What qualities make for an ideal school or classroom?
Recently, I have come across some readings that have prompted me to think more about what it means to create an ideal school environment. One reading was a forum discussion posted on Education Week entitled, Creating An Ideal School Environment. The other reading was in the last chapter of a book I have just finished by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
I believe it is possible to create an ideal school or classroom environment. There are ample examples in public and private schools throughout the US in which schools work tirelessly to shape their school culture to meet the needs of students and teachers. However, it is important to realize in this conversation about creating an ideal school or classroom that what is ideal for one child might not be ideal for another child. For a school or classroom to work as a learning space for a child it has to be a good match with the child’s needs, as well as the child’s personality. We are quick to expect children to adapt to their schools, but not expect schools to adapt to their students. So while there are ideal schools, I believe they come in different shapes and sizes.
Unfortunately, we do not allocate sufficient resources for our schools, especially public schools, to rethink their curricula and learning spaces to effectively meet the needs of all their learners. Our standards mentality has resulted in our public schools looking and acting as though there is only one image of a good school or classroom.
Are there common traits that ideal schools share? I think the answer is yes. Here are some thoughts from the Center for Teaching that I shared in my response to the Education Week Teacher forum, Creating An Ideal School Environment.
- an ideal school environment embraces the idea that ALL students can learn.
- an ideal school environment works to build safe learning spaces for students.
- an ideal school environment attracts teachers who are knowledgeable, care about student learning, and adapt their instruction to meet the needs of their learners
- an ideal school environment tires to be nimble and adjust as the needs of students shift.
- an ideal school environment works hard to make the curriculum relevant to the lives of students
- an ideal school environment works hard to develop authentic measures for assessing student learning.
- an ideal school environment recognizes that student success is a complex idea and measuring it must be accomplished with many tools.
- an ideal school environment is led by people who value others, their voice and need for choice.
Here are the qualities that Susan Cain suggests parents keep in mind as they look for a school that is a good match for their child.
- prizes independent interests and emphasizes autonomy
- conducts group activities in moderation and in small, carefully managed groups
- values kindness, caring, empathy, good citizenship
- insists on orderly classrooms and hallways
- organizes space into small, quiet classrooms
- chooses teachers who seem to understand the shy/serious/introverted/sensitive temperament
- focuses its academic/athletic/extracurricular activities on subjects that are particularly interesting to your child
- enforces an anti-bullying program
- emphasizes a tolerant, down-to-earth culture
- attracts like-minded peers, for example intellectual kids, or artistic or athletic ones, depending on your child’s preferences
While Susan Cain’s qualities differ somewhat from mine, I think the general intent of our two lists focuses on a school culture that puts the child first. The primary interest of a good school is to create a balanced educational program that recognizes and values the “whole child” and is interested in each child reaching his or her full potential regardless of their personality.
Susan Cain comes from the point-of-view that schools generally acknowledge the world of the extroverted child, but do a less effective job of valuing the world of the introverted child. Cain’s characteristics of a good school focus on how well a school works with children who are more introspective and quiet. I think she is correct in suggesting that parents carefully study how teachers and administrators show their understanding of personality types, especially those of children who are inner directed. Do teachers deeply understand the introverted child and create a classroom environment that is safe for any learner to take risks and challenge themselves?
Throughout my career, I have been sensitive to the way many teachers write about children in their classrooms who do not participate in discussions. Valuing and assessing class participation, teachers will usually comment to a parent that their child needs to ‘participate more in class.’ The teacher puts the responsibility for change on the child instead of asking him or herself what is my responsibility to adjust my attitude toward quiet children and shift my classroom dynamics to allow for all children to quietly reflect. Maybe then the introverted child would feel safer to explore his or her thoughts and share them with the class. Participation in classroom discussions is seen as the positive norm. Why?
So let’s get back to an ideal school or classroom. Why is it so hard to achieve this end? I think the primary reason is that we come at this question from the perspective of standardization and accountability. We tell schools and teachers what they have to do to ‘measure up’ and we leave very little room for creativity, adjustment, and adaptation. In evolution, species perfect their kind because they are able to adapt to new situations, stresses, and forces. These adaptations allow for the ‘fittest’ to survive and replicate. While I am not advocating for the fittest schools to survive and those that aren’t disappear, I am advocating for schools and teachers to be granted the space and resources to innovate, adjust to the circumstances they find themselves in, and adapt in ways that best meet students’ needs. Unfortunately, our policy makers, parents, and to some extent, school officials are overly interested in meeting prescribed standards and holding everyone’s feet to the fire.
Standards and accountability are useful structures within which to operate; however, when they become the drivers for change they tend to limit innovation. We end up with all schools looking and feeling the same and most classrooms being rather generic places in which students learn. One size doesn’t fit all students! I fear that the high-stakes assessments that will follow the Common Core Standards rollout will only make matters worse.
For me, an ideal school environment recognizes that student success is a complex goal to achieve. Providing for this success for all students and measuring it must be accomplished with many tools. The same goes for the classroom. If teachers are going to meet the needs of all students, they must build a toolbox of strategies that is geared towards diverse learners and learn how to work effectively with each of their students.
Does this post resonate with your views on an ideal school or classroom?