NOTE: I first published this article on the the Saturn School of Tomorrow way back in 1993.
Saturn School was an exceptionally different school in the unique way that it addressed the school reform movement in the early 90's.
Saturn had over 10,000 visitors from around the world who came to see their highly-touted program, including then President George H. W. Bush. Why did he visit?Because he and his staff were impressed with the unique Saturn School mission. More on that below.
It was the best of times in those days of early school reform,but what surprised me, as Project Director of Saturn School, was and still is, that there has been zero followup on what we learned: both what worked and what still needed working on.
We spent hundreds of thosands of dollars on this new program, and at least that many hours to move it forward.Yet there never has been a post-mortem on Saturn. No one ever asked: How did it succeed? Where did it fail? What did we learn that was helpful?
Breathes there a forensics researcher with little meaningful to do, here's a windmill to tilt that might yield some fresh breezes of insight into school reform.
Lord knows it's needed and Don Quixotes are scarce these days.
Read on: It's not only Saturn's story. It's my story too:
AN OBSERVATION ON CHANGE AND LEARNING
Before I launch off to a look at the re-invented, renowned Saturn School, it is important
for the reader to understand that school reform becomes a highly personal experience.
Saturn School happened because of what happened to me, as an early learner and a later
learner: as a teacher, husband, parent, reader, thinker, dialoguer, wonderer, tinkerer,
negotiator, the many roles that make us what we are and what we can become. Many
paths are taken and not taken in education and life, some for very good reasons and
others by chance. Whatever we choose to do and not do, the sum total of these life and
learning experiences accumulate, enabling or disabling or redirecting later learning. As
my mother used to remind me, "As the twig is bent, so grows even the mighty oak."
EARLY EXPERIENCES OF SCHOOLING
My own earliest recollection of school is wanting to go home. This aversion sprung from
a five year old who came that first school day with high expectations. The expectations
were a gift from my grandfather. My grandpa would stop by our house every Sunday
morning, put me on his knee and read me the funny papers. “One day soon you’ll be off
to school,” he would remind me, “and then you will be able to read this to me!” But when
I showed up, I found that reading wasn’t even on the kindergarten agenda and I could
play just fine in my own sandbox, thank you. So, I found a propitious time to sneak out
the door and home I went. I would wait till reading was on the agenda.
A little direct counseling from my mother that day convinced me that reading would
happen soon enough. I decided to give it a second chance. I'll be forever grateful that I
did. Reading, writing and a lot of other good things happened to me in schools for the
rest of my life, both as student and teacher. And, like nearly everyone else, some not so
very good things happened too: being called on for questions I couldn't answer stands out
the most, followed by tests that were handed back in descending order of marks or being
found out for just not understanding what was going on. I was lucky, though, there
weren't many such days. I wanted to be a learner. But, for many early learners, the bad
experiences drive out the good. Over time, the bad school experiences can drive out the
good learning; they can eventually drive out the students, too. For this loss, everyone
School and learning are often such intense and personal experiences that everyone
remembers at least some of them. Good memories usually surround our "Eureka's!" and
"Aha's!" It's a great thrill to discover something we didn't know before, to be proud of our
newly-found, newly-owned learning. But not the memories associated with failing to
learn, or being found out when we don't know. Someone once remarked that there is no
real learning without accompanying emotion. But emotion can accompany not learning,
too. If you are reading this book, though, chances are you will remember more success in
school than failures. If not, then you have been, at the very least, persistent. So, for you
readers, the following question shouldn’t be too hard to answer in a personal way: what
makes for learning success?
WHAT IS “SUCCESS “ IN SCHOOL?
What do you think the American public believes constitutes “success” in school? A grade
of “A?” A diploma? Getting to school on time? Not getting thrown out of class? Being
able to get a job? Or is it the satisfaction of solving a tough math problem; finishing a
knotty research project; giving an extemporaneous talk to a group of your peers, working
effectively in a group? It depends on who and where you are and your needs, doesn’t it?
And what you know and what you don’t know. It depends a lot on your perception of
yourself as an able learner or one of the real “losers” who leave school early, first in
mind, later in body. Lost learners lose future opportunities, monetary gain, access to
higher education; and society loses too. One definition of learning success is figuring out
how to get through the school system successfully and coming out a bonafide graduate.
Most would agree that although there are many different definitions of school "success,"
far too many students who pass through our schools have not been very successful
learners, even those who have received a diploma. Many things may have been learned
while in school, but the skills that school or society or business has wanted students to
master may not be among them. Perhaps, we need to know more before we can offer a
definition of what learning success is. Teachers often try to figure out a workable
definition as they practice their craft. At least, I did.
LEARNING FROM TEACHING
Several stories from my early days as a high school mathematics teacher come to mind.
They serve to illustrate my belief that our current system of learning is not designed to
produce real success with many students. More importantly, these students, both the
"winners" and the "losers," can teach us something about learning and failure to learn.
Harry was a quiet student in my Algebra class during my first year of teaching. In our
teacher preparation courses we were told we must reach all our students. But it became
very clear early on that such reach too often exceeds a young teacher's grasp. I could tell
by Harry’s eyes (I've always believed that good teachers must become good "eyeball
readers") that Harry did not appear to be among the ones I hoped to reach. One bright
October day, Harry came up after class and announced that he wanted to drop Algebra.
When I reminded him that we had hardly begun the course and pressed him further he
solemnly announced: “Mr. King, this is really as much about Algebra as I care to know!”
Personal Lesson: students are given very little choice. I don’t know if Harry was unable
or unwilling to learn Algebra, or just wanted to wait a while; it didn’t matter either way.
Everyone but Harry understood he had to stay in the course for the rest of the year. So,
Harry had learned about as much Algebra as he was going to know, my best efforts
notwithstanding. Who knows what might have happened if I had been able to say, "Look
Harry, why don't you stop back when you're more ready to learn?" Or, "Let's see what we
can do to help. Maybe there's a learning style problem here. Let me ask my associate to
sit down with you and run a few tests. There's more than one way to learn algebra." But I
wasn't there yet, in my understandings, and neither was the system.
My next lesson was taught by William. He was one of those bright kids you discover
every so often, so bright that they have a hard time hiding it.. When goaded, he might just
snap off an elegant answer to a complex problem. His sarcasm, if I pressed too much,
could show real wit. He knew how to handle language, and that’s usually a dead
giveaway that you’ve got a live mind. What a waste, I thought to myself on more than
one occasion. Here’s this William kid with plenty of brains and who could care less.
Others in my class, who actually seemed to be trying, needed more time and help than the
school calendar or my energy allowed. One day I noted that the Kenny Scholarship was
going to be awarded again in the spring to one of our school's deserving students. A
chance to attend Harvard or Yale! And all expenses paid! A ticket to a promising future! William was bright enough, and if I could motivate him to work for this award, he might
even have a chance to win it. One afternoon after class I told him that I thought he might
have a real shot at winning the scholarship. A chance to change his life, leave the project
he came from and his family’s welfare checks behind. But his brightness and laziness did
him in. With all the logic of an Aristotelian scholar lost in irrelevancies, he asked me why
he should head off to four years of school, and probably a lifetime of hard work, when
the welfare system met all his basic needs just fine. And he didn‘t have to work to get it. Remember the novice scholar who approached Plato and asked what all this commitment
to learning was really "worth" to him. Plato made it instantly worthwhile by tossing him a
coin. Our tossing William a scholarship was met with the same response Plato got.
Neither student really got it: that a lifetime of learning is what humans are designed to do.
