How Do Schools Get Better? (Part 2)

The Center for the Advancement of Christian EducationInnovation2 Comments

jarmoluk / Pixabay

jarmoluk / Pixabay

**Doing the right thing…knowing the right thing to do. This is a question that we ask ourselves everyday as school leaders. Richard Elmore, professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University, published a paper with this title through the NGA Center for Best Practices (can be found here). He offers suggestions and practical advice on how schools can get better. After reading Elmore’s article graduate students in the Dordt University School Leadership program blogged similar advice, written specifically for Christian school leaders. Our first guest blogger is Tymen Berger, Middle School Principal at Abbotsford Christian School.**

So where does this train of thought take us?  What could “school” look like if we were to completely re-imagine it?  Let me start with a look back in order to look ahead.

For much of human history, young people learned from their parents.  The exception was when there was sufficient family wealth or there was a need to learn something of a skill or trade that was outside of parental experience or knowledge.  This is when the first paid teachers were hired. There is a certain irony in the fact that most of these first teachers were slaves, but that is a whole other discussion point!

As civilization became more mechanized and jobs became increasingly specialized, there was a move to train young people through apprenticeships.  The desired out-comes were young people with training in trades.  The pedagogy was pretty much demonstration of technique and learn by doing.  As society continued to develop there was an increasing desire for literacy as well as skills in an ever-diversifying job market.  With the move to factories and assembly lines in industry, there was a similar move in schools.

Now that we are fully immersed in the post-modern era, there is another shift taking place in society.  There has been a move away from the fact-based ‘age of reason’ to a time of growing spirituality.  The cover for the March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine declares on the cover that we are dealing with “The War on Science.”  The lead article asks the question “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”  In this environment is there any doubt that the traditional model of education is in crisis?

So what could education look like in the 21st century and beyond?  What if we took the key elements of where society is moving and re-imagined schools in this light?  Post-modern, western society is placing high value on community and holism in education.  So schools could reflect this by being smaller, with a wider range of ages in the class make-up.  Since there is a growing emphasis on learning to be about “real work for a real need” schools should be more deliberate about getting out into the community.

Allow me to dream for a moment.  What if schools were a small collection of meeting rooms, with a few adjacent spaces for presenting learning, all attached to a loading bay area?  Each “class” would have their own mini-bus and the majority of learning would happen outside of the school facilities.  The curriculum would be integrated and holistic.

For example, one stretch could be spent learning about the local watershed.  Every day students would head out to walk, canoe, and explore their watershed.  They would visit the seniors’ homes and write personal histories.  They would visit cemeteries to learn about the people who settled the area.  They could study the geography and the environmental impact they are having on the organisms in the streams and rivers.  They would experience firsthand how God has worked in their community.  And, they would apply all of this as they worked on real transportation issues and community planning.  (For an example of this type of program, read Watershed; a successful voyage into integrative learning by Mark Springer.)

I actually hesitate to share the above idea about what I think school could become because having done so may in itself set parameters on what we could do. We are at a cross roads as a growing number of people are recognizing that the existing model is no longer working and I believe that we need to dream about what school could look like.  Let’s be brave!


  1. Springer, M. (1994). Watershed: A Successful Voyage In to Integrative Learning. National Middle School Association.
  2. Stanley J., G. (1996). A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


2 Comments on “How Do Schools Get Better? (Part 2)”

  1. The question is, “How do schools get better?” Not necessarily what our society is becoming, as it is always becoming something. The Nat Geo article deals with doubting science, which I think is a great discussion, but what is the great answer. I believe, as would any good educator, coach or parent would state… “Let’s get back to basics.” You can’t do algebra without basic arithmetic. You can’t shoot a great jump shot without doing basic ball-handling skills, and you can’t obey parents without knowing the basics of a family model of authority.

    It seems we’re afraid to go backward. Everything seems to push us forward, whether we like it not. So let’s answer the question, “How do schools get better?” We need to go backward with an understanding of what’s before us. How many middle schools still teach grammar, spelling and vocabulary? How many high schools teach solid rhetoric skills so their students now how to make a solid presentation or give a speech that’s orderly? How many elementary schools have their kids parsing sentences regularly and learning their 12 x 12 tables?

    I believe that you can teach and experience a “holistic” education with great success, but NOT UNTIL you know the basics. Then, you can better interact with this fast-moving world around us whether you’re using Skype to speak with students abroad or personal interaction with your local watershed.

    How can I write my report correctly, give a logical speech or debate with enthusiasm and confidence without my basics? You can’t. You simply can’t.

  2. Thanks Tymen. Interesting concept for re-imagining school as it is. A couple of observations however. First, it is interesting to note that in the Church, where a number of different models are being tried out, it seems that people are preferring to cluster together in more homogeneous sets rather than in mixed sets. Youth Church is very popular for example as opposed to a family model where there are different ages. Schools I know have tried the mixed age approach but don’t seem to stay with it – perhaps it was too out there for its time and may be worth another try now.

    Secondly, education in real life is also talked about but it is a very pragmatic approach to education which assumes that we can learn everything we need to know in the real world through application rather than by doing some theoretical work first or alongside. Whatever the field of knowledge being used e.g. history, environmental science etc, some theoretical understanding of how that field is necessary for any really worthwhile learning to take place. How do you see these two elements working together?

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