Best Questions: School Environments
Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.
In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.
That Maslow guy was pretty smart and I wonder if he was thinking about schools when he developed his hierarchy of needs. Have you ever taken a good look at them? (Those of you who have "healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged" in your minds as a daily mantra may notice some parallels!) He could probably write us a pretty good post for this month's theme on school environments.
In some ways, what Maslow refers to as "basic" needs—the kinds of needs that no one can survive, let alone succeed, without—fall to the bottom of our priorities at schools rather than serve as the foundation he proposes. "Food, water, shelter, and safety" meet "mystery meat, rust, leaking roofs, and bullying."
So how do we reverse that process? We start with focusing on best questions we can ask ourselves to help us find the best practices for our kids, our school, and our community. I believe that there is a simple set of best questions to at least get us started on this path:
- Are our kids healthy? Safe? Engaged? Supported? Challenged?
- How do we know?
- What have we done to make it so?
- What have we taught them to keep it so?
Just asking these few questions would lead to richer, deeper, and more effective data-driven decision making and planning than much of what passes as school improvement these days. But even this set of questions can too easily be manipulated by faulty perceptions and low expectations. We've got to go deeper to truly celebrate our successes, monitor our action steps, and confront our challenges. Here are a few tougher questions straight from the ASCD indicators for a whole child approach:
- Does our school facility and environment support and reinforce the health and well-being of each student and staff member? (Think about restrooms; hygiene; exercise opportunities; air quality; water quality; access for those with physical challenges; and ergonomics of desks, chairs, and computers.)
- Is our physical school building attractive? Structurally sound? Does it have good internal (hallways) and external (pedestrian, bicycle, and motor vehicle) traffic flow, including for those with special needs? Is it free of defects?
- What about our school climate? Is our physical, emotional, academic, and social school climate safe, friendly, and student-centered? How do we know? Is that true for each child in our building?
- Do we model and teach taking care of the school and global environment as a part of our daily practice? Do we support, promote, and reinforce responsible environmental habits through recycling, trash management, sustainable energy, and other efforts?
Although this is just a start, these kinds of questions begin to move the conversation from the "if onlys" to direct action steps for any school. And they remind us that Maslow put these needs first for a reason.