Creating the schools we need: Learning from Chris Lehmann


Teaching | Thursday, September 4, 2014

Creating the schools we need: Learning from Chris Lehmann

Creating the schools we need: Learning from Chris Lehmann
Creating the schools we need: Learning from Chris Lehmann

When Chris Lehmann didn’t see the qualities he wanted in schools, he created his own. His experience teaches us lots about innovation and courage. (Sketch by Matt Miller) (Click for larger version)

When Chris Lehmann didn’t see the qualities he wanted in schools, he didn’t just turn to Twitter to complain about it or sit idly.

He created the school he envisioned.

Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, an inquiry-driven, project-based modern high school in Philadelphia. It is one of the 10 Most Amazing Schools, according to Ladies Home Journal.

His actions and the things his students do at SLA are inspiring enough. Listen to the man speak about education — what appears to be his true passion — and he paints a vision of a promising future with great potential. He certainly ditches the textbook prototype of what education and schools are.

I was fortunate to hear him speak at the Greater Clark Connected Conference in Jeffersonville, Ind., this summer. He has delivered a keynote to the International Society for Technology in Education Conference and given TEDx speeches in Philadelphia (Education Is Broken) and in New York (School 2.0: Creating the Schools We Need — the speech I sketchnoted at the top of this post).

Here are some of my top take-aways from the messages I’ve heard him give:

1. “Why does school stink? Because most of what students do is based on compliance.”

For decades, schools have adopted and pushed a culture of “do exactly as the teacher says.” It was a very desirable trait in employees for many, many years. But the world has changed, and so have the needs for the workforce. Employers are looking for communicators, creative thinkers and problem solvers. A culture of compliance won’t produce those attributes.

2. “Schools should be democratic, messy, loud places where kids are everywhere.”

Lehmann speaks of his joy in walking around the Science Leadership Academy armed with his iPhone taking pictures. There’s a lot to photograph because students are everywhere — creating, testing, tinkering and trying. He’s right. Schools should be democratic: students should have a voice and input in what the school looks like, stands for and teaches them. They should be messy: taking risks and giving up control are messy but can be very fruitful. They should be loud: team work and collaboration doesn’t happen in silent rows.

3. “Classes should be bridges, not silos.”

Learning doesn’t have to happen inside the four walls of the classroom anymore. Collaborative tools let students share ideas in blogs, publish their work in websites, connect with other countries through video chats and work with others around the world in shared documents. We can break down the walls and broaden our students’ horizons, or we can keep the walls up and fence them in.

4. “Technology should be ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.”

Technology can’t be a class or a special day in class. If we use it that way, it becomes the focal point instead of a tool to help us achieve more. It should be ubiquitous — everywhere — especially where it can make what we do more efficient or empower us to do more. It should be necessary, because so many things we can do with technology can’t be done without it. It should also be invisible; when schools work with technology and don’t think about it anymore, it is truly integrated.

5. “Data-driven requires good data — and good data ain’t cheap.”

So many schools base so many decisions on results of standardized tests. They can provide some solid data, but it’s not always the best, and it’s not always what schools really need. Many of them don’t give any indication of how students will perform on those critical skills mentioned earlier: communication, problem solving and creative thinking. Schools should invest — and by invest, I mean time and effort as much as money — in good data.

6. “We’ve got to build caring institutions. We teach kids, not subjects.”

Lehmann suggests that math teachers quit saying they teach math, and that first grade teachers quit saying they teach first grade. Teachers teach kids. He contends that the relationship between student and teacher is more important than the relationship between teacher and subject.

What do you think? Is Lehmann on the money? What’s your favorite mentioned above? What does they make you think about? Share your ideas in a comment below!

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  • Mark says:

    Matt, I think every school should have a quality design department. Not so children can study design as a subject but rather a department that interlinks with all other departments over PBL and maker learning. While building stuff is not the only way to enhance creativity and critical thinking skills it certainly plays a big part.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Wow, that would be a HUGE resource. I would be hitting the design department up for ideas and help all the time. That’s one of those topics I’d like to integrate into my classes more but haven’t found/made the time to learn more. If there was someone in my building or district that could give me some one-on-one advice, that would give me the incentive to give it a shot!

  • I agree with these take-away thoughts. I listened to a student today tell me about how his house burned down over the summer and looked at his flute which had survived the fire. It didn’t relate to our German material, but I struggled with this student last year. I called him the wrong name (accidentally, but frequently) and thought he was a troublemaker. What a turn-around this year! He now is an officer in German Club and pushes the class to do better. I may teach German, but teaching the kids is my #1 priority.

    • Matt Miller says:

      That is an impressive turnaround. And you’re doing what Chris mentions in the quotes in this post — you’re building relationships, and they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, right? Thanks for sharing that, Anna!

  • Ken Keene says:

    Great opportunities lurk within the six quotes offered above. Having made this positive statement, I want to give a “shout out” for compliance. “Being a teacher of students who are learning mathematics,” I believe “compliance” with the rules of mathematics is essential. I do encourage discovery of mathematical principals. However, I do not want my students to take the nearly 5,000 years to discover zero that it took our ancestors. So I ask them to comply with knowledge already gained by humanity. As for today’s jobs requiring less of a compliance orientation, my pre-teaching profession was 33 years as a lawyer. Talk about compliance! Students better get a good dose of compliance orientation if they want to live happy lives within these United States of America.

    • Matt Miller says:

      I love this response, Ken! You’re exactly right … there is still certainly a place for compliance. If we didn’t have any of it, our society would crumble and burn! I tend to think we need a little less emphasis on pure compliance, but it definitely is a necessity.

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