Zero-Based School Rules. Zero-Based School Procedures.

What would you do if you had to justify and defend every school rule? Every school procedure? Every school tradition? And you had to do that before every new school year?

Let me point out a few:

  • Using bells to indicate classes starting and stopping.

OK, are you getting kids ready for university? Are you getting kids ready for great jobs, say, in the tech industry or other parts of the creative economy? Are you trying to prepare them to be good decision-makers? Independent thinkers? Good citizens? partners? parents?

Why do you have any of those rules?

Why can’t kids run in the halls? Twist on the swings? Politely slip late into class? Slip out of class to take an important phone call? Eat wherever and whenever? Go where they need to go? Pick their classes?

Aren’t these all things kids in universities do? Things people at work do?

Our schools are filled with rules and procedures and norms that define the hidden curriculum. And I find that when schools worry about their culture they rarely tackle that persistent structure of rules — formal and informal — that define that culture.

As I once wrote, when you look at, say, bullying — say, Lord of the Flies —

Who organized the choir? Who suggested to the choir that they were superior to other students? Are there any groups in our schools that are organized like the choir?”

Lord of the Flies is a book about how the norms of British Public Schools — which, remember Americans , are private and elite — lay the seeds of societal disaster. But we usually choose to teach it as proof of what happens when children are not fully controlled. And thus we leave ourselves free to not do anything, to not change anything.

We choose to rinse and repeat because it is convenient for us, easy for us, and doesn’t require much thinking. But that’s wrong. That’s the antithesis of education. Education is about learning, exploring, discovering — trying out ideas —it is really not endless repetition without assessment. (Really)

Let’s put it this way, we’ve created ObamaCare, legalized same sex marriage, developed easy 3D printing, invented Instagram, and our schools can’t figure out a better way to schedule lunch. Schools must not be the least creative, least inventive place in our society — that just seems like both a terrible idea and a terrible bit of modeling for our children.

And if we do consider change our pace is usually glacially slow. We appoint committees, and forward proposals, and hold meeting after meeting…

Our arguments are filled with phrases like, “we can only change so much at a time,” and “that’s all we’re willing to take on right now.”

Are you still working with a 2006 car? (Above) or, to be honest, is your school closer to a 1976 model?

But I’ll tell you, Ford moved from the Tempo to the Fusion Energie while you’ve been not quite managing to make your hallways better. Boeing took 6 years to take the 787 Dreamliner — the most radical change in commercial aircraft design since the 747 back in the 1960s — from first plan to first flight. We can’t seem to act to eliminate elementary school homework after decades of evidence that it does no good, and does do harm.

It is time to learn to change, to change significantly, and to change rapidly.

First imagined in late April 2015, open for students in August 2015… careful radical change need not be slow (watch video)

In the past six years the school system I work in has learned the art of rapid prototyping. That is helping us change big things fast. Most of our 25 school libraries are completely different — in looks and use — than they were six years ago. We have embraced Making and Mechatronics and have created spaces, professional learning opportunities, and found the tools to make both possible. We’ve gone deeply into multiage elementary schools, and worked hard to create effective spaces for that.

120 kids, 6 teachers, and magic. 2 years plan/build.

We have steadily expanded a one-to-one computer program — the opposite of LAUSD — until now we send our 6–12 grade kids home with great Windows 8 laptops (Windows 10 come August) that they control — they are the administrators on their computers — and we let them begin with all sorts of software choices, including all kinds of accessibility software on every child’s laptop. This works. We have sought to redefine classroom furniture around our Choice and Comfort Pathway, so that we’re working toward a time when every student can choose where, how, or if to sit in every learning space, and will be comfortable in all those choices.

We keep experimenting with what learning spaces can be.

We once planned a summer long pop-up makerspace in a barrio-trailer park in about two weeks, but that’s because it was such a good idea — linked to our community engagement hopes — and because we knew it would start slow, and because we were either brave or foolish or a little of both.

I say all this not to make us seem great or perfect. We’re neither. But we’re trying, and we’re trying every day. One day a few weeks ago we came back to Central Office after opening a Middle School fitness center. The state told us that a fast growing middle school needed another basketball court size Physical Education space. But they already had a basketball court and the teachers were dreaming of student choices — and of our Life Long Learner Competencies — and so… for under the same budget we built an indoor turf arena and a crossfit fitness room, and equipped them with great stuff and fitbit-linked display tech. The kids loved it — but we got back and were immediately asked, “What are our goals for new elementary spaces?”

Light filled turf arena, and fitness room with accordion wall — why would we build another basketball court?

So we dream, we imagine, we research, we plan, we talk, we ask kids, we observe kids, we watch the world outside of school carefully. We assume that kids will need to practice new things, and that they will watch us model new things. We always try to “get to Yes” rather than to “no.”

And we never forget that — in order to give our kids the real freedom to learn — we must be at our best as coaches and advisors and supporters.

But yeah. Too many of our schools still ring bells, require hall passes, and yes, we have classrooms where kids have to ask to use the toilet and we have teachers who assign too much homework, and all the other stuff.

Middle School Library

Still. We try. Every kid knows we try. Every teacher too. That’s the starting point isn’t it? That we don’t ask kids to come in and learn new things every day unless we are committed to doing the same thing ourselves.

Zero-Based Design. It means you do not keep your kids trapped in your past.

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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