What should a 21st Century school look like? A proposal for a public charter makerspace in Rochester, NY.

This post is my initial long-winded version of an attempt to communicate the methodology behind the makerspace public charter (middle?) school that I will be opening in Rochester, NY in 2015.  It’s a draft of what will become a 1-2 page concept paper that I will distribute to potential stakeholders as I seek to build my board of directors, secure funding, and demonstrate wide community support before submitting a letter of intent to NYSED in September 2014.

Why Rochester is ripe for innovation in education:

Recent reports evaluating the quality of education in the City of Rochester, NY show some of the lowest achievement rates in New York State; for young black males, the 2012 graduation rates are the worst in the entire nation.  Truancy rates for elementary school students are high (20% each day as early as Kindergarten), and 550 students haven’t attended school at all yet this 2013-2014 school-year and an average of 2500 absent on any given day, today’s news reported.  Literacy and numeracy skills in 3rd through 8th grade are abyssmal (5.4% of students achieved proficiency in ELA last year, and 5% in math) and the bureaucratic inertia inherent in a system the size of Rochester’s mires most strategic improvement plans.  The City of Rochester’s geography, specifically the border created by the “Inner Loop” divides many who “have” from those who “have-less”.  Within the City, the homicide rate per 100,000 for 2012 was 17.1, three times higher than NYC.   Immediately to the south and west of the City, however, are affluent suburbs, thriving industrial complexes, and technological leaders such as Bausch and Lomb, RIT, and the U of R and Strong Memorial Hospital  While the challenges facing young people in Rochester are many, the intellectual, material, and human resources available within and across communities are equally plentiful.  The public educational system in Rochester, NY is ripe for a truly innovative public charter school to enter the market: the KnowledgeCraft Makerspace.

Why a new paradigm focused on innovation, engineering, and entrepreneurship is needed:

An educational model that uses the Prussian paradigm, a system designed more than 200 years ago, will not be successful in sculpting the thinkers, learners, and creators of tomorrow.  Hallmarks of the Prussian paradigm are as follows:

  • Segmentation of time
  • Segmentation of subjects into content areas
  • Separation of learners based on age, not necessarily mastery of content
  • Learners advance as a cohort toward an institutionally established objective
  • A fractal, hierarchical structure to the institution itself. Students: teachers : building-level admin : Board : superintendent

These hallmarks are no accident, and were intended, as I’ve written about before, to actually limit free thought so as to improve the military might of Prussia, who had recently been defeated by Napoleon’s military.  Responding to the military loss caused in part by the disunity and lack of conformity of the men, John Taylor Gatto tells us the Prussians decided:

Centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army;2 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.

School as it currently stands, based on the Prussian paradigm of education, limit one’s ability to explore – all afternoon long, if you so choose – Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or string theory or negative exponents, or to practice chromatic scales on the sax, or to build and rebuild a 3D-printed robohand until you get it to fit perfect.  It penalizes learners who are outside of the mean by boring some while they wait in a holding pattern, having already gained mastery, while simultaneously rushing others who haven’t gained mastery because the pacing of the curriculum says a new unit must begin.

If the purpose of public, compulsory education is to produce individuals who do not think deeply about subjects they are passionate about, who have been trained to complacently accept the status quo and to not seek new solutions, who have not been afforded the time to engage in dialogue with those who adamantly disagree or who come from other disciplines, who seek The Right Answer rather than innovative solutions,  who view thinking and learning as part of a mandatory daily regiment forced on them by the State, then the Prussian paradigm is an excellent model.  But our 21st Century world and workplace demands innovators.  It demands fearless change agents.  It demands individuals who are adept at matching tools to tasks and at collaborating with others, who have strong STEM skills and approach problems with the confidence and aptitude to seek new solutions to them, and who are connected to their communities.  A makerspace operating as a public charter school allows students to develop the 21st Century innovation, entrepreneurship, and engineering skills a traditional public school does not.

What teaching and learning looks like in a makerspace:

A makerspace eschews the tenets of the Prussian paradigm and industrial-worker model of education in order to provide students extended time, under the guidance of several domain-experts, to solve a problem relevant to their communities.  A makerspace relies on a purposeful marriage of tools to tasks, and allows for multiple solutions to be equally valuable.  Focusing on solving a problem in collaboration with other learners who vary in skills, age, and content expertise allows students to experience the kind of interdisciplinary and collaborative work that drives 21st century work and is supported by the Common Core Learning Standards.

In a makerspace, students and adults engage in the engineering design process and build resiliency as they learn to view initial failures as part of the overall learning process.  The KnowledgeCraft Makerspace will focus on developing skills related to careers in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math.  In a makerspace, students choose projects that actually benefit their communities, that blur the walls between “school” and “home” through ongoing support and interaction with vital community members, and that help them to gain proficiency with computer programming and 3D printing.  In a makerspace, student mastery of content is valued over the time allocated to an arbitrarily established unit of study: students demonstrate mastery of content by researching, developing, building, testing, revising, and sharing their results with other scholars rather than by completing exams.  In tandem with domain experts, students establish their own learning objectives based on their own use of assessment data gained through online and in-person formative assessments and conversations with older scholar-mentors.  Students are able to differentiate their own learning by designing their own project or choosing which of several concurrent projects they intend to pursue as a unit of study and which skills they intend to build through this pursuit.

For example, learners in the KnowledgeCraft Makerspace might choose to participate in some way with our current KnowledgeCraft Projects such as e-NABLE, or to develop educational games within Minecraft, to write a school-wide app for iOS, to assist in the collection of data related to bicycle commuters, or to design better tools by which any of these projects or others can be completed.  Makerspaces allow for student-centered, differentiation of instruction that is technology-rich, STEM-centric, challenging, community–minded, and engaging.

