This is our new year celebration: a change of season, the end of the summer holidays and time for the school year to start – sparkling classrooms, welcoming displays, class lists, new friendships… and boundless hope that this year will be a positive learning journey. For many kids, that means going from good to great achievement; for others can be a significant breakthrough with stronger foundations being formed so that learning starts to take hold. For another group, it is an ongoing search for the rhythm that will connect them to our learning places and us to them. It’s exciting and daunting all at once to open the doors in September for one of the most important rituals and asset building commitments any society can make. It’s “back to school” season in the malls, but it’s forward to learning for our hopes and dreams.
With all of that hope, we need to consider how we have shaped the learning experience to help those dreams come true. I recently presented at a session where I asked the participants to consider which of the following thinkers from the past continues to have the most profound influence on today’s schools. The three choices I provided were Frederick Winslow Taylor, B.F. Skinner and Abraham Maslow. The simple question was whose DNA is most evident in the structure, culture and operating norms of schools today?
Is it Frederick Winslow Taylor, who deserves some consideration, given that we have put so much effort into achieving efficiencies and into standardization/quality control? Everything from school timetables, to curriculum & assessment, to the ringing bell summoning students and teachers to their work stations is testament to our efficiency drive. We have done a remarkable job of fine-tuning the school system to maximize standardization, to set parameters based on hours and minutes, days of instruction and bookends for learning. While there are some benefits, there are substantial problems with all of that.
B.F. Skinner has also had a profound impact on schools, families, our justice system and all facets of society. Our memory of schooling and its history over 150 years is replete with hierarchical relationships based on compliance and control/reward and punishment. It was what we knew/It was what we did. A behaviourist approach – underpinned by unquestioned authority/obedience has been around for a long time, including but not limited to the schoolhouse. It has its limitations. A foundation built on exerting external controls doesn’t create the kind of environment where kids learn to thrive.
But what of Maslow and his pyramid shown here, starting with a foundation of basic life needs and building from there?
Today, we know a lot more about the intellectual, social and emotional development of the child than was ever understood by past generations. This relatively new learning is essential given how we are experiencing increased diversity in our classrooms. We also know there are students who are expected to engage and succeed at the cognitive level (at a pre-determined time – thank you Mr. Taylor) without having the necessary growth experiences and supports at the preceding steps in the hierarchy. It’s essential we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can create optimal learning conditions if our hightest priorities continue to be system efficiencies or to old school behaviourism?
There’s work to be done in this area. While lots of schools are well along the road to reshaping learning cultures, there are other places that are more Taylor and Skinner than Maslow. We haven’t yet managed to fully focus on what kids need rather than to perpetuate a system that was based on other priorities. It is a work in progress – meant both ways. Here’s a brief video clip to inspire that journey: http://dalailamacenter.org/educate-heart/watch-video
We can also reference and borrow from the Olympic Games motto of Faster, Higher, Stronger. It isn’t a directive or a command, but a shared aspiration – a beacon to guide our path, a challenge to which we can aspire. What’s our schoolhouse version of Faster, Higher, Stronger and how do we help every learner achieve that?
We might consider Maslow’s Hierarchy and particularly the high bar of self-actualization (personal growth and fulfillment) as our own version of Faster, Higher Stronger. It might be stated in a commitment like Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day, and we now have a much clearer understanding of what it takes to get there. As the opening bell rings, let’s take a look at how our schoolhouse shapes its structures, cultures and norms to meet that test. As with all important questions in education, it isn’t simple or easy – just essential.