THE AAIE NEW SCHOOL PROJECT
We co-create caring, engaged, and inclusive communities, clearly defined by a common learning language, and a commitment to shared learning values.
Arguably, throughout human history, learning has taken place in the context of groups of people who share information and skills in order to survive and thrive. Schools often glibly refer to themselves as “communities,” and, whether intentionally cultivated as such or not, they are indeed places where people “commune” in order to educate the next generation. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed anew that humans crave community, and they often learn best with and from others. We now know that this communal learning is possible, though challenging, both online and in hybrid formats, in addition to in-person.
Intentionally co-creating caring, engaged, inclusive learning communities is no easy task and requires constant vigilance, creative problem-solving, and perseverance. Similar to organic farms, the learning community ecosystem will thrive only with a compelling vision, shared values, effective leadership, common understanding of interdependent roles, constant creative problem-solving, and a reverence for diversity. The natural world teaches us that organic, biodiverse ecosystems have proven to be resilient and sustainable throughout time. Conversely, industrial-styled agriculture and monocropping require inorganic and ecologically harmful strategies to maximize crops. Schools unfortunately have been created since the nineteenth century with a similar industrial architecture, fostering communities based on top-down power structures, with principles of compliance and control. Learning the world over has suffered as a result.
When co-created and elevated to an organizing principle, a focus on schools as diverse communities can be powerful, particularly their potential impact on the quality of the learning by students and adults within them. While diversity is certainly a strength factor in resilient learning communities, the more diverse the community, the greater the challenge in bridging Erin Meyer's 8 Dimensions of Culture (Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting,Disagreeing,Scheduling). Enlightened and shared leadership is required to bring disparate parties together and creatively solve an endless stream of problems, with a constant focus on maximizing learning and well-being for all.
Rather than being treated as an afterthought or a by-product of schools, proactive targeting of the desired characteristics of a healthy learning community is pivotal. Since the research clearly indicates that both the process and product of learning community construction is hugely beneficial to learning, thoughtful design and constant nurturance is essential. Therefore, co-created, caring, engaged, and inclusive communities with clearly defined learning language and adherence to shared learning values are well worth the effort required to raise and train them.
Healthy learning communities have...
- Collective responsibility/Shared ownership
- Sense of community wholeness
- Inclusiveness of all learners and equity of access
- Shared explicit values
- Continuous monitoring/reflection/iteration
- Diversity of culture and perspective
- Opportunities for communal involvement in design and decisions
- Focus on maximizing learning, according to co-created definitions of learning
- Compassionate, trusting leaders focussed on deep learning and well-being
Intentional opportunities to learn from and with others
- Administration/Board led & controlled
- Sense of community fragmentation/alienation
- Exclusivity of some individuals/groups and barriers to access
- Vague or absent values
- Reticence to change
- Monolithic views and cultures
- Top-down leadership
- Focus on compliance and control according to limited measures of learning
- Opaque and mysterious leadership, focussed ostensibly on easily measurable outcomes like attendance and seat time
- Being told what to do by those in authority
Grace Kerscher - ACS Calvert La Paz -- Jamie Otis - International School of Hamburg -- Maria Inarra - ACS Calvert La Paz
Principle in Action
What does this principle look like in action? The following quotes represent examples for how this principle is manifested in a school.
“It's so special to be part of a class that has discussions like this. We’re not attacking or shielding ourselves with our ideology. We’re just talking about our perceptions, individual, group, or global. Ultimately, sharing these perceptions will enable us to think about change around the world. I have a lot of value for what we are doing here...thinking about small scale versions of what can ultimately be global scale change. To involve myself in that, to watch it happen, to listen to it just as much as I contribute to it...that’s really special.” - 11th grade student, Avenues Online
“Children will come up with brilliant ideas on how to make it work for their groups. In our third grade class, we sat in our circle where we could all see each other and ‘turned-n-talked,’ broke out into small groups, used graphic representations to capture our thinking, and developed a set of principles that we would live by. There were opportunities for all voices to be heard, all students to be involved, and as adults, we were genuinely listening in to understand their thinking. We own these agreements because we co-constructed these principles, and throughout the year we will help each other so that our actions are aligned to our principles. We will reflect on these agreements and may even change them along the way if we need to.” - 3rd Grade Teacher, CMS
“Leadership” is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self- aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads. - Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.
At a recent parent meeting we were asked one question: “If you had to fight for one thing in your child’s life, what would that be?” It is August 2021 and my children are in school after 17 months of online learning due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I did worry about their academic learning, I did wonder how my 3rd grader would enter 4th grade without having all the multiplication tables down… Yet, when thinking about what I would fight for, it was human interaction that quickly surfaced to the top of my mind and the center of my heart. I spoke to other parents that evening and not a single answer related to academics. All responses centered around human interaction, highlighting happiness, kindness, friendship, collaboration, resilience, and freedom. That is what I would truly fight for. Shiara Strauss - Parent of a 2nd Grader and a 4th Grader
“I think that determination to find a truly democratic society and to create the truly beloved community, those are things that can be available to us if we’re willing to work with each other and work with the universe on developing them. They don’t come free and easy. They are tough, tough tasks for us to take on.” - Dr. Vincent Harding, 2011
As inherently social beings, we humans need one another to survive, learn, and thrive, both as individuals and collectively as a species within a global ecosystem. While physically capable of supporting ourselves for a period of time, our healthy growth of mind, body, and spirit is stunted without interaction with others. In order to optimize this fleeting opportunity that we have during what Mary Oliver terms our “wild and precious” lives, we need to commune with others. If we believe that learning implies movement, change, and growth, we must understand and embrace the social conditions that stimulate and support such learning. Principled communities uphold norms of behavior that enable their members to thrive holistically. Each person needs timely guidance and feedback on our respective learning journeys, preferably from people that we respect and trust. Intentionally crafted learning communities, encompassing the other six New School principles optimize learning.
