Seeing the Unseen

 Dave reflects on how schools are a bit like dinosaurs. 

I recently discovered podcasts and have become a bit of an addict. One of the podcasts I like is 99% Invisible which focuses on design. A recent broadcast focused on the popular image of dinosaurs.
 
I am old enough to remember when dinosaurs were depicted as large, lumbering cold-blooded creatures with little intelligence. It was not surprising that we brilliant warm-blooded mammals took over at the first opportunity.
 
Then, due to the work of Robert Bakker (the prototype for Dr. Robert Burke in Jurassic Park) and others, dinosaurs began to be portrayed as agile, social and intelligent. Their demise was certainly due to bad luck. Certainly, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park looked fast and like they had just come from the gym—sleek, muscular with not an ounce of fat.
 
Our images of dinosaurs are informed by paleo-artists (who knew such a job existed?). These scientist/artists draw dinosaurs according to the latest scientific studies as they try to capture the most realistic representations of extinct creatures.
 
John Conway, one of the leading paleo-artists, recently realized he was drawing dinosaurs based solely on their skeletons. Bone can make it through the millennia but, as he points out, fat does not. A future paleontologist who came across the bones of the then extinct elephant would never think the creature had a trunk—there is no evidence of that fatty protuberance. Likewise, the extinct camel would not be depicted with humps. Conway is now convinced the sleek dinosaurs we currently portray are not accurate.
 
I think schools are a bit like the dinosaurs. It is easy to see the bones of what happens every day and most schools look alike. They expose students to reading, writing, math, history and science. These are supplemented with specials and electives. Students arrive around 8 AM and school ends around 3:15 PM. The danger to observing schools this way is that you miss the interesting trunks and humps.
 
At a recent board meeting, one of our members, who is also an alum, mentioned Duke School has a curriculum of integrity. By this he meant that all of the teachers understand the school’s mission and work to ensure our students are critical and creative thinkers, have appropriate agency, develop persistence, and understand the importance of equity and justice. While each teacher has his/her own style (and agency), everyone’s teaching is similar enough to ensure a consistent experience preschool through grade eight. This contrasts with many schools in which many different teaching styles—some not very student centered—are condoned.
 
He also meant that Duke School is preparing students for a future in which success calls for skills that are routinely ignored in many places. If you are constantly tested, you are going to believe that there is one right answer, rather than many possibilities. If you are told that an answer is wrong, you shrug in disappointment and move on. If you are told you can and are expected to do better, you develop persistence. If you are told that the teacher supplies all the questions, you will not develop the agency to determine what you want to know nor the drive to determine how to get the answer.
 
If you are told that school has little to do with the real world, you will never become an upstander nor understand that school must create an environment of equity and justice just like the world.
 
These components of a curriculum of integrity are hard to see from the bones of school but it is our elephant’s trunk; it is what makes us unique and worth much.
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