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Backing Into School Design from the Workplace of Tomorrow

I originally posted portions of this in a blog titled “This is a School That Johnny Wants to Attend.” A couple of readers thought the fictional “Johnny” suffered from ADD, but he wasn’t meant to be. The content here is significantly updated in order to explore the issue further.

Who is Johnny and Why Is He Suffering?

Johnny is only one of thousands of kids who are either already slipping though the cracks or who are on the verge of doing so. Kids as early as kindergarten complain about being bored in school and suffer from a lack of engagement in the learning process. Daniel Goleman recently noted in an article here that “Anyone who looks at the brain and how it works knows that your emotional state directly affects how you can use your academic skills. If you’re upset, it shrinks your working memory. You can’t pay attention to what the teacher’s saying. You can’t learn.”

So, I invented Johnny as a means of exploring how we might make school more effective for him and others in similar circumstances, taking into account what all kids need in order to prepare more effectively for the workplace of tomorrow.

Johnny is ten years old and has had his share of difficulties in school. He has a hard time sitting still for all of his lessons, and he can’t seem to focus on what the teacher is saying.

He sits and stares at his worksheets in class and cries when his parents tell him to do his homework. He’s happier building model airplanes and playing video games. He appears to be disinterested in school, and everyone around him is frustrated and concerned.

I worry about Johnny, so I decided to design an optimal school for him. This school has:

  1. More material that is introduced at home for homework. He accesses these lessons on his computer, working through interactive learning modules and videos, responding to online quizzes, all in preparation for a deeper dive in school the following day.

  2. Less time in class listening to the teacher talking about a new topic, and more time asking questions of his peers and his teachers about what he reviewed at home.

  3. Fewer days spent inside the classroom.

  4. Some days at home or at a friend’s house on a designated “e-learning” day completing assignments online doing some individual assignments, and other assignments with a friend or two via Skype.

  5. Physical Education programs that incorporate local sports clubs and self-guided activities geared to build confidence and individual accountability for one’s health.

  6. Some days at a local business learning how paper is manufactured, cows are raised, food is prepared, architects build models, etc. In each grade, he is introduced to different industries and returns to some from previous years, building a more sophisticated base of knowledge throughout the years.

  7. Museum days where he works in small groups on a long-term project lasting several weeks to several months.

  8. Days at school, working in groups as his teacher walks around the room providing feedback; or working alone and getting one-on-one time with his teacher.

  9. Days at school where different experts come into the classroom and work on coding projects, design projects, building projects, etc.

  10. Service days where he volunteers with organizations in the community in activities that match or expand his own skills.

Extending the Community of Teaching

In Johnny’s new school, the responsibility for teaching is extended to a broader community of practicing experts, is enhanced by technology, and is individualized to further support his learning. His classroom teacher plays an ever important role guiding him through these experiences and providing feedback and support to reinforce learning from this wider range of resources. Teaching is as vital a role as ever in this scenario, but responsibility is shared with a wider circle of expert resources providing more input into the experience than has been true in the past.

Reconfiguring the Physical Classroom

An additional consideration for extending learning opportunties is to change the physical environment of the classroom. One great case for this is the work being done by Intrinsic Schools , where learning environments, called “pods” differentiate the type of activity students are engaged in: The Ocean, for small group engagement; The Shade, for students working on group work and projects; and The Coastline, where students engage in independent work. A recent article in EdSurgeprovides more details on this innovative model.

There’s great work being done in higher ed and the corporate space as well that can help us learn about making space more adaptable, more appropriate for specific types of activities, more conducive (or “ambient”) for creative thinking, more “democratic” in terms of how information is displayed and shared, etc. For some more details on this, see an earlier blog, “Design Help for Those Who Can’t Sit Still”.

Some Existing Models

Some aspects of this new school are currently being integrated into curriculum across the country as teachers flip their classrooms and blended learning technology assists in the individualization of the learning experience. As partnerships expand with technology providers and practicing experts in a wider range of industries, curriculum design extends into a curatorial role within the PK-12 just as it has with learning and development teams in the corporate sphere.

Like Intrinsic, AltSchools is an example of an innovative school model that is pushing the envelop in terms, but in a way that goes beyond the redesigned school building and associated curricular changes. AltSchool differs in terms of creating communities of students of mixed grade levels, personalizing learning by assigning students individualized “playlists” to work through, and immersing students in project-based learning that take students out of the classroom more frequently. You can learn more about AltSchools on their site and here.

Backing into Learning Models from the Workplace of Tomorrow

We back into the learning experience starting from the working world, providing over the PK-12 experience what learners need to know sooner and over a broader range of time.

Yes, what people need to know changes all the time, but by extending the learning network to the community that includes the current workforce, the curriculum is more likely to refresh as needed over time. There’s less of chance of culture shock when people move on from PK to college and on to work. It’s 70:20:10 for the younger set.

I think Johnny has a better chance of being happier in this model as the lines between “school” and “life” become further blurred. He was never disinterested in learning, as he was teaching himself all the time. He has more opportunities to participate in and drive his overall learning experience, and more of a chance of making an impact on the world one step at a time.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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