George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
A photo of a pear on an eraser, on a chalkboard shelf.

The days of Robin Williams standing on top of desks ripping out pages of a textbook in Dead Poets Society have long passed. The notion that the teacher is the "sage on the stage," as Williams' character demonstrated so nobly and inspirationally that film, has shifted as teaching has migrated toward the "guide on the side," a model prompted by the proliferation of technology and the desire and need to differentiate and personalize learning for students.

The 3D Teacher

Williams portrayed master teacher John Keating (personifying Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"), who inspired, motivated, and reached different students through one-directional teaching. The quiet, introverted Todd Anderson, played by Ethan Hawke, struggled to find his voice in this extrovert-dominated classroom. Yet Keating didn't let this student disappear. Instead, he challenged and pushed Todd to scream his words with pride. And because Keating did teach and reach, Todd transformed and discovered his voice.

In today's classroom, however, no longer is teaching one-directional or delivered just from teacher to student. Teaching has busted through the walls of the classroom. The profession has evolved and changed in the last several years to the point where teachers now find themselves teaching face-to-face in the classroom, in blended environments outside of the classroom, and conferencing one-on-one with students to further differentiate and personalize the learning experience. And with the explosion in neuroscience and the broadening of our understanding about how we learn, this new knowledge of the learner has placed responsibility on schools and teachers to meet each student's individual needs.

Essentially, teaching has become three-dimensional.

Culture and Strategy

Yet the structure of school remains much the same as we saw it in Dead Poets Society, with set class periods and singular classes bound within a discipline. This puts significant pressure on teachers as they try to squeeze content, skills, and enduring understandings inside of a school day that is more tightly packed, given the 3D nature of teaching today. And teachers are increasingly breaking out of silos and working in teams, sharing a course, or working across a grade-level team to ensure consistency of experience and quality.

The layers of teaching today are deep and complex. How can schools begin making sense of the sea change in education while preserving school culture, supporting the precious resource that is their teaching staff, meeting the needs of students, and staying current and relevant? It's not easy. If schools move too fast, they risk losing the teachers. If schools move too slowly, they risk losing the students. It's a delicate balance.

The illustrious Peter Drucker famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Because culture in each school is unique, it's difficult to generalize and apply a standard approach to manage the levers of change. However, schools need to acknowledge the changing demands of the profession, educate students and parents on these changes, and set aside time and space for teachers to adapt, grow, and develop.

Grant Lichtman's #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education attempts to provide a path for schools. He visited 65 schools across the country in 89 days and captured the stories of their success with the changing matrix of learning in a book that tackles the major themes of rapid change and innovation taking place right now in U.S. schools. Perhaps the most important insight that Grant highlights is time:

And then we need to give our teachers the resources, chiefly time, to retool. Our adult-leaders have grown up in a system of education that rewards a certain type of behavior, and we are now asking them to change. That takes time -- especially time to work together with their colleagues to develop confidence, learn new teaching skills, and overcome a natural fear of change. I found that schools that do these two things -- paint the picture and provide resource support for change -- are able to imagine, design, map, and build a dramatically new and improved learning environment in a remarkably short period of time.

4 Key Questions for Schools

Bill Aulet writes in Tech Crunch:

Company culture, a concept pioneered by Edgar Schein, is the operationalizing of an organization's values. Culture guides employee decisions about both technical business decisions and how they interact with others. Good culture creates an internal coherence in actions taken by a very diverse group of employees.

1. Time

How a school organizes its daily schedule is a statement of its values about teaching and learning. Is there adequate planning time for teachers, especially if collaboration is expected? Are there extended class periods that encourage deep thinking and engagement? Is there time set aside for students' affective development through advisory programs?

2. Budget

How a school allocates its resources through budgeting is also a statement of values. There's a saying: "If it's not in the budget, it doesn't exist." What a school includes in and excludes from a budget reveals its values.

3. Program

Is the school internally or externally focused? Does it review its program to evaluate whether it's keeping pace with the changing world? Does the school take time to consider the famous John Dewey quote: "If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our students of tomorrow"?

