“Schooling Success and Change:"
Some Personal Lessons in Life Learned from the Saturn School of Tomorrow (1987-1995)
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 pays.
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.
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
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 is broken.
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 process:
"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 any better.
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 64:679-683.
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 change.
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, charter premises:
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 venture.
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 experienced.
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 first steps.
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 process.
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 found.
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,
(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 teambuilding.
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 superlative efforts.
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?
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 suggestions.
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 present.
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 fulfilled.
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 BETTER
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.
Pass it on!