One's personal growth and societal gain depend on it. If you don't get it you won't get
much. Next Lesson: smart and prudent and wise are all different, and not necessarily
highly correlated skills. William had been given a great gift, but he refused to "Invest" it,
make it grow, share his gift with others. I taught secondary school mathematics for nearly ten years. After four or five years and
more "lessons", my initial enthusiasm for teaching began giving way to a growing
despair. What author Jon Hassler has called the "Belikov Syndrome" (after the Chekov
character of the same name: burnout, depression, looking for different work) seemed to
describe my symptoms. To succeed in a system that denies systemic success, you either
continue to struggle with the commitment and energy of a superperson burning a two-
ended candle, or like survivors everywhere, you learn to cope and aim for lesser goals.
Though the rewards are not as great, the risk is less and you are less likely to fail.
My first reaction to this stress was that I didn't know enough about teaching to be able to
do enough as a teacher. Off I went to get a couple of advanced degrees in mathematics
education, believing that I just didn’t have the theoretical knowledge. But newly learned
theories didn’t really help my teaching much either. In a way, it made teaching more
depressing, though I began to view the causes of these same old problems in different
ways. As before, I felt that I learned more from my students than I taught them. Not about
mathematics, but about why they weren't learning it. Two more short stories will
illustrate more lessons learned. MaryAnne came to my Advanced Geometry class full of misgivings. She seemed a very
bright student in this young teacher's dream of all math classes; small size, able students,
motivated learners. After a day or two of pre-Euclidean musings, she announced her
intention to drop the course. Oblivious, I asked why. Wide-eyed, she said, “Mr. King,
haven't you noticed that I’m the only girl in this class!” If I did, I surely hadn’t made any
efforts to accommodate her uncomfortable isolation. Somehow, I was able to persuade
her to stay. I made every effort to make her comfortable in class. Years later, I learned
she had earned an advanced degree in biology; I had advanced a degree in my sensitivity
to the need for more young women in science and mathematics and a supportive
environment to make it happen. That was my next Lesson on learning: a good teacher is
like an orchestra conductor, drawing out the excellence of the voices of all the players. I
was beginning to discover that my lessons had as much to do with learning as they did
with teaching. Joe taught me my greatest lessons. If truth be told, he was more the teacher and I the
student. Joe taught me two great truths about learning. I took his class in my General
Math II course in my fourth year of teaching. You found two kinds of students in this
twelfth grade course: those taking basic arithmetic for the tenth time (and still unable to
master it when such intricacies as long division or fractions came up), and those more
able learners who had to satisfy the math requirement and were "escaping" the harder
work of Algebra. Joe was atypical even in the former group. My first great revelation
about Joe came while reviewing the topic of long division of large numbers. I was
explaining what the students and I whimsically called, “guzintos,” (that is, the algorithm
or process for how 127 "goes into," say, 4,872). It’s a tricky algorithmic skill, being able
to estimate how many divisors are contained in the first part of the dividend, multiplying
back, subtracting, bringing down a next digit and repeating this process until a remainder
less than the divisor appeared. As I wandered the room one day watching students doing
"guzintos," I looked down at Joe’s paper. That he was doing it “all wrong” didn’t
surprise me, it was his getting the "right answer" that stopped me in my tracks! Joe,
sensing my confusion, explained, “You see, Mr. King, my sixth grade teacher showed me
this other method because she saw I was having trouble with the "hard way" (so much for
my sensitivity to the needs of special learners). She told me to keep subtracting the
divisor from the dividend until my remainder is smaller that the divisor. I then count up
the number of times I subtracted, put the remainder along side of it and that’s the
answer!” And so it was, and so it is. A longer method, perhaps, and one in fact used by
computer programmers, but he had showed me an elegantly simple one and one we never
learned in our college math classes.
His greatest teaching was yet to come. To address the needs of two very diverse groups in
Joe's class, I often brought in mathematics puzzles and other challenges to keep students
engaged after they finished the assignment. This was my only way of challenging the
students who had the assignment done right away, the ones who really should have been
in Algebra instead of General Math. One day I came across an issue of Scientific
American with an article on a puzzle called the "Soma Cube." These mindbogglers were
the precursors of the more recent Rubik’s Cube. The big difference was that the Soma
Cube could be taken apart and, if you were lucky, and careful, you might be able to put it
back together again. If you were very lucky and very imaginative, you might even be able
to build another shape, like a "pyramid" or a "throne." It was a great challenge. So, the
night before I brought it into class, I practiced one of several thousand correct solutions
among a billion or so ways to go wrong. One of the great fears teachers have is appearing ignorant in front of the class, not
knowing an answer or even having to call on one of the more able students in class for
help. With a fair amount of earlier practice, I began to demonstrate this challenging
“extra credit” assignment. "It's easy! I said. "You just pull it apart and then you put it
back together, like this." Try as I might, face flushing, I could not get the cube back
together. So, I set the pieces down on the desk along side me and began to explain the
handout materials I had brought, fervently hoping that this extra time would restore the
solution to mind. As I stumbled on, a small hand came up along side my peripheral view,
the cube now intact. A voice belonging to Joe meekly asked if there were any other cube
puzzles he might help me with. It turned out that Joe was a spatial genius of sorts and,
though my memory has dimmed, I think he ultimately solved many of the most difficult
Soma Cube puzzles in addition to the many others I brought him. A great personal
Lesson was taught me that day: Everyone is gifted in some way. The lesson for the
teacher is to help each learner to develop and share his unique gifts with others. All
students are gifted and talented in some way or other. The teacher's job is to help them
soar with their unique strengths.
6 My education as a teacher was coming too slowly. I was learning a lot from my students.
What else? What could academia contribute, I wondered, that I hadn't already found. In
the mid-60's it was much easier to find out. The federal government was more
enlightened about education in those days. There were numerous and generous programs
to help educators learn more and, hopefully, teach better.
With some good letters of reference identifying me as a teacher who definitely had more
to learn, I was selected as an NSF Academic Year. A full tuition grant with a monthly
stipend to attend a math-education program for a full year at the University of Wisconsin.
Great teachers, great ideas and a great opportunity to learn how to make changes in
education. Leading thinkers and researchers: Herb Klausmeier in cognitive learning and
systems thinking: Henry Van Engen, M. Vere DeVault, Tom Romberg (my advisor) who
saw the power of manipulatives and "doing" in mathematics learning, (what is now called
"constructivist" theory); wonderful instructors in education, mathematics and computer
science. Fate helped too. You need to be ready for it.
The second year, after the fellowship ended, I needed a job if I
wanted to continue my doctoral studies. Madison Public Schools was opening a brand
new flexible, modularly scheduled school with all the best equipment that money could
buy and powerful new strategies for learning. A dynamic, brainy principal hired me
largely because I happened to know who Stanford logician-psychologist Patrick Suppes
was. Suppes' work was current research, exciting to me and applicable to what we were
trying to do at his new school. We had a generous budget and the principal's
encouragement to try anything that seemed sensibly connected to the modular scheduling
concept.. And we did. The young staff worked long hours designing powerful learning systems in large group,
small group, tutorial and independent study modes. We bought state-of-the-art
equipment, computer telephone links, even the first portable video system. Students had
a rich learning environment and, given encouragement from us teachers, many succeeded
remarkably well. They learned and showed evidence of their learning in products we
called Independent Study projects. Of course, many were kids who always succeed, no
matter the system. But some were turned on to the power of learning who were otherwise
disempowered. Where the new model didn't work so well, was the greater amount of
unscheduled time it gave students for planning and independent study. We assumed that
given this new freedom, students would also assume the greater responsibility. Many did,
but many didn't. We weren't able to "fix" it fast enough. This turned out to be the flaw
that compromised the other good changes we brought to that new learning community.