What collaborative leadership looks like in a makerspace:

If the goal of a free and compulsory education is to prepare students to enter the world of college and careers, than it makes sense that the more closely their learning environment mimics this future world — with training wheels — the better prepared students will be when they enter this world upon high school graduation.  Keeping this in mind, the KnowledgeCraft Makerspace seeks to model in its leadership and relationships among and between staff and students the kind of collaborative and distributed leadership method we want our learners to embrace in their daily lives as scholars and community members.

The KnowledgeCraft Makerspace has an innovative model of leadership as well in that it is distributed; to the greatest extent allowed under charter law, there is no hierarchy.  The Board of Directors, on which I will serve, is made of stakeholders including community members, teachers, student/parent voices, and local innovative business leaders.  We will maintain our enrollment under the 250 students after 2-years clause so as not to trigger a union presence.  Let me be clear as to why we will not unionize:

  • If the school is truly collaboratively led using distributed, team, leadership, a union will simply not be needed.  Members of the teachers association are also members of the leadership team.
  • Teachers and school leaders will be screened carefully for a cohesiveness of vision.  This is a nonnegotiable in the hiring process.  The right candidates will simply understand the benefits of team-based collaborative leadership and will not feel the need to pass their good ideas up a chain of command before acting.  Teachers as leaders are empowered to do what is in the best interest of each student at any given moment; this model embraces complexity rather than building arbitrary supports around an eroding system that requires poor, defenseless workers to gather en masse to earn a voice with management.  When the workers are the management, a union has no function.
  • The presence of a union — having been a dues-paying member of one for 10 years, and having worked as both a tenured teacher and a non-union long-term substitute — has never, ever, ever “won” any battle I’ve seen fought with administration: sure, the union’s numbers help in asking sticky questions, but at the end of the day, I cannot name a time that the union has succeeded in making the changes for teachers or students that would be beneficial to the teaching and learning process.  On the contrary, whenever an innovative educator — like the ones I seek to be the founding staff of this makerspace — suggests we offer a clever and boundary-pushing program, my experience has been that the unions fear setting a precedence of expectations that teachers will go above and beyond and themselves are commonly blockers of great ideas that would benefit kids.
  •  The presence of a union is a false sense of security at best and creates a toxic culture that suggests management is out to get the poor prole workers at worst.  The presence of a union, in a system that relies on the Prussian paradigm, is necessary.  But this school relies on an entirely different paradigm, and a union simply is not part of it.

How a makerspace supports aims of the Common Core Learning Standards:

While I have been a vocal critic of the flawed logic behind pre- and post-assessments in measuring something as complex as “student growth” to determine a rating for a teacher, the Common Core Learning Standards, when divorced from the confusion and poor planning related to assessments, is an excellent reform in education.  As I have blogged about before, the days of American students getting jobs simply because they, by default and without a lot of effort, make it through an alright educational institution, are over.  American students who don’t want to work hard can expect students from India and Africa, who, thanks to OLPC, Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, iTunesU, and other online educational outlets, now have access to a free and world class education.  The competition has never been more fierce for admittance into college, for scholarships, for entry level positions, for internships.  The Common Core’s focus on giving students direct access to complex texts rather than lecturing about them, its focus on using technology as a tool to collaborate and explore far regions of the world, and its valuation of non-literary texts in all content areas seems pretty price of admission for anyone seeking to be gainfully employed.

A makerspace that utilizes flip/mastery instruction in a multi-aged, problem-based, community-centered learning environment will allow the kind of depth instead of breadth that the Common Core demands.  Working with professionals and domain experts will allow students to see how math is used in engineering careers, and will expose them to Tier II and Tier III vocabulary words in the workplace.  Engaging in the engineering design process requires students to be reflective practitioners; to identify tools for tasks; to communicate effectively; to state and test assumptions; to gather, analyze, and present knowledge; to defend a written claim; and to deepen their domain specific knowledge while exploring solutions to problems facing their communities, also increasing their agency.  Common Core Learning Standards are intended to prepare students for success in the 21st Century world after high school; a makerspace that deliberately blur the lines between a public school, the community, and an engineering facility fulfills the aims of the Common Core.

Who I need on my team and how you can join: 

The letter of intent to NYSED will be sent to Albany in September 2014; I intend to have the charter itself written by that time.  Between now and then, I need to convene a team of like-minded individuals from widely different fields and who bring a wide array of talents to our founding team.  Please contact me for more information and to offer your expertise.  For starters, we will need:

  • A financial and fundraising guru or two (to find us money to hire staff, secure spaces, get materials)
    • A recruitment and enrollment specialist (to find us interested kids) 
    • A grant-writer and/or PR specialist (to connect us to stakeholders and resources)
  • A facilities and learning environments specialist (to find us a suitable space for 100 multi-aged kids on four teams)
  • A school law specialist (to make sure we are pushing boundaries appropriately)
  • The founding teaching and distributed leadership teams (three to four teams of five adult learning leaders to each manage a multi-aged group of 20-25 students in the first year; another 15-20 learning leaders will be added in year 2)
  • Experts in Free and Open Source Software ( to find us programs that we can use without incurring costs)
  • Movers and shakers in makerspaces, innovation, FOSS, entrepreneurship, engineering, education, etc. (to write letters of support)
  • Community liaisons/ tutors/ interested volunteers or contributers (to be our model engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors, thinkers, creators, and risk-takers)
  • Suggest something I have’t thought of yet…
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