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Challenging Our Assumptions: Finding the Roots of Educational Change

| Stephen Hurley

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.

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Anonymous (not verified)

Expert vs. Novice Teacher

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I am taking a graduate course that is discussing the differences between novice and expert teachers. When I read this article about Mr. Hurley, I could not help to think that he has all the tools that an expert teacher possesses. I love the parallel with roots, and it seems he has a true passion for the profession. I think about daily, monthly and yearly goals as much as possible, and I constantly question my purpose. Maybe I am on my way to being that expert teacher most of us strive to be.

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