Greg Anrig Headshot

Tearing Down Classroom Walls

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Greg Anrig Headshot

Tearing Down Classroom Walls

Posted: Updated:

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Creativity comes about from interdisciplinary ways of seeing things, Sir Ken Robinson tells us in his TEDTalk. One of the central reasons that most schools fail to nurture the ability of students to connect dots across different disciplines is that they are rigidly structured, much like old-fashioned assembly lines. Each classroom is a box in which a teacher imparts information about a particular subject. Students move through the day from one box to the next, while teachers stay in their own boxes isolated from colleagues and following the same instructional practices they have always used. In essence, the walls of the classroom create walls in the minds of students and teachers, inhibiting the learning process.

Some U.S. public schools and school districts that have strived to tear down those figurative walls have demonstrably improved the educational experience for children. Those successful schools have developed a culture in which administrators and teachers collaborate intensively with each other, working together day-in and day-out to improve the learning experience for students. In those settings, the stronger connections among administrators and teachers create more effective and deeper communication with children. The more collaborative atmosphere promotes greater attentiveness to the strengths and weaknesses of each student along with greater flexibility in pursuing different instructional approaches. Often those educational innovations include providing students with abundant opportunities to perceive interrelationships among academic disciplines. Schools that nurture social (and intellectual?) capital in those ways provide a much more fertile environment for fostering student creativity in line with Sir Ken's presentation.

Nurturing creativity in students requires embracing creativity in how schools are conceptualized and managed - Greg Anrig

One study sponsored by the National Center for Educational Achievement identified high-performing schools in five states with high proportions of low-income students, based on math and science test scores, and sent teams of researchers to them to investigate their teaching practices. Among the most significant commonalities the researchers found in the high-performing schools was a recognition of the importance of breaking from the convention of "self-contained classes." One teacher at an effective middle school in Shelby, Michigan said, "What makes our school good and unique is really the collegial teamwork. We allow time for colleagues to communicate, to work with and learn from each other."

The same study found that many of the successful schools systematically broke the boundary of subject areas to provide cross-curricular support. For example, at the Graham and Parks School in Cambridge, Mass., teams of teachers teach the same students and pay close attention to what their fellow team members are teaching. A math teacher there explained, "The 7th- and 8th-grade teachers will read the book that's being taught in language arts, and then they'll try to work discussions of the book into science, social studies, and math classes. Or the language arts teacher will teach students about the vocabulary used in a social studies text." At the King Middle School in Santa Rosa County, Florida, cross-curricular support includes teachers' emphasis on nonfiction reading to help students understand scientific texts, and math teachers' review of the scientific application of mathematical concepts. A teacher there told the researchers, "As science teachers are frantically trying to get the students to understand the content, the math department takes over the [science] review in math classes."

The Iowa education department introduced an experimental program several years ago called Authentic Intellectual Work, in which teams of administrators and teachers together implement a research-based set of instructional approaches. That effort requires them to attend periodic training institutes and regular on-site team meetings to critique and improve teachers' assignments, assessments, and lessons, as well as on-site coaching provided by external advisers trained in that system. Part of that approach entails encouraging cross-disciplinary thinking. As one teacher from Cedar Falls stated, "I think with a 'science mind,' as do some of my students. It helps me to see how a student with an 'English language mind' thinks by hearing an English teacher share her viewpoint." An analysis by the Iowa Department of Education showed that the schools pursuing the Authentic Intellectual Work approach achieved significantly higher test score improvement than other schools with students from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Such research demonstrates that the aspirations for schools that Sir Ken Robinson sets forward in his TEDTalk are by no means unattainable. Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools -- private as well as public -- still adhere to the traditional industrial model that relies on self-contained classrooms. What the recent success stories demonstrate is that nurturing creativity in students requires embracing creativity in how schools are conceptualized and managed. And the most essential ingredient to transforming the culture of schools is effective, purposeful collaboration. That implies that the dominant political debate over school reform, which largely focuses on scapegoating teachers and their unions, is badly off track because it promotes conflict rather than collaboration.

Cincinnati, Ohio has emerged in recent years as one of the highest performing urban school districts in the country, based on improvement in test scores. One of the city's most successful initiatives beginning in 2008 was an effort to revitalize its 16 worst performing elementary schools, some of which had been struggling for more than a quarter century. That undertaking, which has already yielded impressive results, entailed intensive collaboration among administrators and teachers. The leader of the effort, deputy superintendent Laura Mitchell, used the metaphor of a dance to describe how she encourages broad engagement from everyone involved in trying to turnaround those schools. Lauren Morando Rhim summarized the approach in her study of the district: "Typically at a dance, some people will be actively participating in the middle of the dance floor, some will be minimally engaged but watching, and others will linger against the wall, disengaged. Although everyone knows how to dance to some extent, the role of a successful leader is to invite everyone to dance. Only by effectively engaging everyone at the dance can a leader cultivate teamwork and dispel the distrust that frequently undermines difficult change efforts."

Sir Ken Robinson's choreographer friend discovered her own talent for dancing through serendipity. Research is showing that schools do a much better job of enabling students to achieve their potential when they re-imagine themselves as a vibrant, open dance floor rather than a collection of enclosed classrooms.

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