The Purposeful School

[singlepic id=240 w=320 h=240 float=left]As a member of the school board for my children’s school (Blackhawk Christian School), I recently had the privilege of spending the day at Holland Christian Schools.   After just one day of visiting, this school system of approximately 2,000 students in K – 12 has become my one of my favorite schools ever.

Of course, the fact that Holland Christian is basically an all apple school doesn’t hurt.  I’m a huge apple / mac fan, but there is something much deeper, much more important than just the choice of what technology platform they use (although it is fun to see a school with 23 xServes and over 800 macbooks).

I think the single word that summarizes what I saw was PURPOSEFUL.  Everything seemed to have a purpose.  My favorite example of this was when we were getting a building tour by the Superintendent.  We were walking into classroom, and the Superintendent remarked about the location of the door.  He asked us if we noticed the location of the door in the wall.  Of course we hadn’t.  He asked us to notice that the door was in the middle of the wall – not the front nor the back.  The reason?  According to the Superintendent, putting the door on one end of the wall or the other “defines” the room – it tends to force the room to be used in a certain way.  It defines where the teacher will teach, where the students will site, etc.  However, Holland Christian didn’t want this.  They wanted the rooms to be able to change, to morph according to the particular needs of the students, the teacher, the content.  Everything is PURPOSEFUL.

[singlepic id=192 w=320 h=240 float=right]Everything was purposeful – the color of the carpet, the size of the hallways, the location of video projectors, the use of technology, the scheduling of the day, the way teachers teach – everything was purposeful.

As I’ve had the chance to reflect for a week I’ve thought of three key areas where I saw this relentless pursuit of purposefulness displayed:

Purposeful Goal

After spending the better part of a day at the school, the group of use all met back in the board room for a final Q & A with part of the administration.  At one point, the High School Principal made a comment that I found remarkable.

“We’re not really a teaching organization, we’re a learning organization.”

That simple comment was like a sledge hammer to me.  In an organization filled with professional teachers, how can you say you’re not about teaching?  Well, the answer became obvious.  The purpose of a school isn’t to teach.  The purpose of a school is to facilitate learning.  “Teaching” – however we define it – is a means to an end.  It is not – and never should be – the goal.

This simple distinction may lie at the heart of what has gone wrong in many (really most) of our schools today.  Instead of focusing on what it takes to help students to learn, we focus on what it takes for a teacher to teach.

As we walked through Holland Christian, sometimes the classes looked a bit “out of control”, perhaps even disorganized.  Students seemed free at times to work on their own or in groups.   This wasn’t what we were used to seeing in typical schools.  Typically schools look “controlled”, “organized”, etc.  They have students sitting quietly in rows, teachers standing up front, etc.

But, this misses the entire point.  Holland has decided to focus on LEARNING – helping students learn.  They’ve chosen to be less concerned with the APPEARANCE of teaching.

If the goal for a school really is to help students learn, then it’s about time we start asking questions like:

  • Are 30 kids per classroom classes the best option?
  • Is having students sit quietly in rows facing forward taking notes that absolute best way to learn?
  • Are textbooks and traditional “fill-in-the-blank” workbooks the best choice available?

Simply put, it is time to get purposeful about learning – to question everything and start finding out what is the best way to help students learn – not the best way to make a school look the way we want.

Purposeful  Technology

Technology is really at the heart of what made put this school on our radar.  Holland Christian School has a 1 to 1 laptop program.  Basically, it works like this:

  1. Every student gets a Apple MacBook laptop at the beginning of grade 7.  They keep this laptop for grades 7, 8, and 9 (for now they give it back over the summer).
  2. Every student gets a new Apple MacBook laptop at the beginning of grade 10.  They keep this new laptop for grades 10, 11, and 12
  3. At the end of their Senior year, they have the option to purchase their laptop.  Laptops that aren’t purchased are either sold on eBay or cycled down to younger grades
  4. Younger grades have portable Apple MacBook labs that can be rolled into classrooms as needed

While the 1 to 1 program gets the most attention, other technologies employed include pervasive wifi on all school campuses, use of open source software such as moodle, extensive use of multi-media (including podcasting, teacher made videos, interactive keynote presentations, etc.).

According to Holland’s website:

We want students to be technologically wise as we provide a computer for every student in our 1 to 1 initiative. Laptops are distributed to all students in grades 6 through 12 for use 24/7 to expand their educational experience well beyond the classroom walls.
~ click to visit

The use of technology is a critical skill in today’s environment.  And, Holland has figured out how to make that true in their school as well.  Rather than viewing technology as a separate class or separate lab or the place we go to type our reports, technology is viewed as an integral component of every area of the school.

Rather than being taught simple skills like how to type in MS word or how to make the properly formatted footnotes, students are encouraged and taught how to create new videos, podcasts, websites, and other media.  They use the computer to take tests, take notes, review teacher’s instruction from home, download extra notes when they don’t understand a concept, hand in assignments, research all areas of classes, collaborate on projects, and more.

Purposeful  Design

The word “Design” has often been something relegated to those “artsy” types.  Those of us who aren’t “artists” don’t really care about design (or so traditional thinking has gone).  All we want is a product that works.  We don’t really care how it looks.  We don’t really care about the “environment”, the “look and feel”, the “simplicity”.  We simply want a thing that works.

While this has often been the traditional thinking, we now know that this simply isn’t and perhaps never was true.  The obvious success of amazingly designed products such as the Apple iPod and the Apple iPad have forced us all to admin that design does indeed matter.

How something looks, how something works, the simplicity vs. complexity, the aesthetics of a product really do matter.

Now we know that the look and feel of a building really does matter.  Something as seemingly “meaningless” as the color of the walls really can and does make a big difference.

The perfect example of this design matters mentality is still in the iPod.  If you are in the market for a small device that can play music, there are lots of choices available that hold more than the ipod and cost less than the iPod.  But, the iPod continues to outsell all of them combined.  Why?  Design.

Typically, no one would think something like good design matters in a school.  But it does.  And I saw that at Holland Christian School.  Everything from the color of the walls, to the type of lighting, to the size of the halls, to the placement of doors, to the teacher’s work areas were all very purposely design.

Before we started a tour of the building, the Superintendent told us about 4 or 5 core values of the school.  Then he asked us to watch and see if we could discover how those values showed up in the building.

Simply put he was telling us that design mattered.  And, it matters a lot – more than most of us ever think!

It is no longer enough to just use the same old boring cinder block white walls.  If we really want schools that excel, we have to design them well.  This means well designed rooms, hallways, desks, chairs, lighting, and more!

There’s probably a lot more I could say.  I’ve found a growing passion for great education in myself lately and a growing dissatisfaction with the way most education is happening in our society.  So, that would explain why I was so impressed when I saw something different.

What do you think?  Have you seen an outstanding example of education?  Do you think these are good ideas?  Bad ideas?  Leave a comment and let me know!