Sunday, April 24, 2011

Culture vs. Control

by Mike Kaechele

This week I had the chance to visit Columbus Signature Academy in Indiana. It is part of the New Tech Network of schools which are problem based learning high schools. The first thing I noticed was the open spaces and architecture (I blogged about that here). It was designed for students to use the "hallways" as gathering/learning spaces.
CSA "common space"
The second and more lasting thing I noticed was the students. They were in hallways and classrooms. They were on laptops, listening to headphones, working independently, working in groups, and working on projects. Everyone seemed engrossed in whatever tasks they were involved in. Not everyone was doing the same thing. It was not quiet, but it also was not loud either. The one group of people I had a hard time locating were the teachers.

I got to spend two days at the school and talked to many of the students. We had official student guides and student panels, but my favorite part was just talking to random students in the building. Every student I talked to confidently explained to me what they were working on and honestly answered any questions. These students have "tours" of their school all of the time and are comfortable with public speaking.

I got the same message from all of them. They enjoyed being in the school and were genuinely proud of it. The school was only three years old and the junior class had helped start it. They helped create the handbook and the expectations for each space in the school. The school has no bells or hall passes. Students are treated as professionals and not micro-managed. The students had a true sense of ownership of their school.

The students talked about the importance of having a voice, working in groups, and how they preferred PBL to traditional learning. It is important to note that these were not "special" students in any way. They were chosen by lottery and represent the demographics of their district. But you can tell that every student feels special because they are part of a school that they care about. They are invested in their school and in their own learning.

I know this school works hard to establish and grow this culture among students. It all starts by assuming students are responsible and expecting them to act that way. Instead of trying to control students, they empower students to take responsibility. Then they give students choices in meaningful projects that are shared with experts in the community. Students hold themselves accountable to do quality work to represent themselves and their school.

Yes, this school is 1-1 with laptops, but what really makes it stand out is the learning climate of trust and responsibility. Are students working and on-task every second? Of course not, and neither am I.

Do you trust your students enough to let them learn by exploring interesting problems together? Or are you too busy trying to control them to make sure they get the appropriate standardized learning experience?


  1. Fascinating sounding school. Is it public or private? I'd love to see their curriculum.

  2. It is a public school. It is part of

    I will be teaching in a new one of these schools opening in the fall. I am just starting to get into curriculum. I will be posting about the social studies projects we do in my class next year in my own blog and sometimes here too.

  3. "Open spaces and architecture" and "hallways as 'gathering'/learning spaces."

    I like your indirect reference to the personalisation of space and school culture. As we move towards a 21st century model of education at our school, the personalisation of space seems like another obvious component (at least obvious after reading your post/s), beyond just personalised advising, support and curriculum programmes. It is required to foster authentic student ownership, responsibility and trust as you noted. I also checked out the other post... Loved the transparency of learing concept, breaking down institutional walls and furniture and giving up spatial control. For the longest time, our school's space has restricted the scope of personal engagement in the classroom and beyond... now I'm getting ready to bring in my lazyboy for some more conforting 21st century reading...

    Thanks for the insights...

  4. Great insights. You particularly highlight the digital culture divide between digital "immigrants' and "natives" created by the shift in democratization of authority which happened with the advent of Web 2.0 (user-created content). I work with teachers, mental health, social work, law enforcement and parents to help bridge that divide, and it looks to me like this school is doing a wonderful job of engaging youth in their own educational processes. I've written two books on the topic, which actually launch tomorrow from Pelican Publishing: Understanding i-KIDS and Understanding i-KIDS: A Workbook for Grownups which focuses on digital citizenship concepts and has activities to do as PD or with students. Good job, Columbus, IN!!!

    Thanks for the info...

  5. "Yes, this school is 1-1 with laptops, but what really makes it stand out is the learning climate of trust and responsibility." This is the key, isn't it?
    Thank you for a thoughtful post.

  6. This sounds really fantastic and the kind of learning model we need to move towards to really prepare kids for post-secondary life. I'm curious about the student population, though. How does the school provide support for ELL & SPED students?


  8. Isn't the critical question here "How bad does it get when students (and others) aren't on task, and are those risks really worth the 'trust/empowerment'?"

    If kids are given time to screw around - on equipment and in spaces that we provide for them - then the benefits of learning had better be worth the costs.

    Have you ever been a school or district administrator?

  9. @Darren

    I'd like to respond, but I first want to make sure I understand exactly where you are on this matter. When you say "how bad does it get", what exactly do you mean? And when you mention "risks", again, what exactly are you referring to? (I just don't want to make any assumptions).


  10. Think the difference between on task and in task is worth a think.

    Also, it is great to see something positive on education. Thanks.

  11. @Darren
    Thanks for the pushback. I am not, nor ever have been an administrator :)

    I think you misunderstand part of my message. I am not admonishing off-task behavior. I was simply being honest that students (and adults) are not "on-task" every second of the school/work day. I am ok with that.

    In a traditional classroom the student maybe daydreaming, doodling, or texting in their pocket. With computers they may do the same type of things through Paint, Games, or Facebook. Again I am not advocating any of these things as acceptable in the classroom. But I do not think micro-managing these behaviors is the solution.

    What I am arguing for is creating a climate where students learn in some comfortable freedom with others with some choice in the process and product. Then teaching students to learn with each other and monitor themselves and each other.

