Friday, October 9, 2009

On Designing Schools

In my most recent post ("College as a Playground or Design Studio") I explored the feasability and value of providing students with informal opportunities to come together to solve problems facing a campus community.  In response to this post, Gary Daynes asked whether something like this could become a curriculum or whether an entire school could be built around such a practice.  These are interesting questions that forced me to grapple with an even larger question:  If I were to design a school, what principles and practices would it be based upon?  

Part of what has made answering that question difficult for me is a basic design dilemma that any designer (graphic, architectural, instructional, etc.) deals with--balance & constraint.  As described in Gibbons & Rogers chapter ("Coming at Design from a Different Angle") in Learning and Instructional Technologies for the 21st Century each decision made during a design places constraints on what can happen during later stages of the design.  For example, a graphic designer must balance the amount of textual and visual material on a page.  While visual material may be more aesthetically pleasing, the decision to increase visual images in a design may limit the amount of textual material that can be included.  

For those who build and design schools this seems pertinent when considering the articulation of a mission, set of objectives, or basic philosophies upon which a school will be based.  Does the the decision to be a "Talent Code School" or to have a school based on the idea of a "non-traditional classroom" place a set of constraints on those who work in the school that might limit learning?  Phrased another way, could the way a school lays out its mission or purpose limit its flexibility in providing opportunities for the best types of learning to occur for its students?  

We can all cite examples of zealots who advocate a particular political ideology, research method, or instructional technique.  They are so passionate about a particular way of doing things that they become blinded to the virtue and value in other viewpoints or methodologies.  I occasionally see instructional technologists that are so preoccupied with "integrating technology into the classroom" that they discount good but simple pedagogies simply because they don't involve the bells and whistles of the latest technological breakthrough.  My fear is that some well-intentioned school builders might fall victim to the same malaise.  

So, the question I am left with is how a school can be built on a solid educational philosophy without creating an environment that doesn't allow for flexibility and innovation.  I recognize that my call for the creation of "Talent Code Schools" could now be called into question, given this most recent argument.  An interesting paradigm shift that might avoid some of these problems would be to build schools around questions like Gary Daynes has suggested.  This sort of model would free schools and those who work and learn in them to pursue answers to those questions in any way that works, rather than feeling tethered to a particular methodology or structure.  One week students might be working in small groups to develop solutions to a social problem, the next they might be online engaging in distance learning or creating portfolios. 

Too much variety or flexibility could lead to fragmentation within a classroom or across a school.  Too much rigidity limits learning.  Where along the spectrum do the best schools fall?

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