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University is a fascinating document to read, as a major institution conducts a comprehensive review of programming, questions its own assumptions, and challenges itself to look into the future and modify programming to allow for flexibility and adaptability.

4. Students

Does the school include students in discussions about direction? Students are wonderfully candid and often share the most insightful comments about their experiences in the classroom and the school community.

Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World provides the opportunity for the reader to view school through the lens of different students as they experience an international school setting, which then gives insight into the American educational system.

What does your school look like through the eyes of an international student? And what other questions are you asking about your school, as teaching transforms right before our eyes?

Was this useful? (1)

Comments (11) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (11) Sign in or register to comment

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I've been teaching since 1988, so I've been a part of what I think are some of the most radical changes in education. As recently as 2008, I was a bit grumpy about the idea of technology in my classroom, mainly because of how little tech I had and how unreliable it was. Pursuing an MA in Ed Tech completely revolutionized my own attitude and my teaching. I am happy to see my district (in many ways led by my school) making big leaps forward in bringing our teachers and classrooms closer to the 3D teaching you describe. But our biggest frustration? TIME. As you say, if we are to collaborate and incorporate new methods and technology, we need time to do that. Our district has provided us with some great PD training, but continues to resist our requests for scheduled time for us to digest what we've learned and work on bringing it to our students. Yes, TIME. That's what we need.

Cesar Elizi's picture

Interesting article. I just thought there's a nice film to counterpoint Dead poets: Monalisa smile (2003). Set in 1953, the film follows Julia Roberts teaching history of Art to young women in Massachusets. Unlike John Keating, Julia faces students who get to the classroom already knowing the content, characteristics of different art movements, showing us lesson (1): the teacher is no longer the only SOURCE of knowledge. Later, she tries a new strategy by adding to the syllabus new, current questions of her time, such as 'what's art?', for which the students are not prepared, which leads to lesson (2): ours is a time when every claim to knowledge can and should be QUESTIONED. But most importantly, while Keating seems almost omniscient about his students identities, dreams and what they should do and how, Julia doesn't know what to do with her own life, doesn't understand that her personal goals and notions about right and wrong do not apply to young Joan Brandwyn, who chooses to marry instead of going to Law school. In other words, lesson (3) reminds us that all our concepts, all our VALUES shouldn't be seen as rock hard truths, but instead we should see them for what they are: only human, perhaps, as already pointed out by Nietzsche, too human...

JessiT's picture

Hi Matt,

I liked this list of yours, but I feel like your list of question lacks a crucial one. It seems to me that schools need to be more mindful of the needs of staff, and a critical component of that is asking how staff are doing and what can be done to help improve and maintain staff morale. Any career in education is bound to come with stress and challenges, and I think a lot of school communities assume that staff members will resolve these issues alone. However, I think there is often a lack of support or outlets for stressed out teachers and other school professionals. How do you think schools can address that, and with whom do you think this responsibility lies?

Kevin Costa's picture

Matt, thank you for a succinct article that identifies the critical issues facing schools seeking to evolve in meaningful ways for students and faculty. This is a key conversation for all schools, to be sure. I think what is most important here is that financial support -- while very important -- isn't necessarily as important as time: time for faculty to collaborate, time for classes to be laboratories for students to learn deeply, time for reflection. In some way, the biggest monetary gift is still less valuable than finding minutes in the day! Thanks!

Matt Levinson's picture
Matt Levinson
Head of School, University Prep

Hi Jess,

I think school leaders can take the time to meet individually and in small groups with staff to hear how things are going, set vision and direction together, and also school leaders can seek ways to be transparent with communication through all aspects of school life.

And, the entire team can take ownership of these conversations, so that responsibility does not rest with just one person or small group.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

"I think there is often a lack of support or outlets for stressed out teachers and other school professionals. How do you think schools can address that, and with whom do you think this responsibility lies?"


There are different levels of stress for teachers and also different kinds. I have a few close friends in school, so talking to them always helps. Usually a good morning laugh can go a long way.

