Form Follows Function: The Phases Inform Structural Change

One of the big mistakes schools and districts new to Customized Learning make too often is to make structural changes to things like grading, grade levels, courses, and student grouping too early in the change process.

I think this happens for a couple reasons.

One may be that much of the work in the early phases is to address a shared vision and burning platform, to examine our beliefs about learning, to explore what Customized Learning looks like in action, to build the right kind of culture in your classroom, and to make the curriculum more transparent and navigable for students and teachers. This is heady work that often doesn’t seem like action. Changing grading or the schedule is tangible and is action.

Another reason I think it happens is that it doesn’t take long doing even the early stages of this work to realize that how we currently grade, and schedule, and group students, and organize curriculum into courses probably will need to be changed to do Customized Learning well.

There is a major problem with these reasons (even if it is perfectly understandable why educators would feel them): change those structures to what?

It is understandable to want more tangible action. And it is obvious quickly that the structures will need to change. But until a critical mass of the staff have built a classroom culture of voice and choice, made the curriculum transparent and navigable, and have developed some proficiency at a balanced instructional model that provides for both learning higher-order thinking and lower-level thinking, it will not be clear what kind of grading will work for you, or scheduling, or organizing “courses” or “seminars,” etc.

Then there are the political or strategic issues around the public being ready for those kinds of changes (heaven forbid school look different than when they were students!). Making structural changes too soon has led to public backlash (this, for example). When the school is further along with implementation, and there have been strong efforts to build understanding and support among parents, the public understands why those changes are being made and sees a need for them.

Recently, I discussed the phases of implementation. You might have noticed how each of the early phases said “In the Current System.” This is a reminder that those big structural changes come later. The phases should follow the Biology principal of “form follows function.” The initial phases are implemented within the current school system, but the changes in curriculum organization, classroom culture, and instruction inform us about how school structures (student grouping, grades, courses, schedules, etc.) need to change. Even early implementation makes clear the inadequacy of the current approach of these components for Customized Learning, leading to educators often wanting to jump to making these structural changed early in the process.

But, in truth, we don’t know what to change them to until we’ve had a chance to get good at the components of earlier phases in the process.

They are important changes. And they will come. But wait until the right time.

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
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