Reflections on the Power of Place

In August of 2017, the school building that I previously called home exploded and collapsed as a result of a gas leak, leaving two dead, many more injured and a building in ruin. The destruction also left the institution itself in need of a temporary home; rebuilding will take years, considering that a month later mere entrance into the still-standing portions of the building is limited primarily to federal and local investigators.  Many people were affected by this tragedy. The families of those killed will begin the school year with a significant and awfully difficult void in their lives. The walking wounded face new realities and are just starting the process of adjusting to a new normal. The faculty have worked tirelessly in seeking a building in which they can being the year, not to mention the tremendous effort undertaken to make that building feel welcoming. Finally, students and parents are coming to terms with the fact that the long-term consequence of this change is still unpredictable.

As a former teacher at Minnehaha Academy, I am part of a group of people for whom the place was all we had left. No longer being involved in the day-to-day operations and interactions with students, and no longer engaging in the planning and execution of the school’s mission (in any substantive way), has left me with a keen sense of loss. My old classroom has been reduced to rubble. Gone, too, are any artifacts or tangible remnants of my time there. Of course the memories remain, but memories can be tricky things. When unsubstantiated by empirical evidence, they can fade quickly. And so I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on the power of place and recognizing that when it comes to a schools identify, place matters.

In the wake of the explosion and building collapse, I heard a number of people say, “It’s just a building. Buildings can be rebuilt.” I respect this sentiment. I also suspect that it is a common way to cope with tragedies like this - a way of lifting a burden to provide relief and hasten the healing. With that said, I also disagree. To me, my classroom was not just a room, and that school was not just a building. The power of a place is that it acts as a trigger, for better or worse. As just one of many possible examples, consider the way a person might feel when walking into their childhood home after a long time away – you could imagine someone saying, “It all came back.” Emotions and memories and even routines and customs can all be tied to place. Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it is horrible, but it is hard to deny the truth of it all. As a high school teacher, I experienced it often.  Long after specific teachers had moved on, students would often return to poke their head into rooms and other places to experience the trigger that doing so engenders. Place has the power to unearth. In terms of a school, then, the place itself can unearth inspiration, provide renewed motivation, generate reflection, and even move us to reconnect with people. In that sense, everything that was lost in the collapse of my old school in August is hard to capture and put into words – and rebuilding cannot, and will not, have the same effect. Perhaps this is why former students have been flocking to the site of the explosion in recent weeks –not just to pay tribute to the people who lost their lives, but also to see the place itself one last time before it is razed.

It is possible that someone reading this might say, “It’s not the building, it’s the people in the building that make a school” And I get that. Faculty, staff and students play the most significant role in all of this. But I would encourage us to recognize the “both/and” nature of any discussion centered on school identity. We cannot underestimate the power of place.  And in this moment, for the Minnehaha Academy community, that place itself meant quite a bit.

A New Approach to Syllabi

What do empathy and design have in common?  I'll answer with another question: How many times have you picked something up - a book, an electronic device, the directions for assembling a piece of IKEA furniture - and found it poorly organized, confusing to use or utterly unintelligible?  This certainly happens on a semi-frequent basis in my home.  And I wonder if you too curse the designer or mumble a few choice words that would make your mother blush?  

Situations like this are the result of unempathic design (though I will admit that, at times, they are also the product of my own stupidity).  What do I mean? The designer failed to understand how you would feel with their creation in your hands; they didn't anticipate your needs or questions. To be clear, every thing has some design element to it.  The text you read, the car you drive, and the box of crackers you purchased at the supermarket were all designed by someone.  The building in which you live and the city in which it is situated all had a designer too, for better or worse.  That's the thing about design - it can be done well or done poorly but, either way, it's still design. And in my opinion, poor design is that which is unempathic.