The system failed to hold onto the learners in direct proportion to the help they needed on
their way to becoming "independent, self-reliant learners," as our mission statement
called. Another Lesson learned: the new system must be responsive to the needs of each
learner. We were not responsive quickly enough in the early stages of development, so
the school regressed to the traditional.
So, all these "lessons" began to teach me something. Learning success was not what I
thought it had been. It was not " one right answer," or "never making a mistake," or
"doing it the way we were taught." Success depends on the learner and his or her goals,
unique gifts, diverse motivations, a timetable and a host of other factors that make each
one of us uniquely us. It also depended on finding and putting in place a system that not
only allows, but assures these goals. If we want students to learn differently, the place for
the learning to happen must be different too.
It began to occur to me, at last, this accumulation of personal experiences and dialogues
and reflection about schooling, that there was, simply put, no way this clumsy system of
education, designed more than a hundred years ago, can meet each student's learning
needs. While the current system was well designed, conceptually at least, to provide
educational opportunity for all (through a factory-like model), it fails to secure the
success of each child. This group-based, assembly line, industrially modeled system,
which held time-to-learn constant for all (regardless of aptitude or readiness), which
treated all learning styles alike, which held virtually no one to appropriate and demanding
standards of performance, could not work. To me it made more sense to try to build a
new model of personalized learning success and, equally important, to invent a new
schooling environment to ensure it.
TOWARD ANOTHER DEFINITION OF LEARNING SUCCESS
School just doesn't work for most students. Teachers know this. Our students. know it,
too. All you have to do is watch a movie like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or "Teachers" to
get some sense of how irrelevant school is to most students, even for many of the good
ones. The employers of our high school graduates know it, too. They’re often forced to
re-teach skills that should have been learned in school.
Most parents and much of the general public don’t seem to know it, though. Few believe
this tragedy is happening, at least in their school. Witness the annual Gallup poll each
year. Parents think their child’s school is just fine, thank you, it’s the other schools that
8 are having the problems. A classic case of greener grass in your own school yard. The
fact is that it is the rare school that well meets most learner's needs.
What we have here, to paraphrase the warden in the movie classic “Cool Hand Luke,” is
a real "failure to communicate" and a failure to disclose the real failures. Daily, students
face diversions, disenchantment and growing detachment and disillusionment. The result
of all this failure to communicate is that too many students know too little to become
good citizens, good workers, good parents and good lifelong learners. Most parents don't
realize how off-target K-12 education really is. Nostalgia seems to re-paint their own
schooling as a relatively successful experience. Even if that were true, the world is a very
different place in this generation. The employers seem to realize that most school
graduates don't have requisite job skills, but their critique usually stops there. It makes a
thoughtful educator wonder if we are educating the right public. It seems impossible to
make broad changes in a "broken" educational system, if our constituencies don't think it
We humans are the single species gifted with the high order ability to learn and adapt.
Education, both formal and informal, heightens these needed behaviors. For two
centuries, our educational system did a good job of passing on the needed skills for an
agricultural and industrial revolution. It isn't working for the current Information
Revolution, though. Futurists tell us that today’s students will likely see several careers in
their lifetime, not just different jobs. If they don’t’ learn the process of learning, (the
“how to learn” approach to new problems), students will be learning-locked into
yesterday’s world, full of solutions that just don’t work any more. As Eric Hoffer put it:
“In times of change, learners will inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves
beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”1 This self-educated New
York longshoreman was a true learner. So much for those who claim to be “learned.”
Perhaps a better definition of learning success is one that addresses both content and
process. We have to become a learner to become more learned. Learning can't stop at
fourth grade, dropout age, high school or even post doctoral studies. Our species requires
constant learning of us, for our whole learning lives.
When I visit schools on opening day in the fall, it's always interesting to note the different
response to my question, "Are you glad to be back?" Invariably the answer from the
1 Hoffer, Eric (1982). Between the Devil and the Dragon. New York: Harper and Row.
primary kids (K-3) is positive; they love their teachers, their friends, learning new things.
But, intermediate grades and beyond, it's not. Students, mostly boys, find the questions
itself incredulous. And it's not just a matter of being "cool." They'd rather be hanging out
with their friends, their teacher's don't care about them personally, and school gives them
almost nothing of what they need now in their lives: acceptance, security, money, caring
friends, understanding parents and adults, and so on. From the teacher's side it is equally
disconcerting. By fourth grade, individual differences in learning styles and learning rates
have become so great that the teacher is unable to address each student's needs very well.
Schooling also has changed from the experiential to the didactic, from projects and
assessment to objective tests and letter grades. The desperate teacher, given a fixed time
to learn for all students (regardless of their learning skills and needs) and meager
resources, aims at the mythical mean, no longer able to meet each student's needs. The
result is another example of chaos theory in the learning universe.
UNSUCCESSFUL STUDENTS AND MORAL OUTRAGE
Let's suppose you get to define learning" success" any way you please. AFT president Al
Shanker maintains that only one in five students are highly successful. Four out of five
students are not successful learners! Twenty percent drop out and three-fifths go through
school by the "seat of their pants." If you can sit still and avoid hassles, you'll likely get a
diploma certifying that you know something, when you really don't know very much of
anything. In quality performance terminology, we have a quality-free system.
An eighty percent learner rejection rate, by anybody's definition, is more than a disaster,
it is a societal tragedy. Those with spiritual leanings would call it a moral outrage. If
schools were businesses and turned out gizmos or widgets with the same quality
assurance level as their students, they wouldn’t be in business very long. Human learners
are far more valuable commodities. But most students, even those who stay to graduate
are often unable to fill the new, increasingly complex jobs that are being created daily.
There is no way our society can continue to tolerate this personal loss, nor what this loss
is costing all of us.
There seems to be no great rush to remedy this fundamental failing of our schools. Most
changes that have occurred are cosmetic. We try to tweak a single, promising factor and
fail to find significant positive change. We tinker with the symptoms and not the cause.
Larger, systemic failings, because of their complexity, are often ignored. For the
"system" seems to swallow up singular, minimal change efforts. Those who study
systemic change tell us we must look deeper and further. Over a decade ago, educational
change agent, Ted Sizer reminded us that the system itself must be a part of the change
"Most of the problems that beset education are obvious and longstanding.
Educators and their critics have been rhetorically hammering away at them for
several decades. It is the remedies that seem problematic. None seems to stick.
Why? Things remain the same because it is impossible to change very much
without changing most of everything. The result is paralysis." 2
So, one of the first mandates for learning success to happen for more students is changing
the schools they learn in. The old factory model of one size education fits all just doesn't
work any more. There was vocational room for the "rejects" in the past. That's no longer
true. Too many key and needed jobs go begging, while fewer workers bother to opt for
the minimum wage or seek the new skills for the new jobs. Schools aren't helping make it
The chaos on the streets has invaded many of our schools. School buildings are becoming
increasingly unsafe, hostile environments, the curriculum irrelevant and real learning a
rarity. There is no curriculum to address the new issues of making prudent choices,
developing a moral character, building a sense of binding social ethics, finding a
common spirituality, the communal bonds which lead to shared learning; these skills are
considered by many to be "soft" or irrelevant outcomes. Experienced learners know that
other learners help us to create, aid us in testing and revising our own learning. Without a
community of learners, one's capacity to learn and to grow is stunted. It first takes a
village to educate a learner; then the learner must provide the same service to the village.