Provocations are intended to be tools to use within a school community to get people thinking creatively and in a generative way about the elements of each of the Principles. As reflective leaders in the change process, we must use fearless inquiry to step out of our comfort zone, examine our current practices, and design approaches for the future. The following questions are designed to prompt conversations within your school community. Your answers to these questions should challenge the status quo. If you are fearful of your answers, it is an indication that you are exploring this principle at a deep level.
- In what ways does our system limit communication, connection and community? What practices no longer serve our learning community?
- To what extent are all of the actions, norms, and policies of our community aligned with our definition of learning?
- What are key levers that we should prioritize to enhance and deepen our school community? What is stopping us from enacting these positive levers, and how can we eliminate these barriers?
- What habits, behaviors, and dispositions are required for this principle to be realized?
- What are the measurable indicators of a healthy, impactful learning community, and how can we systematically gather data to demonstrate our growth in this domain?
- When our learning community is acting optimally, how does it look, sound, and feel?
- What are our blind spots that we must recognize, own, and unpack?
As inherently social beings, we humans need one another to survive, learn, and thrive, both as individuals and collectively as a species within a global ecosystem. While physically capable of supporting ourselves for a period of time, our healthy growth of mind, body, and spirit is stunted without interaction with others. During what Mary Oliver terms our “wild and precious” lives, we need to intentionally choose to commune with others, in order to develop our individual and collective potential. If we believe that learning implies movement, change, and growth, we must understand and embrace the social conditions that stimulate and support such learning.
Principled communities uphold norms of behavior that enable their members to thrive holistically. Though flawed because humans are involved, they are essentially equitable, diverse, inclusive, and just places. Each person needs to feel valued, have an authentic sense of belonging, and be able to recognize his/her greatness as well as the greatness of others. Likewise, community members need timely guidance and feedback on their respective learning journeys, preferably from people that they respect and trust. Intentionally crafted learning communities, encompassing the other six New School principles, optimize learning.
The link below provides a wealth of guidance and tools to support the principle of community. The articles, videos, and podcasts in the link below provide a foundation for deep exploration of this principle, and can be used in faculty meetings, board meetings, leadership retreats, etc.
For each of our NEW SCHOOL Principles, we provide a Pathway that attempts to tell the story of a school on a journey towards putting that principle into practice. These narratives are only approximations, because every school is different and change is not as linear as this represents. It is messy, imperfect, and iterative. To apply the metaphor of a ‘pathway’, it is often one step forward and several steps in reverse. The spirit of this pathway is simply to provide ‘a portrait of possibility’. It offers a picture of what progress might look like, as it can be easier to imagine something if a possible model is provided.
We offer four stages along this journey, for schools to reflect on their current reality and imagine what might be next:
- Thinking about it...What might it look like when your school is “thinking about” the community principle?
- Working on it...What might it look like when your school is “working on” the community principle?
- Living it...What might it look like when your school is “living” the community principle?
- Transforming it...If you get this far along the continuum, what would a transformation of your school’s relationship with the community principle look like in practice? How would you tell that story?
Our drive to develop new ways to think about COMMUNITY is part of our ADAPTIVE CHANGE process, as we reduce our reliance on ‘this is how we’ve always thought about our community’ as the unspoken driver of how we interact with our learning stakeholders. Through engaging all stakeholder groups in co-creating the key elements of our emergent learning culture, we are giving them more self-determining power over their engagement with the learning process. In doing so, we are building the CAPACITY of learners, teachers, parents, leaders and trustees to become more active participants in the shaping of our shared learning culture and therefore our learning community. From the outset of this community building journey, we have been conscious of the need to identify how we would gather and analyze EVIDENCE of our success. As we gather evidence of actual impact relative to our goals we are focussing mainly on qualitative evidence, such as regular focus groups and simple surveys, and we are also engaging in as many informal conversations as we can with our stakeholders...making sense together through conversation. As we build capacity among all stakeholders we are transforming a transactional relationship among stakeholders into a transformational one, really building a learning community in the truest sense. We are beginning to think of our families as ‘learning families’ in our community and we feel closer to them through more mutual understanding. Our early data gathering through focus groups and surveys seem to show that these more dynamic and engaging approaches to learning throughout the community are increasing a sense of individual and collective well-being, a particular emphasis for our school given the stresses of working through the current pandemic. Perhaps the clearest epiphany for us throughout this process was that our shared approaches to learning, with clarity of language and more ownership of learning by all members of our learning community is enriching, even democratizing, the ways in which all learners , student and adult, can learn together. We are encouraged to feel that we are co-creating a fairer, more EQUITABLE learning community, where all learners can thrive on their own terms.