What is sacred in education?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

We hold certain beliefs about education because those who came before us set the ground work for how we operate schools. Those who came before us existed in quite a different reality of what it meant to be educated. At the dawn of industrialization, much of what we see in education probably made sense.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

In the last three months, I’ve led in the neighborhood of 300 teachers/administrators/district-heads through Anastasis Academy. They all come with a similar goal: they want to see how we personalize learning. Inevitably as I’m touring people through, they’ll exclaim over how articulate our students are in explaining what they are learning and the projects they are working on. They’ll show surprise over the way that our students are able to manage the freedom they are given to choose the “classroom” they will work in. They see it, and they still don’t always believe it works. We’ve been told that Anastasis is a “unicorn.” As our visitors talk among themselves, I can hear the “yeah, but…” Doubt creeps in. They try to make what they see at Anastasis fit the constructs they’ve already put into place.

Yesterday, I had a rare moment to jump into an early #edchat conversation on Twitter (spring break for the win!). The chat was about small class size and the way that changing the class size might change learning for the better. I had a lot to say about the positives that I see from having small class sizes. At Anastasis, our classes are capped at 12. One teacher, twelve students. Once again, I was met with awe…and again we became the “unicorn.” Many could see the benefits that come with smaller classes, but immediately pointed toward dollars being too tight to ever have hope of it being a reality. I can understand that viewpoint, with ever tightening budgets it is one that can feel too large to overcome.

When we started Anastasis Academy it was with no endowments, no grants, no private backers (unless you count the $160 I put in for a domain name, information night handouts, and establishing ourselves with the state of Colorado as a non-profit). Anastasis is a tuition funded school. Tuition is $9000 each year. I did not choose that $9000/year amount arbitrarily. I chose it because at the time, it was the per-pupil expenditure in the public school district where we started. I chose that number because I believe that the type of education that students enjoy at Anastasis should be available to ALL students, whether or not their family can afford a private education. I chose that number because I wanted to show that education CAN be different, and it isn’t really about money.

When we free ourselves from the perceived rigidity of the system that we are in, and begin with a clean slate, we are free to see things from new perspectives. Rather than trying to fit small class sizes into your current budget and system, try approaching the problem from a clean slate. I hear some of you “yeah, butting…” already. “Yeah, but we don’t have the luxury to start from a clean slate, we have to work in the system.”

Try this as an exercise.

It’s not meant to free you from the system, but instead to give you freedom in your thinking. By beginning ideation away from the rigid constructs, you may stumble onto an idea that you hadn’t considered before. It may give you just enough freedom to come up with a new approach that might just work in your system. The “yeah, but” statement puts a stop to the creativity, beginning with no constraints can lead to new ways of thinking and possibility. Instead of “yeah, but” try playing the “what if” game. What if none of these constraints were in our way? What if we could make decisions apart from the system we are in? What if we had a blank slate to dream up our perfect school? What if money was no object?

When beginning with a clean slate, I always like to begin with the non-negotiable. What do we value that we aren’t willing to compromise? What is impossible to do without? Begin with what you must have. When I went through this exercise, I found that what I value most is students-with-names. Kids who are unique individuals, and are treated as such, is central to all decisions that we make at Anastasis.

We begin with students with names.

Next: How do we support students-with-names? It’s been my experience that the best way to support students-with-names is not with a fancy new curriculum, new technology, or better standards; but by the people you surround them with. The teachers, those who will apprentice students in the art of learning. We empower teachers to be teachers. And so, our first decision is made. Teachers are non-negotiable. We have to find the best, for us this is defined as those who know how to build community, how to make students central to the learning process, those who are instructional designers and don’t rely on boxed curriculum, those that are empathetic and thoughtful.

Then: Where do we do this? A space for the learning to happen is important. We need a home base. It needs to fit our vision. It needs to be flexible. We also need to show students that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of our school. That it can happen anywhere, that there is always someone to learn from. And so, our second decision is made. We need a place to do the learning that fits our vision. We need a portion of our budget set aside to get students outside of the building once a week. We need them to be able to meet experts. We need transportation to make us mobile.

Finally: What will drive our learning? If we are valuing students-with-names, boxed one-size-fits-all curriculum no longer feels like a good fit. It doesn’t ladder up to support our non-negotiable. And so, our third decision is made. We will be inquiry based, we will help students think deeply, ask beautiful questions, problem solve, and chase learning. We will not put money into boxed curriculum, instead we will purchase only those books, experiences, resources, etc. that we need as inquiry unfolds. We will be agile.

The bulk of my budget at Anastasis goes toward those things I value most. I hire teachers first, lease the space that we learn in and learning-excursions/transportation second, and support inquiry with resources third.

As you dream, start with what is necessary. Then move on to what is desired (realize that you may be able to fill these wishes outside of your budget creatively- we are a 1:1 BYOD iPad school because it is the only supply on our supply list. For our families, it is more cost-effective to own the technology than to fill a list of school supplies each year. As a school, it is more cost-effective for us to purchase the typical school list for students than to own the technology). Finally fill in with what is left.

Do this with your colleagues. Dream together. Start with a clean slate. Use the improv ethic. In improv theater, the rule is that you go with what you are given. This usually consists of a fictional identity, a scene that is set up for you. Ground Rules: You can’t suddenly chuck the scene mid-speech. You can’t contradict lines fed to you by fellow actors…it will kill the scene because there will be nothing to say after it.

Try employing the improv ethic at your next staff meeting. Liberate yourselves by giving your minds a ground zero, clean slate, to begin thinking. Choose a problem that bothers you in education (class size is a great one!). Why does it bother you? Then, as an ideation experiment add a change to the scene and follow the implications of that change from one scene to the next. How does it change things for the budget? How does it change things for students? Parents? Teachers? In improv they teach this idea of “yes, and…” Solve the problem and look for a solution rather than implementing the “yeah, but…” that limits ideas and shuts down new thinking. Dream big. Dream without the limitations you might ‘know’ exist. As I said, in the process you may discover a solution or way around a very real limitation you wouldn’t have considered or come up with otherwise. In a very real way, this blog (Dreams of Education) did that for me. This was a safe place to have crazy dreams that ended up becoming a new reality. If you had asked me about starting a school 6 years ago, I would have adamantly told you that I would never start a school. That I didn’t even know the first place to start.

Try following your dreaming and thinking down a rabbit hole, giving permission for absurdity and silliness. This is often what the brainstorming and ideation phase of design thinking looks like. Often solutions grow out of what at first glance appears as absurd and impossible. Shut down the inner critic- suspend the naysayers and come up with something new.

What is truly sacred in education?

The incredible, creative, unique individuals that we call students.

That is sacred.

That is non-negotiable.