My growth depends on the growth of others. Newton reminded us that we need shoulders
to stand on if we would see further. If competition and natural selection are at work in the
world, so also is a community of learners. Competition and cooperation are dynamic,
complementary forces. We need both. Today, perhaps, the latter more than the former.
CHANGE NEEDS A CATALYST
2 Sizer, Ted (June, 1983). "High School Reform: The Need for Engineering." Kappan
Al Shanker came to visit our city in February of 1986 to speak to a group of business
leaders. When I saw the headlines the next day, I was amazed that this union leader didn't
talk about more money or better terms and conditions of employment. He challenged
educators to see the shortfalls in its current system and to design a new and more
effective educational model. He cited General Motors new Saturn automobile--a team
driven, customer-oriented, newly designed approach to building cars where the input of
the line production workers was as valid, if not more so, than the engineers and bosses.
Even more surprising was their emphasis on listening to the customer first. Why not use
these same notions to create a "Saturn School," he prodded. Personally, I was thrilled to
hear it. At last, a validity check which affirmed my own inclinations! At last, a
renowned teacher-leader saying what I had been discovering for years.
As I heard and read more, I was more astonished that this AFT leader, who for years had
been calling for higher teacher salaries and better working conditions, was now urging
fundamental changes in schooling. Ironically, our school district had just hired a new
superintendent open to new ideas and with a handful of his own. When I approached him
with the suggestion that we be the first school district in the nation to respond to
Shanker’s call for a "Saturn School," he challenged, “It's an intriguing idea, but let’s see
what kind of plan you can put together.” Prudently, I took his use of “you” to be plural,
and invited a team of teachers (including our local Federation President), local
technologists (from both the hardware and software industry), teacher trainers,
community leaders, parents and other experts to draft a proposal for a "Saturn School of
Tomorrow Project." It was a good idea at the right time in our city, with the right people
in place and committed to make it happen. Timing is everything when it comes to
Our committee met regularly over a period of two years beginning in 1987, and crafted
what I believe now was a truly visionary proposal for its time. After some initial funding
disappointments, we eventually secured a grant of equipment from Apple Computer,
(thanks to our zealous Apple rep). Given that upfront nudge, the superintendent was able
to sell our Board on a pilot project. Five year later, while this truly unique school is still
in the process of becoming, the Saturn School of Tomorrow remarkably has been
endorsed as a needed and continuing R&D effort by our School Board. They are pleased
with what we have learned about school reform, and have endorsed a continuing search
for new answers and new questions.
What makes this new school different from other attempts at change? What were the
difficulties faced and why has the Board's commitment remained after five years?. I
believe it begins with the rightness of our original vision. The vision we captured was to
design a school where virtually each child would become a successful learner. More than
educational opportunity for all, we wanted learning success for each. We spent our early
planning on building a vision of what such a school would look like, sound like, feel like,
be like. What would people do in this school? What kind of tools would you find? How
would you know that this individual success was happening, where's the evidence?
VISIONING AND THE FIVE CHARTER PRINCIPLES
We tried to work backwards from the early vision to build a rough blueprint. It was my
task to suggest ideas and guide the group forward. I served as a temporary Project
Director, one who would help guide the school forward during its beginning phase. In
some sense, I was the conceiver of the project, then moved to a "godfather" role, and now
just visit occasionally and wish the risktakers well. At the beginning, I spent a lot of time
trying to discover other efforts at "re-invention." There were a number of "restructured"
schools, but Saturn was a bolder attempt to systemically start over. Try as I might, I could
find no other, similar efforts anywhere. The only helpful notion I found, besides
Shanker's sketchy urgings, was George Leonard's visionary "Jefferson Interactive
School" as described in his book, Education and Ecstasy. Out of all our individual and
collective efforts came what we called the "Five Saturn Charter Principles." Each focused
on assuring a new paradigm of learning success for each, individual student.
The notion that makes the Saturn School a truly re-invented school are its operational,
First Charter Principle: the personalization of learning for each child. There is no
more personal human experience than the learning experience. We believed that
every learner is so important and unique to deserve a personal learning plan. We
began to lay out some early notions of what might constitute what we then called
a "Personal Growth Plan™." This new process involved first and foremost the
student, then the parents, then an advisor who becomes an advocate for the
student as long as they are at the school. The ultimate goal for the PGP is that
each student eventually learns to become responsible for his or her own plan and,
thereby, for her own learning. If a school is to secure a commitment to lifelong
learning, it made sense to create a process where each student would learn to use a
personalized planning tool to set goals, find resources and show evidence that
successful learning was happening.
Second Charter Principle: teachers had to be truly empowered to help craft this
new process. Remember the wisdom of the Saturn automobile redesign: put
greater control in the hands of those most knowledgeable about the product.
Third Charter Principle: parents had to be brought back into the PGPTM process in
a frequent and interactive way. Somehow, society has robbed us of broad parental
involvement in this latter half of the 20th century, and everyone knows the key
role of parents in learning success; we insisted on their re-joining us in this
Fourth Charter Principle: the community and its resources had to become more
available to learners who would one day work with and in it. It amazes me that we
in school create these poor microcosms of the outside world for students to study
when the real world itself is just outside the schoolroom door, waiting to be
Lastly, the Fifth Charter Principle, technology had to become a powerful, enabling
tool for learners and staff. Increasing numbers of students come into our schools
and ask where the "tools" are. They know the world uses them; they even use
them in some of the electronic games they play. We characterized this new school
with its new Five-Point Charter as "high-tech, high-teach and high-touch."
DESIGNING A SYSTEM IN WHICH CHANGE CAN THRIVE
We wanted a school that was truly different, one in which the system does not get in the
way of effective learning. We did not want to restructure a school, moving a few things
here and a few things there, we wanted to re-invent it.
As one pundit put it: “When
Edison set out to invent the electric light, he didn’t tinker with candles.” Educators try to
test a seemingly powerful educational idea and it is often swamped by the phenomenon
of what I call the "chaos of the classroom." Student differences, teacher differences, rigid
class schedules, erratic student attendance, different learning styles and rates, all make for
a learning chaos, perturbing factors which can effectively block learning for many
students. Recalling Ted Sizer's advice (cited earlier), we wanted to combine the most
powerful ideas on educational change we could find, and build a new concept of school
around them. Systemic change addresses real R&D in education, where we might find
more questions than answers. Long journeys, the proverb reminds us, must begin with the
EARLY DESIGN PROBLEMS
While we allowed ample time for the initial visioning process, the negotiation process
between our School Board and the teacher union took so much time that the new staff had
only several weeks before the students showed up to turn this radical new concept into
reality. We hoped to find and hire able staff and give them up to a year to come up with
an operational plan. Nearly 300 of our 2500 teachers had attended an initial informational
meeting. But only a dozen applied for the four key teacher positions. Reasons given
were that good teachers were happy where they were and the new positions required a
Master's degree and five years teaching experience. Newer teachers were excluded. All
these issues resulted in delays and placed great startup burdens on staff.
It also took time to get administration to let us involve our parents in the staff
interviewing process. But, our logic of change prevailed. Staff were then hired and
allocations were provided at the same ratio as other district schools. We chose to use two
of the allocated teacher positions to convert to four graduate interns from a nearby
college. Although eager and bright, these interns had no classroom experience.
Miraculously, this new team was able to get a plan in place, agree on who was going to
do what, given their commitment to no use of textbooks, and Saturn school opened in
temporary quarters in September, 1989. Our new era had begun.
