Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Guest post: One (Managed) Vision

Our school district is currently in the process of developing a Facilities Master Plan. I am largely boycotting the discussion because it strikes me as just one more distraction from issues that I think are more central and that somehow never get debated (see this post). But it does raise issues about process and democratic accountability that are up this blog’s alley, and fortunately Karen W. offered to report on one of the “Visioning Workshops” the district held to get public input on what our facilities priorities should be.

After Karen wrote the post below, she emailed me: “On the way home, my thoughts on the meeting this morning boiled down to this: There are two purposes to inviting public input. One is to hope to make the best decisions possible by having a full and open debate of the issues (see zealous advocacy/courtroom model) and the second is to create buy-in for a decision already made (make people feel like they participated so they own the results). These workshops (and the engagement website) feel a lot more like the latter than the former.”

I attended a Visioning Workshop today. There were roughly sixty or so people in attendance (Jeff Charis-Carlson from the Press-Citizen was there; he may have a better head count) including district personnel.

Sam Johnson and Barbara Meek from BLDD Architects ran the workshop. They started out with an overview of the process and then an overview of school design from the one room schoolhouse to graded elementary schools to the addition of school gymnasiums and cafeterias, and so on.

They then showed an edited version of this Iowa, Did You Know? video from IowaFuture.org.

They discussed the need to design school facilities to support changes in curriculum and instruction, referencing the Iowa Core and the Six Universal Constructs: critical thinking; complex communication; creativity; collaboration; flexibility and adaptability; and, productivity and accountability.

They also talked about how they thought things might be different for both students and teachers in 2031. They predict students will be learning differently with blended learning, bundled learning, and working collaboratively in groups while teachers will act more as guides on the side, provide student-centered activities, and spend more time in professional development activities.

In addition to creating spaces that support the Iowa Core and the Universal Constructs, they also discussed designing spaces that accommodate all learning styles.

Participants were also provided with this learning styles quiz. For what it is worth, and Dan Willingham tells us that it is worth very little because learning styles don’t exist, I happen to be an intrapersonal/interpersonal learner, at least today with these particular quiz questions.

They discussed design characteristics of 21st Century schools (note classrooms are now “learning environments”) and gave examples of 21st Century designs for elementary schools (Borlaug), middle schools, and high schools. One high school used as an example was arranged not by department, but by the Four Cs, with a critical thinking learning studio, a creativity learning studio, and so on. Having attended a 1960s era, open/flexible classroom type elementary school with movable walls, it is hard not to be wary about constructing buildings planned around what may be passing pedagogical fads.

Participants at each table were then invited to work together as a group to identify priorities from a provided list of 21st Century school design characteristics (healthy; sustainable and energy efficient; superior lighting; proper acoustics; engaging; safe and secure; technology infused; fluid/flexible; student-centered; and, connected to nature). There was some frustration at our table as we tried to fit our concerns into one of the provided categories. For example, there was clearly something lost when we had to reduce “students shouldn’t have to eat lunch on the floors in the hallways at the high schools because the cafeteria is inadequate” to “student-centered.”

A school board member passing by remarked that she noticed how similar the conversations at the various tables were. No kidding—that seems to be the point of offering a prepared list rather than allowing us to use our own words. In this sense, these workshops are similar to the managed sharing of good ideas through the Engage Iowa City Schools website.

They then explained the process and presented some of the information from the physical assessment and the educational adequacy and security review of the district facilities. If I understood correctly, adding air conditioning to every building in the district will cost more than thirty million dollars, which might explain why it hasn’t been undertaken yet. With the growth in enrollment, what’s the priority—more classrooms or air conditioning?

Participants at each table were then invited to work together as a group to identify priorities from another provided list: neighborhood schools, safe schools, air conditioning, infrastructure upgrades, improve energy efficiency, multi-purpose spaces, athletic facilities, adequate site size, construct facilities, accessibility, elimination of modular/temporary classrooms, class size, operational efficiencies, and classroom upgrades. Again, there was some frustration. At least one participant at our table came prepared to talk about the North Liberty high school and had to settle for “neighborhood schools.” At other tables, participants had plainly come to talk about facilities equity and had to settle for editorializing when reporting their priorities to the whole group.

During the workshop, participants were also invited to submit three words that we thought visitors would use to describe current district facilities. These words were then used to create a wordle. The most frequently occurring words included crowded, aging, inequitable, and outdated. Later, participants were invited to submit words that we hoped visitors would use to describe district facilities after new construction and upgrades. The most frequently occurring words included student-centered, technology, engaging, equitable, modern, innovative, and safe.

I suspect that many participants might have preferred to talk about where we might build new schools, what type of schools we might build, and how we might prioritize new construction and building upgrades (both from the discussion at our table and the inequitable/equitable talk). Instead, we were confined to a largely uncontroversial discussion about the fact that the district needs enough classrooms for all the students and that energy efficiency is a good thing.

The wordles and other materials are supposed to be posted on the Facilities Master Planning page of the district website. Members of the public will have another opportunity to provide input at Master Plan Workshops scheduled for May 11th, 13th, and 14th. We are also invited to e-mail comments to the steering committee at OneVision@IowaCitySchools.org, though note that the e-mails will be posted on the district website.


Chris said...

Thanks, Karen. Whenever I see the district's attempts at soliciting "public input," I always wonder: What are they so afraid of? Sometimes it really does seem like they see the public the same way they see the kids: as a behavior problem waiting to happen. Or are they afraid that an unmanaged workshop will start raising uncomfortable questions?

On the topic of the engagement website, see posts here and here.

Karen W said...

Jason T. Lewis offers his take on the workshops in the Press-Citizen:


I agree with him that educational programming should be a bigger part of the conversation (I think I've previously referred to Nick Johnson's post on that--need to know what programs you want to offer before you know what kind of building you want to build).

But I don't think that "forward-looking, nimble educational environment for all" provides much in the way of educational philosophy guidance for planning programs or building projects and neither does "21st Century classrooms" for that matter.

By the way, Chris, I think that an unmanaged workshop would raise uncomfortable questions (like, why hasn't the district done more to fix ongoing issues with lunch or not enough seats in some classrooms for every student assigned to the class etc.) but also, if we each used our own words, we might not "come to a consensus" about describing our priorities as "student-centered" or "technology-infused." We might have said something less exciting like "more recess" and "space for every kid to sit and eat in the cafeteria" instead.

Chris said...

Karen -- Thanks for that link, which I wasn't aware of. (Here's the clickable version.)

My reaction is the same as yours: it's great for a board candidate to say that we need to talk about educational philosophy, but I'd like to get a better sense of what he thinks that philosophy should be.

Press-Citizen guest opinion pieces have tight space constraints -- but let's hope he eventually writes a Part 2.

And I think you're right that there are certain cans of worms that district administrators just don't want to open: though simply confining the discussion to facilities does a lot of that work for them. We should do some brainstorming and see if we can translate "greatly reduced role for standardized testing" into a building issue . . .

Karen W said...

Press-Citizen has another follow up article:


"School officials were underwhelmed at turnout"--180 participants for all three workshops combined--and some hints at what happens next.