Visioning a better school, a better way of educating

school cropped

I spent a good part of the 1990s working towards creating an alternative to traditional schooling for my own daughter and the children of similarly-minded parents. For an assortment of reasons, none of which had anything to do with education, we didn’t get the school operational. There is a big part of me that still longs for that alternative and I am always interested to hear of situations which espouse similar beliefs and attitudes to mine. When I do, my heart starts to race and I want to holler and jump for joy, shouting from the rooftops, “See it can be done! This is how it should be! This is what children need!” I want to be in there with them, a part of it all, learning from and with them, and perhaps even adding a little to their learning, should I be that impudent to suggest it possible.

Yesterday was one such occasion. I popped over to Tara Smith’s A Teaching Life blog and read her post “Preparing for a student teacher”. I always enjoy reading Tara’s blog and could identify with much of what she was feeling while preparing to welcome a student teacher into her classroom. But what got me most excited was a video of a talk given by Chris Lehmann at the 2013 MassCue (Massachusetts Computer Using Educators) conference.

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the inquiry-driven Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia. The achievements of both Chris and the SLA are rather impressive. You can read about them here, here and here. Chris is one excited, enthusiastic and inspiring educator.

The video of Chris’s keynote address to the conference is rather long at almost 1 hour and 8 minutes (in comparison the mostly 15-minute TED talks that I often watch). I admit that when I saw how long it was I baulked, wondering if I had that amount of time to “spare”. Fortunately something in Tara’s words induced me to do so. After all I didn’t have to watch it all, did I? But watch it all I did. How could I not? His dream was my dream:

I-had-this-dream-Chris Lehmann

And then Chris added:

 ‘all these people showed up and breathed life into that dream’

Here is his talk. If you don’t have time to listen to it all, I give you a few of my favourite quotes. (You may have already encountered some of these ideas before on my blog!) But who knows, he may have other thoughts that resonate with you.

People-send-us-their Chris Lehmann

Chris says that many people often ask why schools can have so many problems when there are so many passionate, dedicated teachers. He answer is simple: ‘We have a systemically screwed up system and if you put a good person in a bad system the system wins way too often.’ He says that ‘the factory model of education . . . no longer works for our children if it ever did.’

Chris says that one of the biggest problems with many schools is that students are being repeatedly told to do stuff that they may never need or even care about. He says, ‘If we were to write a students’ bill of rights the first statement on it should be this question:


‘Why do I need to know this?’



He then goes on to say that ‘They shouldn’t even need to ask it because the reason should be so apparent through the work that they are doing that is meaningful and relevant to their life right now.’

He says that kids can do amazing things but that the sad thing is that unless it can answer a question on a state-wide test, no one will care! He says that using data from standardised tests is dangerous and that the best data comes from the work students are doing in class every day.

He says that better questions to ask of schools would be:

‘What is your college persistence rate?

How many of your graduates five years out are either in school or in a job where they are over the poverty level?

What does a student survey of your school tell you about whether or not the students feel valued and feel that their education is valuable?’

 Personalised-instruction Chris Lehmann

These are just some of the things that Chris Lehmann says schools should be:

  • Inquiry driven
  • Student centred
  • Teacher mentored
  • Community based
  • Places of collaboration and incredible passion with
  • Integrated learning
  • Project based

 High-school-should-not Chris Lehmann

In traditional classrooms the assessment tool is a test. Chris talks not about tests but about projects. He says,

“If you really want to see what a kid has learned it’s about the project, it’s about what they can do, what they can create, what they can transfer, what they can make, what they can do with their own head, heart and hands. A true project is when kids get to own it.’

Every-moment-of-time-a Chris Lehmann

Technology-needs-to-be Chris Lehmann

His goal is to educate people to be ‘thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind’ and says that

‘ what were really trying to do is nothing less than trying to change the world.’

This brings me back to my two previous posts How much of a meliorist are you? and Can you make a difference? which drew quite a debate (unintended) about whether we believe we can, or should, try to change (i.e. improve) the ‘world’. I think Caroline Lodge who blogs at book word sums it up quite nicely for educators, saying

‘ I am a meliorist. How can someone in education stay there if they are not? The kids improve their skills and understanding, the world turns, and sometimes (like this summer) seems on the way to hell in the proverbial handcart. But there are SO MANY people working to improve the world. Educators as special people in this.’

For Chris,

‘The link between an inquiry-driven education and a care-driven education are three simple questions:

What do you think?

How do you feel?

What do you need?’


He says, ‘Everything you do should empower children.’ Thanks Chris. My words exactly!

