A school design thought experiment

Imagine your school with no curriculum and no roster, no standards and no assessments, just a space where students and adults show up every day. Imagine that the adults are available to the students but make no attempt to organize and govern their behavior, save the minimum requirement to keep them safe. What would happen?

If you know your students, you could probably make some decent predictions about what it would be like. For our school, they might include the following:

  1. Some students would gravitate to workshop spaces, and would ask adults how to use technology and equipment.
  2. Just about everyone would ask for a laptop.
  3. A group of students, concerned about grades, college, etc., would ask us for classes. They would feel deeply uncomfortable doing nothing.
  4. Almost no one would gather in groups to talk about themselves, their interests and passions, or how they hoped to change the world.
  5. There would be laughter. There would be dancing. It would be loud and often joyous.
  6. Students would form cliques. There would be drama. Sometimes, there would be fights.
  7. Phones would be ubiquitous, exacerbating #5 and #6.
  8. Attendance would fall and lateness would increase, but both would find a point of equilibrium. (For a whole host of reasons, a majority of our students want to come to school.)
  9. Eventually, a kind of bifurcation would happen. One group of our students would come to school because they need to go somewhere, and their friends are here. A second group would effectively design an academic program for themselves based in their individual needs and interests.

Now think about what you would like to see happening in your school each day. To keep it really simple, for the Workshop it would be something like this:

  1. Students are engaged in real-world problem solving.
  2. Students manage their own time and work. Advisors are coaches.
  3. Students understand what they are supposed to be doing and the reasons for doing it.
  4. Students work together and support one another.

Next, consider the gap between Scenario A (what would likely happen with no formal program) and Scenario B (what you would like to see happen). That gap defines what your school should be doing. Once you’ve defined that, then you can think about the people, organization, tools and routines that will help you to do it.

We always talk about designing schools from scratch, but the truth is that’s hard to do. Usually, we design them compared to a norm, what historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe as “real school.” It’s why so many of us are more comfortable describing our schools in terms of what they are not rather than what they are. But if we’re really trying to rethink high school, if we really want to build from the ground up, we need a more open framework for defining and explaining what school is really for, and that framework needs to be rooted in our understanding of who our kids are, their strengths and their needs.