SOME FACTS ABOUT SATURN SCHOOL
Saturn School is a nongraded, middle magnet school which served 280 students in grades
4 - 8 during the 1992-93 school year. The magnet selection process allows parents to
choose from over thirty magnet programs among 40 of 60 schools in this capitol city.
Students are randomly selected from a waiting list only by ethnic category. Since St.
Paul schools have 45% children of color, so was the student body at Saturn. No other
criteria are used for selection. Interestingly, the school had nearly 2/3 boys, since the
selection pool also had more boys. We think this is due to the extensive technologies
attracting more boys and the school's personal leaning plan attracting more male students
with learning difficulties who were "counseled" into Saturn from other schools.
Parents are told that attendance at Saturn requires a greater involvement on their part.
They must participate in the several Personal Growth Planning conferences held during
the year. Virtually one hundred percent of parents participate. Saturn is located
downtown to draw on the many resources there. Students attend classes offsite at the
Science Museum of Minnesota, at the Minnesota Museum of Art and they use the
downtown library. Staff and students set up mentorship and apprentice experiences to
help establish the relevance of schooling to the world of work. Community volunteer
service is also encouraged.
To simplify the planning, we opened with grades 4 through 6 and added grades seven and
eight in subsequent years. Primary grades K-3 in a downtown setting were a concern for
our Board. Since then the district has opened a downtown kindergarten. We find it
difficult to attract fourth graders from other elementary schools to leave and come to
Saturn. The Board recently indicated Saturn may add the primary grades in 1994-95. Not
only would this provide the school with a cohort, but it also lets more students start fresh
with a new approach to learning, rather than unlearn and re-learn a new schooling
Saturn is a unique school. Even the mission statement is unique. While staff changed it
some in recent years, it began as: "To bring together the best of what is known about
effective learning research and powerful learning systems, to employ a Personal Growth
Plan for each student, a curriculum for today and tomorrow and the assumption of
learning success for each child." Staff believe their goals are truly unique.
Here are some of the other differences:
• comprehensive use of downtown resources such as the public library, the
and art museums, state and local government
• mentorships and apprenticeships with businesses and agencies
• differentiated staffing: a lead teacher, associate teachers for curriculum,
generalist teachers, intern teachers
• a longer school year, student portfolios, ungraded classes,
no report cards or textbooks,
• a school council of staff, parents and students
• a focus on process as well as content.
We changed whatever traditions we thought would lead to more effective learning. After
a very comprehensive evaluation process, staff are beginning to find some of the answers
to the original questions. However, more questions continue to surface.
SHARING WHAT'S LEARNED: WHAT WORKS AND WHAT NEEDS WORK
Over 10, 000 visitors have come to Saturn to see this unique school program. Among them
have been former President George H. W. Bush, who recognized Saturn as a site where
“teachers are reinventing school” during the announcement of his America 2000 plan.
Students conduct most of the school tours. They explain best the intricacies and
workings of the program. Most visitors are impressed by what they see and hear, and
especially from the students. Their positive comments have balanced some of the more
local negative publicity. More will be said on the media’s influential "counter-spin" later.
Suffice it to say that "bad news" seems to sell more newspapers better than "good news."
The Superintendent and Board have remained supportive of the school in face of
opposition from other school communities in the district and the tight budgetary
constraints which limits resources at all sites. Saturn was expensive to renovate and equip
in its new downtown building and the Board committed major dollars to fund it. Helpful
though, was the fact that one in seven dollars for the first two years of the project was
raised from outside sources. While this outside help was considerable, the balance funded
by the district was still a major investment for a local board to make in educational
research and development. Funding local R&D is a politically "gutsy" commitment.
MORE LESSONS LEARNED AT SATURN
After four years, a lot has been learned at Saturn. The school has willingly participated in
several major evaluation efforts. Staff, students and even parents have been open to
scrutiny by evaluators and visitors. The Saturn community have shared the belief that
more is to be gained by openness. Much is from the many observations of others. Their
findings inform the school's continuing progress. A better product is more likely if we
listen to the customers, the observers and the "window-shoppers."
There are many things learned by trying, changing, listening, guessing, and sharing.
Educational change, contrary to the opinion of some renowned educational researchers, is
worth trying. It is incredible to those of us involved in school reform how few outside it,
even skilled observers, realize that change is "messy," that mistakes will be made,
setbacks will occur and disagreements provoked within the entire community. They hold
successful change up to high standards and short timelines. Saturn has found that the
more major the change, the longer it takes. For change agents, this is a price worth
paying. Finding better ways for students to learn seems to us to be a cultural necessity. Many
parents are reluctant, and understandably so, to try new approaches with their children,
fearful that their futures may be compromised by untested methods. Experience teaches
us, however, that promising, well thought out change excites students, rekindles their
interest in learning, makes them partners in change and causes no serious, lasting losses.
At worst, we have the benefits of what researchers call the "Hawthorne Effect,"
performance improves solely because the subjects think the changes are for their benefit.
Change is a worrisome process, especially for the participants. When a local reporter was
queried about her frequent and negative reporting on Saturn School, she said, "I just can't
imagine my daughter at a school like Saturn," and referring to the non-graded curriculum,
added, "Why she would miss her the experience of the fourth grade!" She failed to
understand the many reasons why Saturn was a non-graded school. If she did, she failed
to tell us why "fourth grade" was more important than improved learning. Parents have
chosen to send their child to Saturn; they are the greatest "risk-takers" if risk is to be
Success does not happen over night. It takes time to find out what works best. Mistakes
will be made and, because of that, better ways will be found. The project's formative
evaluator, Dr. Hallie Preskill, put it this way:
"We know from various educational historians and contemporary educational
researchers that educational reform does not happen over night and without
much pain and sacrifice. For real change to occur teachers, students, parents
administrators and community members must be willing to let the school
experience the successes and near successes of their efforts." (italics added). She goes on to add that one of Saturn's greatest successes was that they did indeed
continue to address the issues that faced them in the first two years. What worked they
said they would keep and what didn't work they would discontinue and search again for
what would work. She cited the projects highlights: (1) a truly student-centered
curriculum, (2) a successful response to concerns about standardized test performance, (3) and innovative and powerful Personal Growth Plan for each student, 18 (4)given to teachers to design the program resulted in their persistent attempts to meet
students cognitive and affective needs, (5) they began to use technologies in new and
productive ways, (6) virtually all parents participated in student Personal Growth
Planning and assessment, and (7) Saturn's efforts not only informed local change, it has
served the national and international reform communities.
Planning is essential to the success of any project. There is rarely enough time for it. At
the higher ed level, there is time for research, planning and teaching. K-12 has no such
flexibility. One hour for prep does not allow enough time for planning and training for
new tasks, let alone meeting the standard classroom needs. Yet for change to happen,
planning must be a high and continuing priority. Moreover, the planning process needs to
be continually informed by what you are learning from change, both formally and
informally. Planning time was a big problem, so the school year and day were lengthened
(and staff were compensated), so Saturn could have more planning time. Staff need to
review and re-visit the project's mission and goals, build new schedules, learn about new
technologies, how to work effectively together in new roles, dialogue with evaluators and
other observers, discuss what's working and what needs working on. If you don’t take
adequate time to plan, events will take on a life and a resolution of their own. Planning is
an entire school community issue. All participants need to be involved, both customers
and providers. It is fair to characterize this dilemma as the single biggest obstacle to
change: there is rarely enough planning time in K-12 education, and certainly not where
change is concerned.
