Teachers Are Great at Designing Classrooms. Let’s Get Them Redesigning...

column | Leadership

Teachers Are Great at Designing Classrooms. Let’s Get Them Redesigning Schools.

By Sujata Bhatt (Columnist)     May 22, 2019

Teachers Are Great at Designing Classrooms. Let’s Get Them Redesigning Schools.

Let’s talk about cute for a moment. How many times have you walked into a classroom, say in one of the 88,665 or so elementary schools in the United States, and gasped at the sheer quantity and cuteness of the stuff on the walls?

What teachers accomplish with butcher paper, scissors, tape, staples, and a glue gun is remarkable and worthy of a “Top Chef”-style reality show. Meander around Pinterest for five minutes and you’ll find a rabbit hole of teacher boards, some of which, with seven-digit followers, live in a land of celebrity rather than teacher stats. If you stick around longer, you’ll find pirate themes, “Harry Potter,” thousands of bulletin board ideas and entire forests of butcher-paper tree classrooms.

It’s clear that teachers are hungry to learn from each other and share their creations with each other; one survey of K-8 teachers found that 67 percent used Pinterest weekly for professional purposes.

I would argue that all this decoration is a manifestation of educator creativity in areas where teachers feel they have the freedom to be creative: in the low- to no-stakes design of their classroom walls, doors, and spaces.

Your curriculum may be scripted, your assessment schedule may be locked down, your professional development may be determined by others, but at least you can create adult community with fellow teachers and arrive at the autonomy, mastery and purpose needed to feel fulfilled and professional through creating and sharing your bulletin boards and classroom doors online.

Teachers are Part of the Creative Class

Last month, according to Education Week, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers union, lamented the “micromanagement” and “deprofessionalization of teachers” which, in addition to low pay, is leading to nationwide educator walkouts as well as wholesale departures from the profession itself. Teachers, lacking agency, are, according to Weingarten, not “able to be creative [and] take risks," at least not where it could really make a difference, in collaborating to impact student learning.

In 2012, the nation’s other major teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA) specifically offered a solution for the deprofessionalization Weingarten is referencing. In a 38-page guide titled “Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society,” the NEA called for teachers to tap their creativity. Quoting Daniel Pink, the NEA wrote, “In a world enriched by abundance but disrupted by the automation and outsourcing of white-collar work, everyone must cultivate an artistic sensibility. We may not all be Dali or Degas. But today we must all be designers.”

The NEA was positioning teachers as part of the creative class, which, as anyone who has spent time in classrooms knows, is an accurate description not just of bulletin boards but also of the non-routine, complex, unbounded, minute-by-minute data-gathering and decision-making process that is called teaching.

It’s clear that educator creativity is an enormously underutilized asset. The highly decorated classroom walls are a testament to the creative force that is strong in many teachers.

How might we tap that creativity? How might we link it to a deeper purpose, one that activates the 3.1 million strong public teacher labor force to re-professionalize and claim collective ownership of a much bigger creative challenge: redesigning learning equitably for the 21st century?

School and Systems, not Classrooms, as the Unit of Change

In its guide, the NEA also posed a series of questions under the banner of “Reflections on Creativity.” They asked educators to consider a series of questions around creativity, all centered on infusing it into classroom practices:

  • How can you model creativity and innovation skills for your students?
  • How can you incorporate more creativity and innovation into your lesson plans?
  • How can you and your colleagues work together to improve your pedagogical practices involving innovation and creativity?

These are powerful questions that can enable equally powerful shifts in classroom practice—classroom by individual classroom. However, I would argue that they have an even greater activation potential that extends beyond the classroom. In other words, teachers should use their creative capacities to change their schools and even districts.

As long as we look only at the classroom as the locus of change, we will not arrive at the creative professionalization Randi Weingarten and the NEA have been pointing toward. Each individual teacher will bear the exhausting burden of redesigning their classroom and classroom practices under the same constraints that currently channel creativity into cuteness. To redesign those constraints requires a form of collaborative action that takes schools and school systems as their units of change.

In our work at Transcend, we bring together cohorts of district and charter school-based design teams who activate their creativity to rethink what learning can be in their schools. We have found when funders and systems (i.e., school districts or charter management organizations) make this sort of broader redesign mandate available, educators seize the opportunity.

A teacher in our Excellent Schools New Mexico cohort described the sense of possibility she felt when designing beyond her classroom: “It gives you a space to feel free to imagine and to put those dreams into something real.” This space of imagination is complex, nebulous and unbounded, and similar to the sort of problems taken on by tech workers, designers and consultants.

Educators recognize this, and they also clearly see gaps between the scale at which they’ve focused in the past and the bigger challenges they want to grow toward. They long for training that enables them to master new skills. An educator in our Silicon Schools Fund Bay Area cohort described wanting tips “on how to manage and organize and keep moving forward on a project like this. I need more insights into how to set-up and manage in the way business professionals do.”

The Right Tools for the Job

We have found the skills educators are acquiring to reimagine school fall into three big buckets:

1) skills and processes that grow their capacity to design and implement change;

2) those that grow their culture of innovation; and

3) those that grow the coalition that joins them in the work.

Design thinking processes fall under the first category of supporting capacity; they give educators a repeatable method for identifying pain points and moving into solutioning. Project management and agile processes also fall into this category. Rapid learn-define-build-test cycles of prototyping fall into the second bucket; they create a bias towards action, and encourage data collection and analysis, which many educators have been trained in over the past two decades of education reform, in service of school redesign.

Coalition-building which is crucial to creating inclusive innovation (in contrast to top-down initiatives) as well as to sustaining innovation once it is launched requires its own set of skills, storytelling in particular. Most educators are not trained in making a case for change and sharing the impact of their daily efforts.

Once they learn and apply those skills, we have found that educators quickly adapt them to their problem-solving needs. One of our participants wrote, “We appreciated the structures you provided for us to facilitate the innovations being designed. The empathy interviews, prototyping and piloting and the innovation roadmap process are paving the way to transformation in an intentional manner.”

This change in scale and expanded skill set directly lead to the professionalism Randi Weingarten and the NEA discussed above: “This collaborative is helping me find the passion I had when I first started teaching and motivating me to think bigger and bolder for the future of education,” wrote another participant. “I have not felt this hopeful about my abilities to enact systemic change as an educator in a long time.... In my opinion, everyone in education needs this experience!”

As these educators make clear, for a broader professionalization to happen, teachers need to come together to apply their creativity to a larger, more complex problem: redesigning their schools and the constraints that architect our current, inadequate, unequal form of schooling. In short, they must be given the opportunities to take on a unit of change larger than individual classrooms along with the time, space, upskilling and resources to do so.

We’ve all seen the amazing things teachers can do to improve their classrooms. Now let’s give them a chance to transform our education system.

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