My former curriculum coordinator had an office in my school. Every morning, around the coffee maker, we would talk shop, argue, laugh, curse, tell stories. To this day, the best learning community ever and a great stress reliever.

Now we have "PLCs": the great buzz word. Our school provides one half day a month to meet. There are many different kinds of PLCs in my school. They're not necessarily grade level. I took the opportunity to create a PLC that I thought was worth creating (freedom can relieve stress). I created a PLC with the special area teachers (Gym, Art, Music, Library) to work on integration of content/topics. I just love the time with them. Love can relieve stress.

You can also find professional communities out of school that will boost your energy level and bust tension. (NWP, NCTE, etc...)

Hope this helps a little.


Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

Love the Drucker quote, and the Dewey one. There are some interesting paradoxes here: We want "today's" teaching to be simultaneously more technological and more humanistic; we want teachers to step aside and let students either plod though or zoom through a computerized learning program, moving at whatever pace suits them, and at the same time we want teachers to know their students as people, and know what students need (as Keating did) in order to feel inspired, energized, and motivated to stretch themselves. That kind of knowing is not something the computer program is equipped to do. And what, indeed, about culture -- what about values that should be questioned (ripped out of the book) or affirmed (shouted to the rafters)? If we are ready to banish teachers from the front of the classroom, how do we still honor their place in the creation of culture: their modeling for students of how to question or appreciate, how to affirm or contest, how to love or reject the institutions, artifacts, and works of humankind?

JessiT's picture

Hi Gaetan,

I love that you were able to choose your own PLC; our school asks us to meet by department and grade level. It seems like having more ownership over your PLC would be a great way to identify other staff that you connect and collaborate well with.

I agree with you that it helps to have people that help you decompress, and I have some friends at school that I can vent to and who let me relax. But, I don't think that's true for all of my colleagues, and when we're all feeling so stressed, I think many of them separate themselves. So, I worry a little about how to reach those types when times are particularly stressful.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Great thoughts, Gloria! My first response is that in all we do as teachers, there needs to be a balance. We need to balance screen time work with face-to-face work; we need to balance teacher-in-front work with kids-in-charge work; we need to balance teachers modeling with students owning. Just like I don't want my students to spend all of their class time just writing or reading or having discussions, we shouldn't expect students to do all their learning via computer programs or teacher lectures. Access to online learning provides endless opportunities for students to explore and learn on their own, but in no way can those online resources ever match the personal, face-to-face power of the individual teacher. The beauty of this, to me, is that the classroom should never be a boring place. We have far too many varieties of ways our students can learn!

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I was at Educon 2.7 this past weekend, and there were a lot of discussions about how can we change the culture in a school to make the changes that will better serve the kids (and also energize the adults in the building as well). Culture of a school is the hidden curriculum just under the surface, and adjusting the expected norms is stressful and difficult. What's amazing is that it is not expensive in terms of dollars and cents, but it does take time, consistency, leadership and buy in to make it happen.

I think the challenge is to find one or two things to start with, say turning homeroom in high school into a true advisory, where that teacher acts as the first mediator for kids with any challenges they may be having- sort of in loco parentis. If we don't start with kids trusting at least one adult in the building to have their best interests at heart, how do we expect to accomplish everything else on the educational agenda? I certainly wish my son's school had more of this approach to its morning advisory.

Where else do you think we can start to make headway with school culture? Clearly schedule is another that speaks volumes about what we value, as you talk about above.. Diana Laufenberg (here's a link to her TED talk) has done a lot of work on this, and writes about it regularly on her blog.

I'd also be interested in finding out more about how we can get kids involved in changing the culture, in positive ways.

Part of it is that I think more teachers need to visit schools like Science Leadership Academy and see what is possible, because that is the only way they will see, feel and realize the status quo is not only not acceptable, but keeping on in the same manner is actually painful when you know schools can be so much more electric with learning, by allowing teachers to truly explore knowledge with kids who can't wait to get in the mix and try new things.


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.