He says,

‘Kids can do real work. We have to dare them to do that, we’ve got to help them, we’ve got to facilitate the work and we’ve got to get out of the way.’

The Science Leadership Academy is not the only ‘school’ of note. In response to previous posts, including Food for thought and Are you ready to embrace the future Charli Mills of the Carrot Ranch left comments and links to information about a school attended by her children, the Minneapolis’s School of Environmental Studies (SES). Charli linked to this article about the school and another on Edutopia that includes a 10-minute video that she says aptly describes what makes SES a learner-based school. She also provided a link to a very impressive student project developed by two of her daughter’s classmates, and a link to a video produced by students explaining the school. Overall, if I represent her views correctly, Charli was very happy with the education her children received at SES and the impact that project-based learning had on their lives.

These are just two of the many wonderful schools out there empowering learners. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.

Thank you

I value your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post. I’m happy to follow the discussion wherever you lead.



14 thoughts on “Visioning a better school, a better way of educating

  1. Pingback: Kept in the dark | Norah Colvin

    1. Norah Post author

      I love your comment, Michelle, and I very much appreciate all reading and commenting you have done on my posts. You have been very generous with your time and thoughts. I applaud your interest in achieving the greatest education possible for today’s youth. We are totally attuned there. Thank you so much for fining my blog and adding to the conversations. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bec

    Thanks Nor for this very interesting article (and for summarising the hour long clip…). I can see many of your educational philosophies reflected in the quotes from Chris you have shown. Even though your alt-school didn’t come to be, all the ideas you injected into the world are still circulating out there, so I have little doubt that, even if not in the way you had intended, you are impacting on the education of many folks through the ripples you have created by your conversations and hard work.


  3. TanGental

    This brings to mind a conversation my daughter had with her chemistry teacher at about 15. Some element (oops sorry about the pun) of one lesson confused her; she asked for an explanation and still didn’t get it and failed to pursue the query. Two weeks later the fact she hadn’t understood became apparent and the teacher asked why she hadn’t asked for more clarification. Daughter was a little upset and bemused to be told that she had reached an age where she needed to take responsibility for her education. Now this reads like the teacher was difficult and unhelpful which is the exact opposite; she was inspiring which is what confused J. But we talked it through and it gradually dawned on J that Miss C was doing her a great favour, empowering her to demand what she needed to get the most out of the subject. Three years on and she’s won the chemistry prize two years in succession, achieves 100% (sorry, parental boast but it’s sort of relevant) in all her Chemistry exams and has the degree course she’s wanted since 12 as a vet at least in part because of her sciences. And at uni I hear from her friends she is a terrier when it comes to telling the lecturers what she expects of them for the fees she is paying. That empowerment has been crucial and it came from a respected teacher to a pupil ripe for being given that room. Miss C will always be a hero of mine.
    As we discussed before Nora, in a way the label ‘teacher’ doesn’t help. What we want/need are facilitators in education. ‘Teacher’ begets ‘taught’ which begets ‘being told’ which assumes the ‘teller’ knows what the ‘tellee’ needs. I loved Chris’s list of requirements. Broadly my kids school achieved that by creating the community of everyone involved in the process. And from as young as we could we ensured our two had a major say in what they did and why they were doing it. Seems to have worked ok; they both love learning apart from the lawyer berating us for not forcing him to like languages earlier. Great post. I will watch Chris’s video later.


    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks so much for your comment and support, Geoff. I always enjoy hearing positive anecdotes about your offspring and their education. They were not only fortunate in having wonderful supportive parents, but additionally so for having had teachers (facilitators) who provided them opportunities to learn, just at the appropriate moment. Those ‘lessons’ would certainly have contributed to the empowerment J feels in following her life choices. And as for parents, don’t they have unlimited bragging rights? Brag on, I say. 🙂


  4. Charli Mills

    Such an impassioned post, Norah and great explanation of the type of vision you have for education. I think it’s important to show other models and even talk about the challenges of getting a different model in place. You certainly encourage others to get excited about learner-based education and I’m thrilled that you included SES and the link in your post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your interest and support, Charli. I love to share things I find exciting about education. The excitement is too great to keep in! 🙂


  5. Annecdotist

    Sad you weren’t able to bring your own experiment to fruition, Norah, as I’m sure any school run by you would be fabulous, but glad you can take pleasure from finding and celebrating good practice in other places.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your support, Anne. It’s easy for me to say how great it would have been. Proving it would have been another thing. I’m disappointed I didn’t get the chance to do so though; but that disappointment diminishes with time and with the knowledge that there are others out there doing great things. I just wish there were more! 🙂



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