher, Deirdre Bailey shared at the CEA event) but, to a large extent, they are considered outliers. 

The reality is that practically every aspect of schooling has been designed for putting in rather than leading out. And that is why I think that this could very well be where our conversations about change need to turn. The most basic assumption that we make about the educational quality of our schools is not one that we’re accustomed to having. But I would be willing to bet my pension on the fact that, unless we’re willing to grapple with it in all of its depth and thorniness, we’re not going to get very far.

What would it look like if a school were deeply committed to valuing what its students and teachers brought into the building every day? What would it sound like? What would it feel like? How might it be organized in terms of time and space? What new roles and relationships would be necessary if this commitment were going be supported? What assessment practices might find a home in this place of leading out? How would long- and short-term planning be different? What new alliances might be formed with the community? What would the role of parents be?

These are all questions that you’ve likely heard before, but how might the responses be different if we turned our attention away from the strategies and processes designed to filling minds rather than divining what might already be there in the lives, minds and, as Miss Jean suggests, the souls of all learners, both young and old(er)? What might the results be if our schools became more…well…educated? Instead of thinking of what additional things we can put into the system, how can we build a vision for our schools that somehow enabled what is there in terms of human capital and capacity to be drawn out in a way that enlivened learning?

Over the past several years, the Canadian Education Association has joined others in pointing to strong evidence that we need to think about schools differently. We heard from students in Imagine a School and What Did You Do in School Today? We heard from teachers in the Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach initiative, and we’re beginning to hear from school administrators in Leading the Way You Aspire to Lead. This past week, over 300 passionate and informed Canadians gathered in Calgary to begin moving to take what we’ve learned to the next level.

It is relatively easy to identify the things that stand in the way of change in education. It is more difficult to zero in on the reasons why these barriers seem to be so stubborn. The opening snippet of dialogue from Muriel Sparks points to one way to deepen the conversation even more. For me, it represents that central core of the discussion around which everything else turns!

I have a feeling that we’re about to move closer to that centre!