Whenever something radically new and exciting is begun, it seems to attract very
different personality types to it. These radical “creators” tend to be very bright, highly
energetic, individualistic and, thereby, strongly convinced their ideas are the right ones.
Staff who join at a later time may have great difficulty entering the "inner inventors"
circle. "Creators" are often very different from "maintainers" or "developers". Issues of
working productively together must be raised and time spent on keeping the
communication and trust channels open. Saturn was no exception. Staff spent
considerable time with several capable Organizational Development consultants and
these sessions met with limited success in promoting more comprehensive teaming. At
least, they did help define the issues of difference so discussion could continue.
Much of the difficulty, in hindsight, may be due to the fact the new roles at Saturn were
never sharply defined (new teacher positions, such as: Lead Teacher, Associate Teachers,
Generalist Teachers, Intern Teachers all were created by a Memorandum of Agreement
between the School Board and the Teacher Union). At the outset it wasn't known with
any certainty all of the responsibilities that these new positions had to take on.
Regrettably, the leadership model at Saturn did not effectively invite broad staff
participation or a team-based approach. More time should have been spent on effective
THE ISSUE OF UP-FRONT COSTS
Schools that are designed to be very different don’t usually fit into existing school sites
(without a lot of renovation). The learning environment is a major issue of school change.
New technologies for staff and students cost a fair amount of money, too. Costs will be
among the first criticisms of your critics. In need of a new school site, the Saturn
community found a languishing YWCA building, replete with gym, auditorium and pool.
No outside playground and little parking, but nonetheless, the site was located right in
the middle of the community resources Saturn wanted to use. In walking distance were
the Science Museum, the Art Museum and the downtown public library. So, ultimately
the deal was made. Lease purchase and renovation costs ran the levy outlay to $9.0M, a
fraction of the cost of building or leasing a new school downtown. The budget for
technology was a major cost factor, too. Nearly a million dollars was earmarked for
various computers and other media. Even the furniture, though comparably priced to
other typical school selections, was high-tech and futuristic looking. That "difference"
invited criticism too.
Midway through the first year of operation, when a good part of the technology was in
place, Saturn held a "grand opening' and invited the community to come and take a look.
Not too surprisingly, only the technology and furniture, the more readily visible, seemed
to catch the visitors and the critics' eyes. That this new school was an early R and D effort,
or that the program was highly innovative fell on deaf ears and blinded eyes. The
questions in many minds was, "How could the district approve such major expenditure of
dollars on untried assumptions, and with resources so scarce?" Before the first year was
over, the numerous nay-sayers were lobbying administration and board members to pull
the plug. The local paper, which gave some encouraging coverage before the school
opened, began to focus almost exclusively on the more visible program shortcomings and
the other rumors and criticisms fed to them. Some even came from a couple of
disgruntled Saturn staff who left early in the project. Before the end of the first year
evaluation period, Saturn was being held to more than the original outcomes of its five
year plan. To the staff it seemed they were entering a "you can't win no matter what"
mode. Responding to those challenge also diverted too much attention from other
pressing issues. Worse, the negative publicity made student recruitment to this magnet
school all the harder.
EQUITY AND SUPPORT FOR CHANGE
The St. Paul school district serves nearly 40,000 students in over 60 schools and
programs. It is still highly centralized, although efforts have been underway to create
several site-based schools. As in many schools across America today there are not nearly
enough resources to address the broad array of services schools attempt to provide.
Change is not a process that makes most folks comfortable. Most seasoned educators
have been led through their share of unsuccessful innovations and remain unconvinced.
Their negativism is heightened by the shrinking resources in public schools. With supply
budgets cut every year, there is less and less to go around. Equality among learners is impossible. When a
new program or idea gets funded, the "equity of resources" issue gets loudly raised by
staff in other schools who have been waiting forever for their equipment or supplies.
Their loss has clearly been your gain. Those are the complaints that go to the district
office or Board members and begin to work against the success of your change efforts.
More and more Saturn was not viewed positively in its own school district.
THE "NON-PROFESSIONAL" REACTIONS OF OTHER PROFESSIONALS
It is ironic that educators work in a profession where change is not only difficult in an of
itself, but is often actively subverted by educational professionals. And this is a
profession that is dedicated to change in behavior. Apparently, changes that are good for
our students, are not good for us educators. Virtually every district has concerted
opposition to finding better ways for learning to happen. New learning models mean new
roles for staff. Year round teacher positions were negotiated between the bargaining
agent and the board and compensated beyond the teacher contract. The Lead Team of
teachers had a salary greater than some of the school administrators in the district.
Originally we planned to re-create the role of "principal teacher': a half-time
administrator and half-time teacher who would serve in a supervisory and leadership
position. Once the principals caught wind of the proposal, protests were carried to the
Superintendent. So, we went with a half time principal and a Lead Team of teachers
which took up some of the new administrative roles. The good news was that we had a
principal assigned to the school who, like us, was new to such demanding challenges, and
was open to new ideas.
Being in the limelight shows your mistakes as well as your successes. Schools that are
very different attract attention. It's not only prophets who have trouble with the
hometown press. The press is in the business of selling newspapers. They seem afflicted
by a great case of the school grass is always greener somewhere else. Columnists often
lament that schools have dysfunctional students, overpaid teachers, and inept school
administrators. Even when the articles the press writes aren't all bad, whoever writes the
headlines for major newspapers seems gifted with a bad case cutsey humor laced with
cynicism and pessimism. We saw such cleverness as: "Has the Sun Set on Saturn" or
"Saturn Comes Crashing to Earth!" even when the test scores had improved! This was not
the case for publications outside our home town. Those stories were highly positive and
encouraging. Unfortunately, they were not read by most the families of the students we
hoped to attract. Once a reputation is tarnished, deserved or not, it is hard to change.
At the outset supportive, our local paper The St. Paul Pioneer Press became our most negative detractor. Rarely was positive news covered.
Anything which seems to suggest that all is not well with this new school gets front page
coverage. (We came to believe the reason was that bad news sells newspapers.) The local columnist wrote about one of our students who nervously misspelled a
word when he was entering information into a computer for President Bush during his
visit to Saturn. This very bright fifth grader, who programs and repairs our computers,
had spelled "college" as "colage." We had all we could do to keep the students from
writing a letter to the editor when that same columnist misspelled a word in one of his
stories a few weeks later. The important lesson here is: Never fight with folks who buy
their ink by the barrel. You can't win and they always get the last word. Staff don't worry
so much about spelling, anyway. That's what spell checkers are for. We focus more on
getting students to write and worry about the paper's "cosmetics" later. Standardized test
scores have not risen at Saturn. Other skills have been stressed. Staff and students
concentrate more on the skills these tests really don’t measure very well: problem solving
induction, deduction, group learning, brainstorming, project construction, videos,
Hyperstacks. Even though Saturn students have built exhibits for the local Science Museum of
Minnesota (where they also take their science classes), have painted a colorful downtown
mural, and won the city-wide mathematics league, the press ignore these significant
achievements and choose to focus on their very average standardized test scores.
Standardized tests are for standardized schools. Saturn is far, far from a standard school.
Other coverage has been kinder and more encouraging, understanding the tremendous
tasks this restructured school faces. Others seem to realize, unlike the local media, that
change-makers and risk-takers need to be encouraged, not discouraged.
PUTTING ON YOUR OWN SPIN...
