Sam Chaltain: To (Re)Design School, We Need New Metaphors. Let's Start With These Five.

I spend most of my waking hours in schools of the present that are working to recalibrate themselves into schools of the future. Across those experiences, I’ve observed some larger patterns to which we are all beholden:

The contours of global citizenship are shifting.

The barrier between man and machine is shrinking.

And the time it will take to undo the human damage to the natural world is running out.

Amidst so many uncertainties, what is the future path we must traverse? What will our students need to know, believe and do in order to add value to such a rapidly changing world? And how will our schools summon the professional courage to shift their practices in order to better support the personal growth of each new generation of young people?

This is the crux of our challenge. And I believe we won’t succeed until we retire the two dominant educational metaphors of the past one hundred years: the assembly line and the tabula rasa.

At best, they no longer serve us.

At worst, they actively prevent us from reimagining the structure and purpose of school.

The word metaphor combines two Greek words — meta, which means over and above, and pherein, to bear across. Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

Consequently, a new era requires a new way of thinking. And based on what I have observed in some of the world’s leading schools and communities over the past two decades, these five metaphors for school (re)design feel like the right place to start:

1. SCHOOL AS MURMURATION

For more than a century, we have unconsciously accepted an endless stream of assumptions about what school requires:

Subjects and departments.

Fixed curricula.

Grades.

Transcripts.

Credit Hours.

All of these structures have presupposed a fixed path for young people to follow.

For now, that path remains a viable one for many young people to pursue. Gaze a little further out, however, and you will see that the landscape is shifting — away from the notion of a singular path, and towards a much more elastic understanding of how each person can add value to the world.

This will require a new metaphor for how we think about the structure and purpose of school — away from the mechanistic notion of an assembly line, and towards something more emergent, inextricable, and alive.

Knowing this, how might we reimagine the spaces in which learning occurs so that the movement and flow of human bodies is closer to the improvisatory choreography of a murmuration of starlings than the tightly orchestrated machinery of a factory assembly line?

Indeed, what would a murmuration of student interest and passion look like in practice? What would it engender?

2. SCHOOL AS CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

For too long, we have assumed that the purpose of a formal education was to arrive at a point of certainty about the world, and one’s place in it.

In the modern world, however, no one person or perspective can give us the answers we need. “Paradoxically,” as Margaret Wheatley has written, “we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.

“It is very difficult to give up our certainties—our positions, our beliefs, our explanations. These help define us; they lie at the heart of our personal identity. Yet curiosity is what we need.”

Knowing this, how can we craft new experiences and learning spaces that will invite young people and adults to be more curious than certain — about themselves, one another, and the wider world?

Indeed, if the entirety of school was akin to a Wunderkammer — a cabinet of curiosities — how would our understanding of school need to shift?

3. SCHOOL AS PARTIALLY-PAINTED CANVAS

In the past, the end-goal of schooling was to acquire a specific body of content knowledge. In the future, however, content will merely be the means by which we reach a more vital end-goal: a set of skills, habits and dispositions that can guide young people through life.

This shift is one that will require us to be in closer relationship with one another, for it is through others that we are made manifest in the world. It will require us to admire the beautiful question more than the elegant answer. And it will require us to focus more on the construction than the completion, and more on being present in the world than re-presenting it.

Knowing this, how can schools create the conditions that will allow for deeper learning expeditions that are less bound by space, time, and tidiness, and more by open-ended inquiry and discovery?

Indeed, instead of viewing school as a masterpiece we adults were waiting to deliver in finished form to our students, what if we understood it more as the chance to craft a partially-painted canvas — one that only the students themselves could complete?

4. SCHOOL AS ASPEN GROVE

One of the more curious features of human evolution is our bihemispheric brain.

In fact, our brains are designed to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing they bring two different worlds into being. In the one, as Iain McGilchrist has written, “we experience — the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world in which we are deeply connected. In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based.

“These are not different ways of thinking about the world,” McGilchrist argues. “They are different ways of being in the world.”

This observation has clear implications for the future of school. If we know that the left hemisphere yields narrow, focused attention, while the right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, how might we more intentionally in our learning environments bring to bear both of these seemingly incompatible types of attention on the world in equal measure — one narrow, focused, and directed by our needs, and the other broad, open, and directed towards whatever else is going on in the world apart from ourselves?

This is the task of the brain — to put us in touch with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves. And this, too, is the task of the future of school. How, then, might we envision our schools less as a series of separate departments, classes and cliques, and more as a holistic aspen grove — that biological marvel that appears at first to be an infinite forest of tall trees, but is in fact a single living organism (the oldest and largest on earth), bound together by a complex, interwoven underground root network?

Indeed, what does the concept of School-as-Aspen-Grove require us to design for, and prioritize, and be?

5. SCHOOL AS SWARM

To understand the individual, we need to understand the environment in which they live. As Andreas Weber says, “we have to think of beings always as interbeings.”

To understand this principle in practice, consider the phenomenon of a swarm. Whether it be bees, or dolphins, or a school of fish, a swarm does not have intelligence; it isintelligence.

In a swarm, a huge connected whole arises from the local coherence of small parts. A swarm does not think. It is a thought process. And so in that sense, any swarm is an intensified counterpart of any individual self.

Knowing this, in what ways can we craft spaces and experiences that invite young people (and adults) into this sort of synchrony?

Indeed, how do we unlock the school-based choreography, and the collective intelligence, of a swarm?

The good news is that this work is not merely an abstract set of concepts. In fact, it’s already well underway, providing us with myriad examples of what these metaphors look like in practice — from the school-as-murmuration model of Crosstown High in Memphis to the Aspen-Grove-integration of the Brightworks School in San Francisco, or from the hundreds of partially-painted-canvas schools in the Big Picture Learning network to your neighborhood Montessori school, whose close attention to the nexus between the materials children use — their cabinet of curiosities — and the way they feel about learning can be witnessed in nearly 25,000 different environments around the world.

In other words, the previous era of thinking is over.

A new era has begun.

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.  Earlier in his career he taught high school English and History in the NYC public school systems and at a private...