Reform: affordances and hindrances … and crowdsourced success

I suppose there are lots of teachers who are fine leaving schools as they are. Traditional schools have educated a whole lot of people, after all, and the world is working fine. (Or is it? Over 70 million people recently used their vote to endorse Trump’s unpresidential behavior.)

But there are also a lot of teachers who would like to reform school. To shake it up, to do things differently. The overwhelming majority of these teachers work in traditional schools, and the overwhelming majority of schools are traditional. So it’s probably not a bad idea to consider, for a bit, how to bring reform to traditional schools settings. What are the affordances and hindrances?

The affordances. I want to start with these, because so often when we talk about reform we slip into but-but-but … and then we throw our hands in the air and give up. 

So the affordances. What is working in our favor? What factors are on our side?

At the classroom level, we usually have quite a bit of autonomy. The class is usually ours to teach. We are generally allowed to try out new approaches to teaching, and often new content. We can make mistakes in our classroom that won’t necessarily haunt us – probably no other adult in the school witnessed an activity gone bad, that peer review that didn’t work, those presentations that didn’t hit the mark. That autonomy is something to build on.

A math teacher at our school experimented with standards based assessment about five years ago. Just in one class, just for a semester. She helped kick off a schoolwide switch to standards based grading. We are in the second year of that now. 

I volunteered about the same year to create a class for a group of students who just didn’t fit in the schedule anywhere but needed one more elective. Perhaps because I helped make the schedule work, I earned greater freedom in both content and my approach to teaching. We learned languages that year, any language or languages the students picked, with online tools. And I discovered eduScrum when I needed a better way to organize student workflow. eduScrum led to a focus on pulling agile into education, which is still going strong, and influencing many teachers.

eduScrum itself is a great example of a teacher using the affordances of his classroom to bring about reform. Willy Wijnands, teaching chemistry in his Dutch high school, began experimenting with his own class. The students still did well on the tests, so Willy was able to continue with his unique approach to instruction. He started sharing with others. And now eduScrum has representatives in over 30 countries. Maybe this is too big an example. You don’t have to influence other classrooms to contribute to school reform. You just have to influence your own.

The point is: We can use the autonomy given to us to experiment and create small reform. All of us can.

We have a great affordance in online professional development. It’s accessible and, now more than ever, omnipresent. And it’s often free. There are high quality podcasts and Meet Ups and webinars and other opportunities. There are social networks we can use to share ideas with people working in similar ways, puzzling over the same issues.

And there is a growing, worldwide conversation about school reform. About the need to reconsider current practices, current curricula, and beyond a doubt, current assessment policies, from the classroom level all the way to the federal government. It is easier to think and act a bit differently if you know others are trying to think and act differently, too. They are. This is a huge affordance.

Now the hindrances. There are many. There is tradition (how we were likely taught). There is inertia (it’s easy to find English, science and history teachers; but try finding a Collaborate teacher or a Growth Mindset teacher). How do you break out of the traditional set of subjects if your pool of teachers are trained only in the traditional set of subjects? There are state and federal laws, university admissions, cultural expectations, a dearth of alternate models, book publishers, square school buildings, square classrooms, square schedules … Right angles everywhere, really, in a world that is obtuse, curvy, and unpredictable.

But there are affordances. You, in your classroom, can do a little more of this and a little less of that. You can start a small shift. Your small shift can join other small shifts. You just have to take the affordances available to you and start. And tell others about it. And listen to others. 

Imagine the combined result, if each of us did just a little. Nothing short of seismic. 

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