PROCESS POST: Pushing my thinking evolution about master planning in education and schools

Campus master plans are beautiful, elegant solutions. They make visible entire systems of complex thinking. Is there any comparable practice in schools when it comes to “pedagogical master planning” or “instructional systems thinking?” I don’t think strategic planning is even remotely comparable given the manner in which it is most commonly done. Isn’t that fascinating? We spend enormous time, energy, and resources on physical-space planning, yet we don’t really do such with the core of what really exists at the center of learning in schools.

Can you show a visitor your “pedagogical master plan” if she asked to see it…like you could a campus master plan? Could you point to the system of blueprints, engineering details, and relational diagrams?

On the University of Buffalo’s “Building_UB Photostream” on Flickr, you can see in their campus master plan the thoughtful planning that undergirds all of the eventual blueprinting, engineering, and constructing. You can see sets of plans that provide intentional detail about how buildings will relate to one another by function and geography. You can see green-space drawings and bubble diagrams that reveal why various operations are grouped and coordinated in particular ways. You can see the whole…and all of the virtually countless parts.

by Building_UB, Flickr, Creative Commons License

Of course, after such thorough master planning is completed, the “real work” is only just beginning. Renovation schedules must be developed and articulated. Architectural blueprints and renderings must be created. Engineering schema must be decided – water, electrical, gas, flooring, lighting, etc. FF&E (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) must be selected. And, if done well, ALL of those countless decisions radiate from the uber planning – the campus master plans. It just has that “this-makes-sense” kind of feeling.

Do schools have anything comparable in terms of planning and implementation for the overall system of instruction and pedagogy that should exist at the heart of any and all educational organizations?

Schools seem to be making countless decisions…

  • Technology – laptops, tablets, Apple, PC, BYOD/BYOT, interactive white boards, student information systems, social media, etc.
  • Methods – lecture, experiential, PBL, CBL, DBL, flipped classrooms, discovery, inquiry, Socratic, etc.
  • Content – math (algebra, calculus, statistics), English, history, science (physics first?), what world languages?, advisement, PE,…what about anthropology, psychology, biomechanical engineering, wood working, metallurgy, etc.
  • Assessment – grades, standards-based, zeros, averaging, mastery, rubrics (how many levels?), standardized testing, authentic and performance-based, etc.
  • Professional development – conferences, PLCs, Critical Friends Groups, portfolios, in-service, FedEx days, task forces, etc.
  • Learning spaces – …
  • Skills – …
  • [And the list goes on.]

Are we developing master plans that make visible the links, connections, relationships, influences, and impacts that each of these “buildings” has on the other “buildings” on campus? Are we designing the architectural blueprints and engineering blow-ups that show each and every one of these categorical constructs working and existing in harmonious symphony with the other interrelated elements?

Can you show me such plans? Can you show me how a decision to implement PBL – just one pedagogical methodology – impacts the ripple-decisions of technology, professional development, assessment, learning spaces, etc.?

The system is a whole. It reminds me of the song about the ankle bone connected to the shin bone, the shin bone connected to the knee bone, the knee bone connected to the thigh bone,….

I wonder what would happen on a school campus if a small group of builders just squatted on a section of property and began building. What if this “rogue” group sawed, hammered, and nailed their creation without much coordination with the campus master plan. Not from spite or rebellion. Just from lack of clarity and collective connectedness.

Such happens every day in the pedagogical and instructional system of a school. Lots of independent contractors not having the level of master plans to which they have contributed and from which they can coordinate.

[out of writing time for now.]

7 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: Pushing my thinking evolution about master planning in education and schools

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  3. Bo,
    I think that this is an intriguing line of inquiry and one that is often overlooked at the school level. I have spent most of my career in progressive schools and there has been an interesting tension in all of these schools around this kind of work.

    One of the things that all of my colleagues comment on is the freedom and flexibility that they have to innovate within their classroom and curriculum. However, on an institutional level, documenting work to provide for clearer articulation across, discipline, grades and divisions has been more difficult.

    To some degree (and I know that I am overstating things here), this state of things plays into the notion of teaching as an art (a more individual expression of the work teachers do) as opposed to a craft that can be publicly shared, discussed, mentored, developed.

    A master pedagogical plan is really the craft writ large for a school. In our division, we are currently in the midst of a major reexamination of our school schedule. It strikes me that this is one place where schools can, in a more comfortable way, begin the tentative steps of developing a systematic master plan for pedagogy.