    I like to call it the "filter between their ears." Instead of trying to manage everything for them we teach them to manage themselves and make good choices.

    What I saw at this school was students with ownership of their school and their learning. I saw very little of-task behavior and I was looking hard for it. If you heard some of the projects they have going I think you might agree that this model is working.

    Does this make sense?

  12. @ Shelly and Mike,

    By design, teachers are often left in the dark concerning the more grevious behaviors of thier students.

    Imagine, nevertheless, the most horrifically possible crime a student might commit with a computer when left unattended and given ample freedom/time. Then ask yourself the question I've posed above, as well as the following:

    1. Do all students deserve this level of trust?
    2. Do all teachers?
    3. If not, then what?

    I agree wholeheartedly that a climate of freedom is extremely valuable and desirable in most cases. Nevertheless, while most rules are only created to assist in managing less than 5% of the population, that 5% can really raise some hell.

    My original question was: Are the benefits to learning worth the costs?

    (As teachers, you're fortunate enough to not be required to consider the worst in your students. The responsible administrator, nevertheless, enjoys no such luxury.)

  13. @Darren

    Um, that's a kinda depressing take on things.

    [Slinks off to imagine the "most horrifically possible crime a student might commit with a computer"].


  14. Agreed. Teachers are lucky to be able to focus solely on the positive!

    Off topic, but maybe this will cheer you up. :-)

    Talk about creative!

  15. @Darren

    You note that teachers are "not required to consider the worst in students" and that "teachers are lucky to be able to focus solely on the positive"... and the only way I can reply is to say that teachers deal with just as much of the "bad" and "negative" as anyone else.

    Teachers teach the whole person -- no matter what's going on in that person. I respectfully reject the idea that teachers are somehow removed from that reality.

    In fact, I'd suggest that the sort of artificial barriers put up by admins between themselves and teachers and by teachers between themselves and admins are major parts of the problems schools face.

    It takes a transparency and trust and responsibility to make the thing work. And it takes a sharing of experience and understanding. And sure, there are somethings that teachers are directly accountable for professionally that admins may not be and vice-versa. But I just don't see the helpfulness in perpetrating the connotation that teachers enjoy certain "luxuries"; the implication seems to be that admins are the only ones who "really understand what's going on".


  16. As I went through university one of my texts was very much in favour of this kind of trust and responsibility. And I strongly believe that this is the best way to do things given only one major factor: that the staff can adapt.

    Some teachers simply can't manage students with this kind of trust, and that's a fact.

    I think the question that Darren and I would like to hear the answer to is: What happens when a student(s) violate this trust in a way that cannot be tolerated? (Bullying, vandalism, etc.)

    Doug M.

  17. Aaaarg! I typed in a comment twice yesterday but it is gone. I will try again :)

    @Doug @Darren

    What I tried to post yesterday I think answers your question.

    Of course the school still has rules. There is a filter for porn, students are responsible to pay for any damage of property including the laptops, and cyberbullying or any other inappropriate on-line behavior is not tolerated.

    The philosophy of this school is different in that they assume responsibility and give privelges until students prove that they are not. Most schools assume the opposite and I think this is a big difference. Students can sense the difference in how they are treated.

    In this school students help create the rules and consequences for the school giving them ownership. Students can "fire" a student from their group who is not pulling their weight and they will have to complete the project on their own.

    The focus is on creating a culture and climate where students learn to self-monitor themselves. Students see being in this school as a privelege and want to be there. They are not motivated to do major violations because of this desire.

    So to answer Darren's question: Yes, all students deserve this level of trust until they show that they don't. Assume posivite and deal with negative with fair consequences when they occur.

    Finally Doug I agree that this kind of school is a shift for many teachers and some would struggle to facilitate rather than control. That is one reason why this model uses small schools and hires the teachers carefully to fit the model. The climate definitely starts with the staff.

  18. Some of the "on task" and what students should look like while they are learning are addressed by Richard Kent in his awesome book Room 109 - and his follow up -- even though, it was published in 1997, I think the same concepts still apply with engaging students and having them own their learning. If administrators walk by a class and see all of the students sitting at their desks, not talking, and looking forward, they think they are on task. If they walk by a room and see students huddled around a table, arguing, they might think they are off task. I think we need to move from the phrases "on task" & "off task" to "engaged" and "unengaged." If you ask, "Are the kids engaged in their learning?" it is easier to answer when you are looking at that group of kids huddled around a table, arguing.

    As for the one rotten apple, they need to be kicked out, period. Once the other students see that, they know there is a right and wrong even with freedom.

    However, I see it, like Mike does, that the kids will run with the positives. More than likely, "those" kids (that would do rotten things) wouldn't choose to come to this school in the first place.

    I am not even going to respond to the comments such as, "teachers are lucky to be able to focus solely on the positive."

    I am really looking forward to hear more from Mike as his school starts up, etc. I will definitely be going there for a visit next school year.

  19. @Mike

    What an exciting opportunity for you and your future students.

    I live in Ypsilanti which opened a New Tech HS this fall. I would have loved to get a job there combining tech & pbl, but alas they were staffing it from within the district.

    I currently teach middle school SS for the Wayne-Westland district, so am I looking forward to following your journey over this next year. See / talk to you @ edcamp Detroit?



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.