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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Challenging Our Assumptions: Finding the Roots of Educational Change

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

My dad is an avid gardener, and, though the passion for planting and nurturing peonies and petunias has not rubbed off on me, I have learned from him a few things about living a richer life. One of the most important of these lessons relates to ways of approaching change. "You've got to know where the roots are," he would say when teaching me how to get rid of unwanted plants, move a shrub, or properly water a tree. "If you don't know where the roots are, you're just guessing!"

Excellent advice for a gardener, but I think there's also a message in those words for those of us dedicated to school reform and educational change. It's fine to talk about more technology in our classrooms, smaller class sizes, new teaching and learning strategies, teacher training, and higher test scores, but few of these discussions get us to the heart of the matter -- the roots of our current system.

Our change initiatives need to begin with a consideration of the many assumptions we make about school -- what it should look like, feel like, and sound like for it to be legitimate. I believe these assumptions are deeply rooted in our own school experiences and, consequently, hold us firmly in place.

For a long time, I've dreamed of creating something different within our publicly funded school system, and I've recently been given the opportunity to realize these dreams by designing a new arts-based initiative for seventh- and eighth-grade students in an elementary school near Toronto. This year, an inaugural class of thirty-four seventh-grade students will join me on a journey to reimagine what it means to say, "I'm going to school!" Through visual arts, drama, dance, music, and media production, we'll explore our mandated curriculum -- and hopefully engage my colleagues in refreshing conversations about school reform and educational change in our district.

Although I immersed myself in as much of the arts-related research as possible while planning this program (and explored the many large- and small-scale art initiatives), I knew I'd eventually have to tackle -- and really understand -- my deeply rooted assumptions about teaching and learning if I wanted to form a truly well-rounded program.

So, as August began to wind slowly toward September, I found myself getting out the shovel, digging for roots, and asking myself the following questions:

  • What kind of physical environment lends itself to the type of teaching and learning I want at the heart of this program?
  • How can new technologies improve our communication with parents, students, and other stakeholders or help me reimagine the way we learn within a classroom?
  • How can relationships within the community be nurtured and grown?
  • In what ways could our program help revitalize connections between school and university?
  • How can an arts-based learning model help us rethink the way we schedule curriculum activities throughout the day?

For years I have dreamed about new ways to conceptualize school. Having someone finally say, "OK -- go and do it" is a little scary, and the resulting process is extremely time intensive, but here I am, three weeks into our program, and loving every minute of it.

Over the next several months, I invite you to join me as I continue to dig at the roots of my teaching self and, hopefully, grow a program that will resonate with others on some level. I would appreciate your insights, feedback, and any experiences you'd like to share that might help me along my way.

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The title of this posting caught my attention; change is what my school is needs to be about right now. What Hurley says here makes a great deal of sense: that it is necessary to deconstruct the current schoool system in order to find out what is at the root. Once the roots have been examined and, if necessary, replanted, then we can grow up from that new beginning. His analysis of the five ideas that need to be challenged can provide a basis for discussion at our high school. What should the physical environment look like to facilitate learning? How can technology assist in communication with students and parents? How can we link the school in partnership with another organization that can help it grow? ...I'm not sure how an "arts-based model" fits with my school, but I know there's more to learn.

Kayon Jagganarine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The title of this blog was very captivationg, "Finding the Roots of Educational Change". You have to find out the root of the problem before you can proceed to make the change. There is a reason for everything and every action has a cause. I believe that my school district would benenfit for the advice that Hurley presents in this blog: "Excellent advice for a gardener, but I think there's also a message in those words for those of us dedicated to school reform and educational change. It's fine to talk about more technology in our classrooms, smaller class sizes, new teaching and learning strategies, teacher training, and higher test scores, but few of these discussions get us to the heart of the matter -- the roots of our current system."

I agree with Hurley's change initiatives: what it should look like, feel like, and sound like for it to be legitimate. I believe these assumptions are deeply rooted in our own school experiences and, consequently, hold us firmly in place.

Kathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Finding the "roots of education and change" is imperative if we want to move forward in education. While working on my masters I have been doing a lot of reading about education and what we can do to make it better. I think it is very important to look back to the source before we move on. This posting gave me a new way of looking at education.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are many problems with what is going on, and not going on in our schools today. There are also solutions Check out this movie trailer for a documentary on our education system coming out in December/January called "Flunked" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPDOPF2IY5g

Bonnie Bracey-Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Those of us who come to education from minority cultures usually hand over our children to be educated. The teachers know we think. The kids need to learn. But there is often a lack of understanding about role models, interventions, exposure, and the kind of nurtuting support that both the teachers who are minority need, and the needs of the children.

Probably most people don't think, those of the majority of the networks that minorities don't have acess to that are of power. The educational networks for many years have been mostly white and fair, because it has always been that way.

That does not mean that the people in them are prejudiced, but it has taken time for a little infusion of color to be in the places of power in the educational circles, which is why the Naitonal Science Foundation created the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering or CEOSE.

If I asked you to speak of minority science people, those in math, or engineering or technology, few people would have names at the ready.

"It is not about the total number of scientists and engineers the nation may or may not need. It is easy to get distracted about whether the demand for science, engineering, math, and technological work is greater or less than the supply. It IS about including a larger proportion of women, under-represented minorities and persons with disabilities in the scientific workforce, no matter the size of that workforce. Whatever the numbers turn out to be we need a robust and varied mix and that means broadening participation,"
Joshen Bordogna, Deputy Director, NSF

The expectations, knowledge and understanding of the teachers, of the learning community, and of the parents weigh very heavily. Children and teachers need to see role models, mentors, and have well trained teachers who have mastered deep content.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Melanie Ferris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Even though you did not become a typical gardener of plants, you have become a gardener of children. Think about this: Every child is a seed waiting to be filled with knowledge. Each seed is watered by the educator with knowledge. Some may grow slow others may grow fast. But, in the end it depends on what type of nurture the seed (student) receives that will determine their growth.

With new technology in place each seed will receive adequate sunlight!

Corinne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To be part of such an original system would be exciting as an educator. While most of us are not in the position to be part of such a significant change, we can be a catalyst of change with our own students. Constant reflection and purposeful change are the hallmarks of an effective teacher. What positive changes are happening in your classroom or school? What made you see the need for a change and what steps did you take? Our district saw technology as the means to bring all students to the forefront of science and math initiatives. The district has poured a great deal of money into technology. Smartboard stations and portable laptop stations are available to every student in our school. This is exciting and motivating for the students. My challenge is to find constructive, meaningful ways to integrate the technology into the entire curriculum. I am joining my students in becoming more literate in this new field. Please share about the changes happening in your classroom.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi,
Sounds like a great adventure that you are on. I will be interested in keeping up with your progress. I love your analogy- it really says it all!

Kevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kudos to Mr. Hurley, I think that you are on the right track towards creating a valuable educational experience for your 7th and 8th grade students. As an art teacher, I think it's about time we begin to focus on the arts. I believe that our main challenge today is to get students to think at higher levels and have an understanding of where they fit into their world and community. I believe that the arts provide students with a stimuli rich environment as well as an atmosphere that emphasizes communal learning. The act of creating builds self esteem within our students and makes learning relevant to them. It is time for an educational change, a shift towards the arts.
I'm looking forward to hearing more about your curriculum and your students progress.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was quite impressed by Mr. Hurley's article about educational change. Too many times we gripe about the change that needs to take place, but are unwilling to take it upon ourselves to make that change. I love the idea of using drama, dance, and media to enrich the educational experience. I have always believed that the fine arts are an extremely important part of any child's education. I am curious to see how this change works out for Mr. Hurley and his students. It has reignited the fire in me to look into how I can change things in my school system!

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