Here's another way to put it: Poor design fails to recognize the relationship between utility and significance.  In his bestselling book, A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink (2006) notes that design is essentially "utility enhanced by significance" (p.70).  An item is most valuable and effective when it transcends functionality and begins to create an emotional connection with its user.  That is empathic product composition - a design philosophy that understands the user well enough to anticipate needs and meet them in a way that appeals to their senses on a level beyond mere utility.  Empathic design, therefore, is generative; it creates a connection.

So what does this have to do with syllabi? 

In re-reading Daniel Pink's book, I was inspired to change my approach for at least one of the courses I'm teaching this fall.  As a test case, I chose SSED 331 Teaching Elementary and Middle School Social Studies. Most of my previous syllabus design had been focused on utility.  I have tried only to communicate the necessary details (e.g. objectives and graded elements) without any attention paid to how the syllabus would be read, used or perceived by users.  I also failed to realize the power of helping students connect with the ethos of a course from the very first day (something that I now believe a design-forward syllabi can do).  My design approach had been quite unempathic.  And so I tried a full redesign of the SSED 331 syllabus.

Below is an image of the first page of the syllabus as it previously existed, accompanied by a new design (click to enlarge).

So what is it that I really hope to accomplish?  Is this simply a gimmick designed (pardon the pun) to momentarily set myself apart? Perhaps. Pink (2006) certainly acknowledges the idea that design is a form of differentiation. But that isn't the objective. The goal is an empathic, user-friendly design that also connects utility with significance.  All the information from the original syllabus has been retained, and so the utility is certainly present.  But there's something more.  Have you ever been drawn to book or music album because of the cover art? Does wine with a cool label taste just a bit better to you? Have you ever chosen a certain seat in a coffee shop because of the view from a particular table? Have you ever walked into an art museum, connected with a piece and been inspired by it?

My hope is that an aesthetically-pleasing syllabus connects students to the opportunities the course provides and not just the grade they can earn.  My hope is that an intentionally-designed syllabus draws my students closer to understanding not just the utility of the class, but the significance of it as well. My hope is that an empathically-designed syllabus anticipates the needs of students so that they can move beyond the logistics of the course to focus on the content.  My hope is that, from the very first day, students can get a sense of the spirit and atmosphere of the class just by looking at the syllabus.  Is it possible that a syllabus can do all of this? Perhaps it is a lofty and idealistic desire.  But hey, I'm a teacher...and I know from experience that pursuing the unlikely isn't always a waste of time when students are involved. 

The Danger of Treating Teaching as a Form of Service

This past year, retired four-star general turned Yale professor Stanley McChrystal began pushing for a new culture of national service to take root in America.  To that end, he suggested that several common denominators form the foundation of a national service program – including the notion that service must involve a firm commitment for a specified period of time (in his mind, at least one year).  This sort of sustained service implies full-time involvement and sincere dedication of such a variety that, when undertaken on a large scale, could certainly bend the selfish will of American culture toward service.  McChrystal has said that he will know a new culture has taken root “when a solider stops a teacher in a train station and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’”

For years, Teach for America (TFA) has been lauded as a national model of nonpartisan service in the field of education. In its literature, TFA uses rhetoric centered on justice, equity and opportunity to move students from elite universities to serve as teachers in low-income communities for a specified term of two years.  To fill these positions, Teach for America recruits “a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement” in the hope that their service will fuel long-term impact on the landscape of American education. In the years since its creation, TFA alumni have received countless commendations and accolades for their work; these individuals have certainly been thanked and even praised for their service as teachers.

Nonetheless, criticism has followed on the heels of this praise. Recent data mined from three large-scale, longitudinal studies conducted in Houston, Texas and New York City by a group of respected researchers found that teachers entering the classroom without full preparation are significantly less effective than fully-prepared beginning teachers.  Otherwise stated, teacher training seems to matter; content expertise and general giftedness do not compensate for a lack of training.

The abovementioned data has significant ramifications for our understanding of the relationship between teaching and service.  Specifically, it should force us to ask the question, “What happens when service is detrimental to those being served?”

