Reform and the “old rules”

First off, Grid Magazine is one of those things that just makes you proud to be from Philly. (The link above is to the magazine site, which includes the current issue in full text.)

The current issue, which focuses on education, has a great article about Rob Fleming’s Sustainability, Energy Efficiency and Design (SEED) Center at Philadelphia University (p. age 29 from the link above). In addition to the expected emphases on efficiency, design, and economy, the program emphasizes an integrated and highly collaborative approach to design work.

In the traditional process of making a building, architects and designers create the design, engineers make that design function, and contractors provide value engineering to bring the project within budget. Like a very expensive game of whisper down the alley, the original intent can get lost in translation.

Sounds a bit like how we do school reform, no? (See our previous posts on CSAP, for example.) But more telling is how Fleming and his colleagues addressed the problem.

The emphasis on truly integrated design and early collaboration is a hallmark of a program the university started from scratch with the specific goal of throwing conventional wisdom to the wind.

“I don’t want to have a program that greens the mainstream,” says Fleming. “The problem with ‘greening’ is that you take your normal consumptive behavior and mitigate it, but you’re still on that trajectory toward exhaustion of resources and the destruction of nature. We need to redirect the stream correctly. You don’t use any of the old rules – they’re what got us in trouble in the first place.”

And so it should be with high schools. Starting with the “old rules” is like tying your shoelaces together before the race starts. The rules don’t serve any authentic purpose; we have built a system around them (namely, college admissions) and that system justifies their continued existence. But if the goal is real knowledge, real skills, real citizenship, or real outcomes, can you honestly say that if we were to start from scratch today we’d come up with anything that looks like the contemporary high school? I highly doubt it.

Incidentally, Fleming “was educated in one of the [early 1980s] progressive public schools where there was no grading system. ‘It was learning for the sake of learning, with a lot of collaborative work.’ ” There were a couple such experiments in Philly during that time, but I’m guessing this was the Parkway program, a school that individualized learning for each student and tried to make the city its classroom.

There is no doubt that we are capable of creating these kinds of learning experiences for students. It’s already happening in some places (including, sometime soon, the Workshop). From a systemic perspective, the question is whether we will ever get out of our own way.