Three Recommendations for School Leaders and Teachers in 2014

Jake Clapp, GOA Academic Dean

Jake Clapp, GOA Academic Dean

Jake Clapp, Academic Dean

I’ve got an idea for 2014, and it centers around empathy. “Take more risks”, I hear teachers say, “Stretch yourself!”. What if adults – teachers and administrators – used 2014 to do exactly what we ask of our students: to take more risks, to stretch our creative selves, and to stretch our schools to be more forward-thinking? In this post, I’d like to throw out three fairly broad and adaptable ideas that might be worth considering for the upcoming year. In 2014, please consider:

…recognizing the value of design in instruction.

“Lesson planning” is something teachers do because big chunks of time need to be filled with effective instruction. In contrast, “instructional design” starts before lessons can ever be planned. Instructional design requires goal-setting and alignment. It invites creativity and intention into one’s teaching. Instructional design involves multiple people, as it mandates collaboration and feedback. If you are a teacher, consider pairing up with a colleague (preferably in a different department) and helping each other design the best possible learning experience. Sit in on each other’s classes, be observant, and continually ask of your colleague, “how does this align with the goals of the course?”. You may find that by engaging people who are removed from the ‘unwritten rules’ of your subject area you will gain new insights and perspectives, and your teaching will improve. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, instructional design prioritizes the needs of the user for whom the product is designed — the student.

…embracing the internet.

‘Online’ is where people outside of schools go to learn in 2013. If you want to know how to install a new set of brakes on your bike, or get a better understanding of orca whale conservation efforts (my colleagues offered these up as examples of things they’ve recently learned), my guess is that you are going to start with a search engine, not a bicycle maintenance, or conservation biology course. Schools have been fairly slow to adapt to this paradigm shift. The fact is that in many high schools the internet is still used primarily for research papers. Many, however, have begun to embrace the immense power of the internet to make learning more personal. Check out the #edchat and #edtech hashtags on Twitter to see how powerfully, in fact, some educators are using the online environment. Where might our teachers’ imaginations take them (and their classes) if we freed them from the role of ‘fount of knowledge’ that still persists as the dominant paradigm in secondary and postsecondary classrooms. For that matter – how might our schools be different if hiring practices placed less emphasis on prospective teachers’ subject-area credentials, and focused more on teachers’ ability to connect with kids; or if schools re-examined their daily schedules to allow for more autonomous exploration of ideas afforded by online and blended environments?

…making school more like summer camp.

In full disclosure, I’m biased and privileged: camp was an integral part of my education. First off, camp is paced to keep kids active throughout the day; School, on the other hand, is paced to cram as much into a day as possible, with a heavy dose of seated and passive activities. More importantly, camp is designed to teach kids valuable social skills like sharing, cooperation, how to be a good listener, how to sacrifice your own needs for the needs of the group, and how to ask for help when you need it. Camp provides the routine necessary to establish cultural norms and support structures, while engaging students in very real activities like cooking, fitness, and craft-making. At camp, adults are ‘counselors’, not ‘instructors’, and in this language difference lies another key distinction: camp recognizes that kids are inherently motivated: to learn, to act, to emulate, and to seek and receive counsel. Some schools, in programs like Junior Projects at Germantown Friends School (Philadelphia, PA), and Senior Projects at Noble and Greenough School (Dedham, MA), are already embracing student-driven, experiential alternatives to traditional instruction.