    At least in our school (and I suspect in many others), the schedule contains within it many fundamental assumptions about how learning ought to take place (i.e., by subject, by grade, in discrete units of time spread out over long periods of time, by individual teachers, etc.) Even in our progressive school, the current schedule is at odds with many of our expressed core values.

    So the work of looking deeply and critically at how we use time should tell us something about how the school conceives of its pedagogical plan. Too often, this process is driven by the much more mundane questions of numbers of kids, numbers of teachers and numbers of rooms and not by how we should ideally learn together in these shard spaces.

    One of the most promising starting places in our current efforts to redesign our schedule has been to identify those rouge efforts of innovation that found ways to exist in our old schedule. We are now seeking ways to formalize new structures for them in the redesign; this then becomes our blueprint for change. We are discovering that these structural changes are making it easier for others to embrace the learning value in these first generation innovations by removing some of the prior scheduling assumptions/obstacles. This work is also helping us to better integrate the key elements of our mission in the daily lives of all of the learners in our school.

    I look forward to reading more about your inquiry in this area.

    • Mark,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful comment. Your remarks are dense and rich with thought-provoking parts, and I know you’ll have me thinking and re-thinking for days.

      A few initial ideas/responses:

      1. In your 2nd paragraph, you write, “One of the things that all of my colleagues comment on is the freedom and flexibility that they have to innovate within their classroom and curriculum. However, on an institutional level, documenting work to provide for clearer articulation across, discipline, grades and divisions has been more difficult.”

      I am all for teachers having the freedom and flexibility to innovate. However, like you say in the next sentence, there must be more work given to the systems-thinking that involves the entire and whole school as an organization. When I was a school administrator for 13 years, I often encountered the unequal nature of various classrooms. Student A would get a very different experience than Student B if they had very different schedules of teachers. Some of this variability is understandable and even desired. However, when a school says that “We will guide students into growth in areas X, Y, and Z,” then the school has a responsibility and obligation to ensure that ALL students have such opportunity and advantage. This, in part, means systematizing the innovations that are happening within the school and beyond the school. As a metaphor or analogy, a medical R&D facility needs to coordinate and ensure that the various “independent” labs are all working as a “team” to develop the heightened understanding about that which is being researched.

      Another analogy comes to mind. An orchestra. I love the idea of each musician innovating and creating incredible music. But, if they choose to play in an orchestra, they must work in harmony with the others in the orchestra. One cannot become rogue within the symphony, so to speak. Of course, one could make sports analogies, too.

      2. I agree with your 3rd paragraph, too. “To some degree (and I know that I am overstating things here), this state of things plays into the notion of teaching as an art (a more individual expression of the work teachers do) as opposed to a craft that can be publicly shared, discussed, mentored, developed.” There is SCIENCE to teaching and learning, too. We need to stop seeing teaching as ART OR SCIENCE. It is both. It is a hybrid blend. Over 95% of what we know about the brain we’ve learned in the last 20 years. This new scientific knowledge MUST be integrated into professional learning and growth. Also, art incorporates MUCH science. ALL of the artists I know have a pretty significant knowledge about the science of color, perspective, symmetry, etc. We teachers must likewise blend art and science.

      Thanks again for your comments. You have given me such good things to think on.

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  5. Bo, I love how you are articulating what is a fundamental challenge for so many schools. The last paragraph speaks volumes: 

    Such happens every day in the pedagogical and instructional system of a school. Lots of independent contractors not having the level of master plans to which they have contributed and from which they can coordinate.

    To which they have contributed and from which they have coordinated. I’ve argued that it isn’t a top down or bottom up approach that will effect the changes we need. It’s both. And your analogy of an independent contractor could not be a better one for it honors what teachers fear the most: a loss of independence and the recognition that teaching is an art, it is creative.

    Thank you!

    • Laura,

      Thank you so much for contributing your voice in this reply and on Facebook. I agree that the way forward is not simply top-down or bottom-up, but both/and. To move in such a way will require schools to do significant work to blueprint and detail the paths and waypoints on which they will travel together. I don’t believe this will stifle creativity. I believe it will marry discipline with creativity, so that the artist-scientists and scientist-artists can work from a collective set of plans that ensure a coherent and cohesive learning experience for the entire community. We must use the same thoughtfulness to orchestrate our pedagogical master planning as we do our physical campus planning.

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