PROCESS POST: Thinking out loud about the systemic architecture of school pedagogy design

I am deeply curious about and invested in systemic learning and change in schools. Understandably, a great deal is written for and presented to teachers. Individual teachers. There are countless articles, blog posts and conference sessions about implementing different approaches and methods in class. I know that a number of teachers try and implement those suggestions, recommendations, and tested-by-others ideas. I have been one of those teachers – on the giving end, as well as on the receiving end – many times. I am all for that kind of learning and sharing.

But how does such adaptation and evolution happen on a systemic level? For an entire school, system, university, or network. Not every teacher at a given school is reading the same body of research and blog-posting. Not every teacher at a given school is attending the same conference sessions. Not every teacher at a given school is actually implementing the collectively designed enhancements that they have garnered for their pedagogical slice of the school pie.


Today, this has really been on my mind. I began my day re-listening to a podcast of Dan Pink’s Office Hours with Gary Hamel. It was my third listen. I will need to listen a few more times before I unpack the density and richness there, but I know that it is related in powerful ways to what I am pondering here about the systemic nature of change and evolution in a school. One thing that immediately sticks out to me is Hamel’s explanation of being “prisoners of the familiar.”

So, in a single school, some teachers remain imprisoned by the familiar, while others are breaking loose to explore, discover, and innovate new practices. Doesn’t this separate a school house? Isn’t this another kind of educational achievement gap? Didn’t Abe Lincoln say that a house divided upon itself cannot stand?


Later in the morning, I read “Five Ways to Bring Innovation Into the Classroom” by  on KQED’s Mind/Shift. It is an extraordinary read! Excellent! The article contains rich links to other articles by Mind/Shift contributors, such as Shelley Wright, Kimberly Vincent, and Susie Boss. It’s the kind of post that makes me want to sprint to a classroom so that I can try that, and that, and some of that.

And then I imagined that a sub-set of teachers is reading this article and other related articles. Which I am all for! And I imagine that many of those teachers are trying what they are learning from the post and the related links. Which I am all for!

But we are developing schools within schools…and not really “on purpose” with carefully designed blueprints for what the entire, whole system could be. Is this okay? Is this sustainable? Is this why so many new start-up schools are happening? Tribes of innovators and doers are seceding from the unions to form their own countries. And in some schools, there can be real tension at the borders.

The cycle seems to continue. Schools within schools develop. The pedagogical achievement gap widens within schools. Is this what we want? Could there be a better way? Better ways?


During another Dan Pink Office Hours, I have also heard a caller explain a related issue this way, essentially citing Jim Collins – about 35% of the people in an organization tend to really know – at a deep, core level – what exactly the organization does. Not at a 10, 000 ft. level, but at a deep and detailed level. If that were a soccer team, then only 3-4 people on the team would know what game was being played when they stepped on the field at each practice or competition.

That does not seem like the best way to operate as a team. Isn’t a school a team? Granted, like a team, a school can have a variety of specialists, but they all should at least possess a common understanding of the game that is being played. And, in my opinion, the game cannot be as loosely defined as, “We teach children.” To me, that kind of mutual understanding about purpose is akin to “We are all playing sports.” But the team must know more specifically which particular sport it is playing. If a school is focusing on service learning, should there be more unified work around the methodologies of service learning? I think so. If a school is focusing on problem-based learning, should there be more unified work around the pedagogies of PBL? I think so.


Recently, at a breakfast with an amazing educational leader, we discussed master plans. Many schools invest large sums of money in campus master plans. Many schools invest large sums of money in technology master plans. Many schools invest large sums of money in strategic master plans. How many schools are investing comparable sums of money in pedagogical and professional learning master plans? Are we designing the blueprints in such a way that our builders and sub-contractors all possess a common, collective understanding of what the overall house is designed to be? If we don’t invest in such planning and purposeful construction, then why are we surprised that classrooms along a hallway can appear to be drastically different in architectural, foundational structure? And, no, I do not believe in standardizing classrooms. I am not interested in cookie-cutter construction. But I do believe that a school’s pedagogical purposes should be unified in their architectural foundations. Built on common plans, then the learning spaces can be differentiated by the equivalent of interior design and style.


A school, to some degree, ought to be a systemic whole. There are myriad ways to accomplish such unification. Exploring these myriad ways will continue to be a fundamental pursuit of mine.

7 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: Thinking out loud about the systemic architecture of school pedagogy design

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  3. I get this idea and I like it. I agree their needs to be a unity within our purpose. We are on the same team facing the same opponent (ah, sports metaphor), but I’m wondering at what point the systemic unity needs to stop and allow for the individuality of the player. Not everyone bends it like Beckham, and we need defenders, goalkeepers, and play orchestrators, too. I agree we need to all know what sport we are playing, and what game we want to win. But don’t you think we should also be careful that in our attempts to play from the same book, we don’t require all to pass and shoot the exact same way? Part of what makes the game exciting and memorable is the creativity that different players can bring to the field. (Did I take the metaphor too far?)

    • Philip,

      In NO way, shape, or form am I advocating for robotic, standardized playing of the game. No way. However, I am seriously advocating for a school to know in which game or games it is going to specialize. For example, if a school says it is going to work in project-based learning, then the school needs to understand – at a systemic and team-oriented level – what in the heck that means. I feel like I have spent the better part of the last nine years really digging deep to understand PBL. In our metaphor, I am going to a coach, I am going to practice, I am studying game film, I am reading “soccer” books. But what about my team? How are we working together to learn, grow, practice…to even ensure that we are playing the same game. Am I going to the best coach, reading the correct books, etc. to be the best teammate? How are we approaching the learning goals as a team? Do we have a common understanding and shared values about the learning goals?

      I am not interested in standardized teaching. I am very interested in coordinated teamwork for the sake of the players, students, parents, etc.

      And I think the creative play from players like Beckham come from intense team work after really learning and practicing the game together. Otherwise, he is a prima donna with 10 other players just staring at him kicking the ball around a field. It takes 11 to play. If he tried to take on the competition by himself, he would lose. No matter how good or creative. The game is bigger than Beckham. We have to play as a team. That’s what I’m saying.

      Does that make sense?

      Just for the record, one more time, I am not interested in standardizing teaching. I am interested in teams learning to play better as organized, coordinated, symbiotic units.

      • Absolutely. I know you aren’t advocating for standardizing teaching, and I completely agree that most schools need to work better together. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I also realize how those efforts could under the wrong leadership can diminish into standardization. My much younger cousin started teaching a couple of years ago in a “21st Century School” in Arkansas. They were all about the technology and getting the kids using it. Unfortunately, they also scripted the curriculum. My cousin was allowed little breathing room. I believe she has potential to be an amazing teacher, but she’s already looking at other career paths. Teamwork & unity = good! Standardization = bad. Again, I think this an area where the quality of the leadership makes a real difference. Again, sorry if I implied you were pushing standardization. That wasn’t my intent.

      • I did not think that you thought I was pushing standardization. However, I wanted to be clear. I do find it interesting that many teachers go to “you’re trying to standardize us” when some leaders merely work for “let’s practice together and share our strengths for a stronger, whole school.” To me, that story shows the fear of losing “independence.” I wish we were as concerned with our lack of interdependence. For that is where more magic for students resides.

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