Inside-out school reform

One of the most common ways of classifying school reform approaches is to think of them as either top-down (driven by school or district leadership) or bottom-up (driven by teachers). But increasingly I don’t think those are the right categories. The more critical distinction is outside-in versus inside-out. I don’t mean whether the reformers are inside or outside the school. I’m talking about how closely to the classroom, and more specifically to teacher-student interactions and relationships, the reform originates.

Most reforms are outside-in. Reformers set standards, generally based on what is likely to get students into college. The they engineer the reforms to get students to meet those standards. Eventually, this works its way into discussions about teaching. But that comes after critical decisions have been made about curriculum, assessment, etc. Teaching is basically the implementation of a system.

We’re doing exactly the opposite with the Workshop. We begin with an idea of what a great learning experience should look like: students should be working on complex problems where there is not necessarily one right answer, they should be responsible for organizing the work as well as finding a solution, they should be self-assessing and working together; teachers should be their partners in this work rather than their overseers. The whole group should be invested in, and accountable for, its work. In other words, the work of students and teachers should look a whole lot like it does in the on the EVX team.

How we roster, develop curriculum, budget, create a Board of Directors, engage the community, develop assessments, train staff, and even layout the physical design of the school all flow from this singular focus on what kind of learning we want to happen. Teaching and learning are the school’s DNA, the system grows out of them.

In organizational theory they call this “emergent design.” I think we call it keeping our priorities straight.