Walking a Day in Our Students’ Shoes

When was the last time you spent a day with a 2nd grader? And by that, I don’t mean just a couple of hours with a niece or nephew, or even an afternoon in the same home with your own 2nd grade child. When was the last time you put aside your day’s to do list, your phone (for the most part!), and control of your day’s schedule to experience firsthand what a day as a 2nd grade student looks, sounds and feels like?

MehaWell, I recently had the opportunity – thanks to 2nd grade student Meha K. and her teacher, Shannon Longfield. On March 2, I began in chapel at 8:00 a.m. with Meha and her fellow Lower School peers at Hillcrest. I proceeded to spend the remainder of the day observing, participating and experiencing what life is like for a Parish 2nd grade student.

Interestingly enough, I haven’t been alone. Over the last several weeks, 20 of my colleagues – representing each division – have shadowed a student in nearly every grade in our School. (See full list of shadows)

Why? It’s another purposeful step in crafting the Reimagine School vision upon which I reported in my March First Monday. These immersion experiences can teach us so much! Among the questions I carried with me into my day in 2nd grade were:

  • How does the energy of our students ebb and flow during the day?
  • How does our allocation of time (for example during instruction; for elective classes; or for breaks) contribute to or detract from student energy and engagement?
  • What types of learning activities seem to engage students most?
  • Do certain types of learning experiences promote the internal motivation and acquisition of skills to which we aspire better than others?
  • Does an engaging (read: interesting, “fun” or thought-provoking) classroom activity always correlate with meaningful learning?

2ndNotesMy day was awesome! Like my other colleagues who shadowed a student, I graphed student levels of engagement and took copious notes on my observations. I look forward to comparing our experiences.

What is indisputable is that how time gets used and allocated lies at the heart of reimagining the school experience.  For well over a century, a familiar time framework has dominated American schooling. I am sure you recognize some of its features:

  • A school year which begins in August or September and ends in May or June;
  • Students grouped by incremental, grade-based cohorts where they remain for the nine months of the school year and twelve years of pre-collegiate education, regardless of their capability;
  • “Graduation requirements” in high school and college based on seat time rather than content mastery;
  • Academic disciplines taught in allocated time blocks in isolation from one another.

Recently, Will Richardson, a leading voice of educational reform, penned a piece in the Washington Post, expressing his exasperation with our adherence to school time models borne of an era when what it meant to be educated differed fundamentally from what it means today. Influential American educators like Horace Mann and Edward Thorndike, later joined by the earliest proponents of “organizational management” like Frederick Taylor, linked the design of schools to the needs of late 19th and early 20th century American society. The factory-based industrial economy and increasingly diverse social milieu of our growing country valued systemization, standardization and efficiency.

JarcheToday’s “complex global society,” to which we refer in our mission statement, is anything but standardized and systematized. As business consultant Harold Jarche has noted, “just as few people do work that requires pure physical labor today, soon few of us will do routine, procedural and standardized knowledge work.” As Jarche’s chart (at right) depicts, we are on the cusp of a change in what the work experience of tomorrow will be like for the Parish students of today.

Thus we wonder: how might we reimagine our use of time at Parish so that we are even more effective producing “creative thinkers and bold leaders prepared to impact our complex global society?”

But here’s the catch: path dependence.

New York Times columnist David Brooks (who visited Parish last May) wrote a piece in 2011, Tools for Thinking, about attacking complex problems with holistic thinking. In it, he cited a linguist at Columbia University who warned of path dependence and identified it as “something that seems normal or inevitable today [that] began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of justification for that choice.”

While path dependence is terminology of economists and social scientists, it aptly frames the challenge of rethinking time in schools. We teachers are products of the very time system we seek to upend; it is all we know. It is our dependent path and, as such, any process designed to rethink it runs the risk of duplicating the very tendencies that have become entrenched.

Which brings me back to my day with Meha.

Our immersion experiences reflect our quest to break path dependence and design a truly reimagined time framework for Parish which begins with the user (in our case, the student) experience. We have teamed with the Director of the Deason Innovation Gym at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, Katie Krummick, and her colleague, Gray Garmon, to attack the question of our school schedule from a completely different angle. Katie and Gray are not K-12 educators or even schedule consultants. They are experts in human-centered design, a problem-solving process pioneered by organizations like IDEO.Org and places like the Institute of Design at Stanford.

Human-centered design aligns with Parish’s innovative disposition. It involves three general, though not always linear, phases:

  • Inspiration: understanding your challenge by empathizing with your user.
  • Ideation: making sense of what you have heard and seen from your users and generating numerous prototypes of possible solutions to test and refine.
  • Implementation: bringing your idea to life.

Our shadowing of students has been a vital part of our inspiration phase. In their letters later this month, Division Heads will share some of their perspectives on their shadowing experiences. My colleagues and I will be spending time with Katie and Gray in April and June to take stock of what we have learned and begin designing Parish’s reimagined schedule, a process that will occupy much of the next 24-36 months.

I can’t wait for Meha’s feedback on what we develop!

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