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Opinion, Policy, Promising Practices

Raise High The Roof-Beam Carpenters

Making Room in our Vision of Schools

This blog entry was originally written in May 2011 and appeared over my own site, Teaching Out Loud. This week I sat down to write something on the same topic, having just heard an educational leader speak quite enthusiastically about capacity building. I realized that the thoughts expressed here still form the foundation of my thinking around this. I submit the same entry here, in its original form, for your comments and feedback and, hopefully, some further conversatio.

Of all of the terms and phrases that have worked their way into the school change discourse (and there are many) over the past couple of decades , the one that I find the most curious is capacity building.

It seems that whenever a new initiative or program has been introduced into our schools over the past 20 years, the key to effective implementation is most often identified as capacity building.

“We have to engage in some capacity-building around this”.

This is code for “We really aren’t ready to do this.”

Writing teams are usually formed, release days are organized and Power Point™ presentations are designed and distributed throughout the system. It then becomes expected that the change has become part of our culture. In a very real sense, capacity building is seen as a training challenge!

Yet, despite all of these efforts at capacity-building, I haven’t noticed a whole lot of substantial change. Have you?

I would like to suggest that the lack of change has nothing to do with the individual initiatives being proposed. In fact, there is likely a good deal of untapped potential in many of them.

Instead, I’m thinking that the reason very few of them actually take root has to do with the fact that capacity building in today’s schools is actually a misguided idea. The term sounds sexy enough but in its current form it is, at best, unfeasible and, at worst, simply not possible!

Capacity refers to the ability to receive or contain something. Most often, the term is used when describing how roomy something is. We talk about the maximum capacity of a concert hall or stadium, the capacity of a box or other container and, though no longer an accurate metaphor for learning, the capacity of the mind to grasp something. In essence, capacity has to do with the amount of space available to hold something.

As my father-in-law likes to say, there’s the rub!

The reality is that our current model of thinking about schools is full. It has already reached its maximum capacity. There is no more room at the inn!

It’s not physical capacity that I’m talking about. Our own district is currently in the process of closing and selling off several of its schools. The school in which I teach has three empty classrooms. We have extra keyboards in our music lab.

It’s not the temporal capacity that is the limiting factor. Increasing capacity is not about extending school hours or increasing the number of instructional days. It’s not about eliminating recess, morning announcements or shortening lunch hours.

And it’s not the capacity of the individuals who come to work in our schools every day. At all levels of the system, we have access to creative, innovative and enthusiastic educators who are committed to transforming our schools in powerful and exciting ways.

The place where we have reached capacity is in our vision of what school needs to be about. We have been convinced that the only way to do school is the way that we’ve been doing it for the past century and a half.

Schools are built on the assumption that our age-based, grade specific set of curriculum expectations are the only way to fly.

Schools are built on the assumption that a one grade/one teacher management system is the most effective.

School are built on the assumption that if it doesn’t happen between 9:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., it’s not really school.

School are built on the assumption that the teacher assigned to each classroom is the most valuable learning resource present.

School are built on the assumption that students can effectively learn about the world by being removed from it for most of their formative years.

Schools are built on the assumption that the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of the work that we do is through a series of written tests.

Schools are built on the assumption that the best way to report on the progress of students in our care is through a series of written reports.

Schools are built on the assumption that good use of new technology measn using it to do old things.

These are just some of the things that prevent us from making headway on most new initiatives.

When educational decision-makers speak of capacity building, they are most often referring to the amount of training necessary to introduce a new program or initiative. In order for real change and transformation to take place, however, we need to think of capacity building in terms of altering some of the fundamental assumptions that we make about this place we call school.

I’m all for talking about capacity building, but let’s make sure that we’re focusing our efforts in the right place. Let’s begin to make room in our vision of schools so that it can finally hold all of the potential that 21st education holds.

With deference to J. D. Salinger: Raise high the roof beam carpenters…we’re going to fill this school with life!

Are there other assumptions about school that stand in the way of transformation? Is capacity building an accurate description of the work that needs to be done to improve schools for all?