How Do You Design a Healthy School?

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

What if every school used our founding principles as a nation as its design principles for learning? How would schools need to change? And what would we unleash as a result?

This is one of the riddles at the center of the 10-part video series, A Year at Mission Hill. And although we’re just two chapters in, I’m starting to see an early pattern – and a dialectical pair of design principles at the center of it all.

First, it’s clear that just as the United States sprang from a shared vision of liberty, schools like Mission Hill spring from a shared commitment to individual freedom and autonomy. As a “pilot school” nestled within the larger structure of Boston Public Schools, Mission Hill has the institutional freedom to chart its own course around key issues like governance, curriculum, staffing, hiring, and budget. Its teachers (who are unionized) have great individual latitude in how they plan their lessons and assess their students. Its students are constantly placed in positions to exercise self-regulation and self-control (no hall passes here). And its aspirational habits of mind (which the school believes characterize a well-educated person) are designed to help young people develop the skills and self-confidence required to ask tough questions, discover meaningful patterns, develop empathy and compassion, imagine useful alternatives, and set appropriate priorities – both in school and in life.

What might this design principle look like elsewhere? Site-based autonomy seems important. So does the school having a clear vision of its ideal graduate – and not just in terms of what that person knows how to do, but how that person habitually lives his or her life. Giving children opportunities to practice decision-making is a must. And finally, there is the straw that stirs the drink – assembling a staff of highly skilled, highly collaborative educators, whose heightened expertise can justify a heightened level of autonomy, and whose understanding of learning and growth runs much deeper than academics alone.

But there’s an equally pressing, seemingly contradictory design principle that’s also at work, one that relates to an equally pressing human desire – for structure, safety and a sense of order to the world.  

These two universal needs – for freedom on one hand, and structure on the other – are what we must balance in order to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments of the sort we see at Mission Hill. And it won’t work if we forget a basic truism about organizations: that simple structures lead to complex thoughts, whereas complex structures lead to simple thoughts.

At Mission Hill, the simple structures in place are precisely (and ironically) the ones that help people develop the fullest sense of individual autonomy: the habits of mind that provide a North Star for everything the school does; the clearly defined expectations among staff and students about how people are treated and what is expected of them; the explicit rules about how decisions get made, and who gets to make them, and when, and why; and the individual-classroom and whole-school rituals that keep bringing people together to, as Mission Hill’s mission statement puts it, spend time with each other “even when it might seem wasteful hearing each other out.”

In my years as an educator, I have witnessed scores of schools that choose, consciously or unconsciously, to value one of these needs at the expense of the other. But what schools like Mission Hill remind us is that we do not need to choose. It is possible – indeed, essential – to find the right organizational balance between individual freedom and group structure. The challenge comes in finding the right mix of ingredients. And the opportunity before us is to find a way to get many more chefs in the kitchen – teachers, organizations, communities – each in search of a recipe they can call their own.

Categories: Democracy, Learning, Organizational Change

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