In retrospect we learned that the "trick" to telling your reform story is getting an agreement to be held to standards
of your own choosing. Try to negotiate a set of project outcomes that align with the
mission. Set the goals up front and get the district leadership to agree. Without a clear
mission statement, a sensible set of objectives and some agreed upon milestones, you will
spend energy wherever the critics turn you. If goals are unrealistic or unclear, milestones
will become millstones and drag your efforts under. It's imperative to also have a clear,
proactive program of current information. Better for you to release the good and the not-
so-good news (and what you propose to do about it) than to answer a reporter's leading
question about why there has been another screw-up. You need an adept staff person in
charge of this key area. It's better to let the sun shine brightly on what you do and haven't
done. That's what R and D is all about anyway. Much of the criticism can be defused if
you're the first to offer it, and offer a sensible solution to the problem at hand.
CHOOSING YOUR NOOSE AND YOUR RIBBONS
Saturn agreed to participate in the district's standardized testing program. Staff bartered
for, and won other standards of performance to be measured against. They emphasized
measures that seemed more sensible and appropriate to a reinvented school than
standardized tests. These norm-based measures held us to standards our staff weren't
spending very much time addressing. Besides, a new model like Saturn wasn't really
ready to be compared to traditional schools. It was a legitimate question in the staff's
minds if it ever should be, district requirements notwithstanding. From the beginning they
focused on student performance outcomes, as measured by portfolios and directed by
each student's personal growth plan. While national norms may be helpful in comparing
different schools with similar curriculums, they are nearly worthless when it comes to
evaluating individual student performance and outcomes. If you have a very new, non-
standard, developing program, watch out for the standardized pitfalls. Truly experimental
programs should be exempted from standardized test issues for their beginning years.
But sometimes that isn't possible. Restructured schools may be held to both new and old
standards. So it was at Saturn. Faced with the dilemma, and given some bad advice, we
counted on our new computer-based Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) to address the
skills of reading, math, language mechanics. Plainly put, it just didn't work. These individualized, computer-based tutorial,
drill and practice systems were designed to be helpful adjuncts to standardized, textbook
driven learning. Saturn had chosen to use no textbooks. With no connection back to a
typical classroom environment, the ILS activities seemed to go in one ear and out the
other. Many students progressed quickly through the lessons, but not learning, the skills.
They were unable to apply what they had learned when the standardized tests came
along. We found that there is a limited role for these systems. Students who had been
below grade level did seem to benefit from ILS. But, the better students often found the
system boring and disliked the highly prescriptive learning and lack of choices. Until
ILS is more flexible and addresses various learning styles and abilities more
appropriately, it is a questionable tool from a cost-effective standpoint.
SETTING YOUR CURRICULUM COMMANDMENTS
Much of what happens in K-12 education gets dictated by higher education. Post
secondary admission standards are set and faculty write most of the textbooks K-12 uses;
Higher ed trains our teachers. If exit interviews were conducted with teacher training
grads or a year after a year or two of teaching, the colleges would find that their own
curriculum had missed the mark. Teachers spend not nearly enough time observing other
good teachers, practicing teaching skills, using new learning technologies, teaming and
working in multicultural environments, becoming skilled with project based learning
and cooperative learning strategies, knowing how to be a facilitator or conductor of
learning and not a purveyor or font of all knowledge. If teacher trainers aren't passing
these skills onto our teachers, how can teachers pass them on to the student. Until higher
education is itself restructured, there is a tremendous burden placed on district inservice
and training for staff. It makes better sense for teacher education to be a collaborative
effort between higher ed and K-12 schools. The medical profession uses an intensive,
hands-on training model. Doctors even call their working years a "practice"; we need a
lot more practice in teacher training and teaching.
Form needs to follow function. Too many school reform projects are located in settings
that are not only unconducive to change, change is effectively blocked. Moreover, just
because a school may look different, doesn’t means that it is. A lot of construction and
renovation money can be spent poorly if the thinking about new purpose is also poor.
Space and equipment changes alone don’t mean restructured schooling. You can add
Wide Area Networks and Local Area Networks and labs and modems and even complex
Computer-Assisted Design and Drafting tools. But if students and teachers behave in the
same old ways, nothing has really changed. It's often difficult for new behaviors to
match the new visions if the surroundings don't allow, even encourage it. This early
"visioning" process of what you want your new learning site to look like, sound like, feel
like is key to its becoming. Spend enough time with it.
It makes good sense to involve the school community in the early design phase. There's
much greater ownership when those involved have input into what a building looks like
and how it works. Students particularly need to be heard about what their school should
be like. At Saturn they chose the colors of the walls and the carpets and had input to the
design of the unique cooperative learning areas. The consulting architect we retained
didn't come to the project with the "right answers" before the questions were asked. He
was wide open to new thinking, encouraging visioning and discussion on the part of the
school community. A school that claims to be very different probably ought to look very
different, too. Current school spaces are not conducive to innovation. Cooperative
learning is hard to make happen when desks are aligned in rows. Classroom are just not
well designed for most student project activities, small group work, different uses of
technology, independent reading or thinking, and so on. If evolution is to happen in
schools, schools must evolve in the way they look and function.
GRANDMOTHER’S RULES FOR INNOVATORS:
When I first started in school administration, a wizened colleague
gave me a copy of some tips on rules to follow to be successful. One part was called
“Grandmother’s Rules.” They were a lot more meaningful to me than the hard line
Grandfather’s Rules which gave competitive tips on how to assure one's effective and
competitive climb through a vertical organization.
Grandmother's rules are the ones that
have been the more useful to me and have stayed in my mind all these years. They serve
as good rules when it comes to innovation, too: Here’s my top five from that list and a
rejoinder: 1. "Everyone needs success and praise!" Decorate the "troops" for their
heroism (staff, students and parents); there will be plenty of it. Keep your eyes
open for success and for extraordinary effort. Run off award certificates or just
say a public or private thanks now and then.
2. "Some days you just can’t make it! " Recognize it isn't' going to be a
good day every day, but, if you look for it every day will have some good in it.
You can learn from the bad experiences, too. Accept the balances in life.
3. "No one can do better than they can do!" give it your best shot; if it
still doesn’t work, forget it and try something else. The list of workable solutions is long. "Regardless of your past, the future is a clean slate." Or as Thomas Edison said when something doesn't work that's one less solution to my problem. 4. "Everyone at every moment can be more than he or she is!"
Encourage the best in others, you just might get it. Challenges can bring supreme
and successful efforts that most folks thought they could never achieve. You have
to think you can do it before you try it. We all possess skills and gifts that often
times we never knew we had. Create a community that brings out these
5. "If you want happy people hire happy people! " This works for more
than happiness. It's critical that the right people be selected for the right job. Yes,
you can often change people's behaviors. That's why we're in the profession we
are. But, sometimes you can't make people do what they can't or won't do. Hire
the critical skills you want by first finding people who have them. Create an
interview and selection process that will select the right person for the job. Help
people soar with their strengths and manage their weaknesses.
