Educational skyscrapers

A Skyscraper in Hong Kong

Photo by Andreas via flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Think of a large office building that was constructed in the 1950s. It was built with the best technical and artistic understanding of the time, both to please the eye (possibly) and to be functional (primarily).

It’s taking up highly valuable real estate in a location that everyone wants to be and build. It’s kind of an eyesore now, unless you’re exceptionally nostalgic. It’s been maintained fairly well, including some paint, new windows, a fresh roof, and so on.

But all around it in that costly area we see that newer, better buildings have sprung up. They are feats of engineering, testaments to materials science, and visions of artistic grandeur. They are massive edifices that reach high upwards, dwarfing the quaint neighbour from a time that is dimly, though fondly, remembered.

We have two choices.

We can continue to give that tiny building a face-lift, replacing the carpet or changing the fixtures. Or we can rebuild, keeping the parts that make it a functional building while applying our new understanding and skills to an improved design.

That new building will look and feel dramatically different. There will be more space, more options, more possibilities for its use. It will still be a building, and it will still have the same basic purpose, but it won’t be a barrier to progress the way the aging structure is.

Most importantly, perhaps, are the windows: the new building will be much more transparent.

This is education.

We currently have that old building in Ontario. Let’s stop replacing broken tiles and repainting the paneling, and let’s talk about how to rebuild.

If-Then: are we thinking about it backwards?

I was working with a small group of big thinkers today. We were trying to formulate an “If-Then” statement: “If we [take some action] then [we will see this desirable result].”

Tarmo Poldmaa (@TarmoPoldmaa) was one of those thinkers. At one point, as we struggled with this [surprisingly difficult] task, he mused aloud, saying something like, “Are we looking at this backwards? Instead of saying, “If we take this action, we’ll see this result,” should we be saying, “We want this result; what actions must we take to get there?” (Note: I’m heavily paraphrasing to remove the context.)

At first I thought, No, that’s the same thing written the opposite way.

Then I realized it’s not the same.

I had just finished a conversation with another teacher about how we can’t change one facet of our practice and honestly expect a dramatic improvement in student engagement. There are too many separate problems which are contributing to the common symptom of disengagement; removing any one of those problems can’t be enough (although it can help).

So Tarmo’s thinking is really important here. Instead of fooling ourselves into believing that a single change can correct this issue, we should perhaps try to grasp the larger picture. We look instead to the end goal and determine what conditions need to be in place and what actions we need to take to achieve that goal.

To be clear: the If-Then structure is still valuable for a single action or group of similar actions, but it won’t be enough to describe solutions to a multi-faceted, complex problem. Unless your “If” has a lot of “ands”.