Have I Experienced Good Schools? Yes and No.

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In the fourth week of the “What Future for Education?” MOOC, participants are invited to reflect on “good” schools that they have encountered and to reflect on what about them was valuable. Here is the exact prompt:

Reflect on:

  • your own schooling, did you go to a “good” school? What “residuals” did you take away from your schooling, and how has it helped you subsequently.

  • Finish the sentence: “A good school …” and post your idea to the AnswerGarden here.

I can honestly say that I have seen examples of what seems to me to be good schools, but I cannot endorse any of the schools that I actually attended or declare one or more of them as “extremely good.” Most of them seem to have had competent staffing, sufficient resourcing, facilities that were in line with expectations of their times and a generally appropriate process for managing the number and diversity of children in their charge. However, to say that they were “very good,” at least in my experience of them, would be an overstatement. There are some aspects of schooling that did appeal to the learner in me.  I remember, for example a public school in Evanston, Illinois, on Main Street, where I first experienced rocketry, which sparked my interest in math, science and technology. At the same school, I remember enjoying mathematics lessons. At the same time, I did not feel safe at the school, since I was bullied and mocked by some of my peers. So, all things considered, it was not a very good learning environment for me. At Andalusia High School, in Covington County, Alabama, I had learned how to fend for myself, which made it a bit easier, and I even took on some bullies who mistreated other kids. I earned respect and had a stable and enjoyable circle of friends. I learned a useful skill (typing, which came in handy since personal computers were emerging around this time). I further developed my taste for science, particularly biology and chemistry, along with creative writing and, in my final year, I was “turned on” to American history. All in all, it was a decent learning experience, even though the school was not particularly well endowed and some of my teachers were relatively poor performers. I would say that it was more the teachers than the school that gave me the most positive learning experiences. And I’d say that in most cases it was because they set the bar high, then helped me figure how to meet those expectations. One other school, Roycemore, a private, independent K-12 school in Evanston, was quite good. It was small and it had fairly talented teachers, including one of my favorites of all, a science teacher who had a great sense of humor and continually told jokes, even during his lessons. (He did not remain in teaching very long and, ultimately, he had a long career as a writer and standup comic.) Still, he really stoked my enthusiasm for the life sciences and it was at Roycemore that I began doing serious reading and research in what was called “ecology” at the time. It was also at Roycemore that I had an English teacher who recognized that I needed a different kind of teaching or instructional supervision. She allowed me to pursue independent learning/reading/writing projects, where I am certain that I accomplished more than I would have if she had forced me to “get with the program.” I believe that Roycemore, more than the other schools I attended, allowed teachers to exercise discretion in the way that they worked with learners to attain “growth” learning goals, rather than sticking to a rigid curriculum where all students march in lock-step. For that reason, it may have been the best school for me.

About two years ago, when I took a MOOC on edX.org titled “Leaders of Learning,” I saw many examples of schools and learning environments that I wish had been part of my experience and that, I’m pretty sure would have been very good schools for me. Nearly all of the schools that I actually went to were characterized by rigid, squared-off learning spaces, with desks neatly aligned. They were not particularly comfortable or welcoming environments. Collaboration and informal exchange during class were not particularly encouraged. Nearly all lessons were teacher-centered and ignored learning differences. In other words, pretty much everything about my formal schooling (except maybe typing classes, art classes, chorus) tended to be boring, one-size-fits-all and disheartening. In only a few cases did certain teachers help me forget the oppression of the “classroom,”  (both the dreary, constrained physical space and the “classroom” modality of a desks aligned to face the teacher, who was the center of attention). In science classes, we often had “hands on” and collaborative activities in the “lab.”

I think that a lot of schools do things differently today (vibrant colors, open spaces, mobile and adaptable furniture, opportunities to work collaboratively), but when I was in school, it was mostly a grind and a bore — both the process and the environment. So to say that any of my schools was truly outstanding would be dishonest. At best, I’d say that Roycemore was good and Andalusia High School was slightly better than mediocre.

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