BUILDING A COMMITMENT TO CHANGE
If you have ever been involved in a major change effort it is not hard to understand why
its not a highly populated arena. Personal and professional reputations are put on the line;
it is physically and psychologically demanding; support is often withdrawn over time;
major goals may not be realized; friendships and professional associations may become
strained; burn-out and drop-out are commonplace. Most true change agents I have known
are a persistently disquieted and committed group. They are not satisfied with the way
things are. They are the ones who see things as they might be and wonder, "Why not?" Major school changes do not occur overnight. Whatever major success that happens
won't happen overnight either. Whatever major success that happens
won't happen overnight either. The real test of success of school reform is in the learning lives of the students who experience it. Will they take the self-directed skills they learn
with them into later learning, will they continue their commitment to question, to
collaborate, to research, to construct, to test, to revise, to share? 26
The evaluators and the staff at Saturn don't know the answers to these questions yet. The
former Lead Teacher is completing a doctoral thesis which examines these longer term
issues and other questions. It is my belief in talking with staff that many of the students
and their parents believe that new, self-directed learning is happening. Many former
Saturn students lament the lack of an active learning environment in the schools to which
they transfer. But, they also know how to make their learning more active and productive. There seems to be reason to be cautiously confidant that many Saturn students are
learning how to learn and integrating a commitment to learning into their lives . Firmer
conclusions as to the persistence of this desirable behavior won't be known for decades.
We need to hear from these students when they become adult learners, as customers who,
having received this new product, can tell us more about their satisfactions and
I, too, must continue my learning. Much of it still comes from students. My visits to Saturn
have provided me with optimism and a couple of wonderful anecdotes with which to
close this chapter. They are my "lessons from Saturn."
The first lesson occurred during the second year and not long after we had moved into
our new downtown site. We have this marvelous learning space students call the "Co-op."
It's a student and staff designed space which encourages cooperative learning: tables,
computers and other media, reclining areas, even telephones to gather information.
Students do a fair amount of research in the Co-op. In fact, a course is taught at Saturn on what goes
into good and productive research, culminating in a paper the student must do and
One day I was touring the area and caught Nathan's expressive, seemingly troubled eyes,
staring out the third floor window, watching airplanes land at St. Paul's nearby downtown
airport. "What's up?, I asked. "Oh, I got this paper I've got to do and I don't know what to
do it on," he replied. Trying not to be too helpful, I said, "Well it often makes sense to
pick something you're really interested in." I thought no more of it until a couple of
weeks later, I passed him in the same area. This time he was busy writing notes on the
Mac. "How's the paper going?" I asked. "Well, I haven't had time to write it yet," he said,
"I've been too busy researching it. When I asked what that meant, he told me that he had
always been interested in flight and the nearby air traffic led him to pick up the phone
and call the airport. Saturn teaches students how to get information from many sources
and that includes using the phone. That, in addition to his natural loquaciousness
wrangled an invitation to come down and visit. In fact, they said there was a Civil Air
Patrol meeting that weekend and why not come by. And so he did and lots of ideas, but
wasn't sure what yet to write about. Another couple of weeks passed and my next inquiry
brought a similar response: too busy. When I asked why he was so busy he told me that
he had met a Northwest Airlines pilot and somehow had cajoled his way into their DC-10
and 747 simulators in the name of his "research." Well, I was clearly impressed, having
had the same wish for years. "How was it?" I asked. "Oh, the DC-10 is no problem after a
few tries, but that 747 is really tough!" When I pressed further, he allowed as how the
cockpit on the 747 is so high it distorts the pilot's perception that the wheels are on the
ground long before you think they will be. This results in some awful hard landings. I
was amazed. Further research on my part from a pilot friend revealed that Nathan was
absolutely right and was experiencing, precociously, what pilots in training had to learn.
To make this long story shorter, Nathan eventually wrote up some parts of this marvelous
leaning experience. More importantly, he had found a passion. Wanting to become a
Navy pilot, and wanting to learn those skills as a part of a Naval Academy education, he
now had a renewed interest in science and mathematics. I have no doubt that Nathan will
"land" wherever he wants too. I recognize that this story could have happened in any
school, but I like to believe that the Saturn School environment made it more likely.
This last story is one that was very moving for me. Jeremiah came to Saturn in the second
year as a seventh grader and a considerable challenge to those who worked with him. Tall
and street-smart, he just wasn't buying without trying. Getting him to try was no easy
task. His mouth had him in occasional trouble, but the staff are accustomed to "students-
of-challenge." Persistence matters most and our Lead Teacher got him interested in Lego-Logo, a computer program that lets student create robotic devices and write the programs
that makes them "do" things. Most kids love it and Jeremiah was no exception. He got so
good in fact that, when our school was notified that President Bush would be visiting us,
Jeremiah was chosen as one of a few students who would demonstrate their projects to
the president. Many of those selected were nervous about all this hoopla, but not
Jeremiah. When I escorted President Bush to Jeremiah's table and stepped back, I could
see that he had the president's full attention as he explained the intricacies of his
apparatus. But, being some distance back, I couldn't hear what was said between them.
When we moved on, the president allowed as how young Jeremiah was an impressive lad
with a seemingly good future. The next day a local paper ran a remarkable photo of
Jeremiah (in the classical Rodin's thinker pose) and the president asking what must have
been a tough question. When
I saw Jeremiah, I showed him the photo and commended
him. I asked him what the question was. "Well, he asked me what I like about
computers," he said. "I had to think a while, because I like computers a lot. But I told him
what I liked most was that they let me learn with my hands." He explained further to this
important Washington visitor that learning from books or lectures was hard for him, but
he loved learning by doing. That was a message the president really needed to hear about
technology. Knowing I had the "teachable moment" I told Jeremiah that the president
expected great things of him. He looked me squarely in the eye, smiled and said quietly,
"I know." We shall see. I remain optimistic that this presidential prophecy will be
The long term answers about the success of school change aren't in yet. Some will be
years in the finding. It has seemed to us to be a good idea to involve current students at
Saturn in getting the answers from the former students. As a part of their research course,
they could contact our "graduates" and find out what worked and didn't, what they liked
and didn't. This kind of research is what informs Saturn's progress. And former students
get a chance to "model" what they learned for those who are learning it. Isn't that what
real learning is all about, passing it on with whatever our uniqueness we can add?
SUSTAINING CHANGE: THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LAST...AND GET
To Ernest Hemingway's, "The important thing is to last," I would add Sam Snead's great
quote, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Then add Vince Lombardi’s, “Perfect
practice makes perfect” and you’ve got a formula that, over time, is bound to produce
success. But, change, if it is to happen, has got to be given a real chance. There is
growing evidence to support that minor changes take three to five years to work. Major
change likely needs five to ten years or more to become successful. After all, change
in behavior is what educators are committed to make happen. We must be willing to
make the same commitments we would ask of our students. That's what is great about
school reform: both students and teachers (and, even parents) all get a chance to learn
together. The best learning happens in schools where everyone is a learner.
REINVENTING SCHOOLS; REINVENTING OURSELVES:
There are many communities which affect our lives and may ask of our efforts. Worthy
of our abiding commitment are those that encourage the continued, personal growth of
each member. Those who reflect on their learning know that it comes as a part of
communal, interdependent experiences. Fairly, we would find ourselves both receiving
and sharing learning with and from others. One reason it is as important to give in
learning as to receive is that the "teacher" grows just as the student. Whether teacher or
student, we test and refine our knowledge in the sharing and the taking. We may see our
knowledge complemented or expanded by others as they return their delvings and doings.
The greatest achievement for a teacher is to find that our students have become teachers.
They teach us, too.
We asked our students to tell us their own story about Saturn School of Tomorrow. They created a video that I am proud to show to this day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGLeGWLWNcQ What a wonderful compliment it is to a teacher to see what we taught
re-molded, expanded, re-thought and given to others. Paraphrasing Sir Isaac Newton, we
become the shoulders that future giants stand on, as we once stood. That's how it's been
for me. Thank you Grandpa, for giving me the gift of wanting to learn. It's a gift that truly keeps on
giving. I'll keep on looking for what works and passing it on to others. Next to parenthood, education is the second most important relationship. Sometimes the first.