Consider the somewhat oxymoronic concept of “orphanage tourism”, wherein those looking to satiate their conscience use their vacation time to volunteer at institutions for parentless boys and girls rather than hit the beach.  Such tourists undoubtedly depart feeling pretty good about their service.  On the other side of this exchange, however, the orphans are often exploited as do-good tourists serve for a brief period of time, only to leave the children heartbroken upon their departure.  These children don’t need service – they need consistency, reliability and stability.

Teaching is no different.  No matter how well-intentioned, temporary teachers who are uncommitted to the profession are inevitably ineffective. In the case of Teach for America, a constant turnover of new teachers into low-income schools does not change the landscape. This form of service is akin to orphanage tourism and does nothing to further TFA’s stated mission.  In fact, as previously referenced, it may exacerbate the problem.   Truly, treating teaching as a form of service makes American education worse, not better.   


Enough About Finland, What About Canada?

According to data released last week, students in Shanghai are the best in the world when it comes to math, reading and science.  This is no surprise.  For years, Americans have conceded that Asian nations such as China, Japan and South Korea simply do a better job of educating their students.  This concession is typically accompanied by references to the cultural differences that we feel result in an unhealthy dose of over-education. Otherwise stated, we are quick to dismiss applying the successful education strategies of many Asian nations on the grounds that they are simply too different from us. 

On the other hand, injecting Finland into any conversation about fixing American education is now the trendy thing to do.  Finland fascinates because it is more similar to the United States than the aforementioned Asian countries. Nonetheless, its lack of socio-economic and racial diversity makes Finland an easy target for naysayers who wish to explain away its success and avoid generalizing its strategies in a global context.  But what about Canada? 

As a nation, Canada spends less money on education than the United States (in terms of both portion of GDP and percentage of total government spending), yet it has managed to routinely place itself as the other top non-Asian country ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) through their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) - the same organization that ranked students in Shanghai as first in the world.  Furthermore, Canada is just as diverse as the United States, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Economic Research.  So why isn’t anyone talking about the Canadian education system as we search for solutions to the flaws in our own? 

 To be clear, Canada is a relative newcomer to the top of the international rankings.  It arrived only after taking two very specific steps to ensure that its populace is among the best educated in the world.

First, Canada has adopted a high degree of selectivity in choosing and credentialing teachers; becoming a teacher in Canada is relatively difficult.  It is, therefore, no surprise that this selectivity has yielded a unique culture around the education field, wherein teaching is among the most desirable and revered of occupations.  Widely cited scholarship on Canadian education notes that applicants to teachers colleges are usually in the top thirty-percent of their university cohorts.  Ironically, those who are not granted admittance to a Canadian teachers college often seek their training in America, where seemingly anyone can get credentialed in an a field that is haunted by the philosophy, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”.

 Second, Canadian success in education is very much a function of equalized and equitable funding. The OECD notes that Canadian provinces retain a certain amount of money to equalize funding in poorer districts with insufficient tax bases. Furthermore, equitable funding from provinces to districts also comes in the form of grants provided to meet district-specific challenges in special education. This is the opposite of many states in America, where unequal and inequitable funding schemes are the norm.  For example, in the United States, the spending on students at predominantly white, wealthy schools is sometimes two times that of schools attended primarily by students of color from low income families.

So enough about Finland, why isn’t anyone talking about Canada?  We are separated from Finland by a great expanse of water, and our socio-cultural differences seem to further divide us – both of which make it easy to  explain-away their educational gains as inapplicable in the United States, just like many of the previously discussed Asian nations.  Canada is much harder to explain away; America is arguably more similar to it than any other country in the world.  Yet implementing the strategies utilized in Canada would require a cultural shift regarding the status of teaching as a profession in this country, as well as a significant reorganization of priorities. This is why no one seems to be talking about Canada.  This is also why we should be.