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Project Re-Imagine: District Embarks on Transforming Education

Grant Will Help With Ambitious School Redesign

School is still too much about content memorization and regurgitation; students are taught to think like computers, spitting out answers for standardized tests; and they don’t retain much of what they learn past the exam date, said Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent David Britten.

The outdated model of education, created during the nation’s Industrial Revolution, is not preparing students for the jobs of the future, he said. Technology has created a world where more and more jobs are being done by machines.

So Britten’s ready for change.

The district is embarking on a two-year restructuring and redesign process that could bring “thinking outside of the box” to a level uncommon for K-12 education. Godfrey-Lee received a $250,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation to begin a “human-centered design” process, for which staff, parents, students and community members are challenged to re-imagine schools.

“We have to go into this with an open mind and not preconceived ideas,” he said.

Britten kicked off the school year with a presentation to staff members about what that could mean. He said continuing to make reforms to the current school model is “like trying to make a covered wagon go fast enough to win the Indy 500.”

“If we just think we can simply make the current educational model that we are using better, we are doomed to fail,” he said. “Adding more time to the day, more time to the school year, changing the calendar structure, all those things ignore the fact that the basic structure that no longer works is still there.”

The grant will cover a process guided by representatives of the New North Center, a Holland-based nonprofit hybrid education and business organization; a leadership and accountability coach; stipends for session participation and other tasks; childcare for parents who participate and miscellaneous materials.

Possibilities are many, he said, and there will be multiple pilots. A few ideas: kindergarten could be much more play-centered; classes could take on entirely different forms, such as second-graders with eighth-graders who can learn from each other by “combining creativity with higher-level learning.” Schools will focus more on soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, public speaking and collaboration.

About Today’s Kindergarteners

  • They were born 10 years into the 21st Century
  • Many will be alive at the beginning of the 22nd Century
  • The jobs they will have do not exist today
  • Technology they will use does not even exist today
  • Access to informationhas always been at their fingertips

Why is it Needed?

The current school model was designed to support factories with a regular stream of students entering the work force, but it’s not a structure that works anymore, Britten said.

Despite talk of creativity and developing students’ passions, school is still too much about covering content for tests. That doesn’t help students prepare for the future, he said. Technology has the content covered.

“The world simply no longer cares how much you know anymore because you can Google it,” he said. “Knowledge now is a free commodity for all.”

Education needs to help students develop the skills to “ask new questions, solve new problems and create new knowledge.”

It will involve a different way of learning for students and teachers.

“Kids have learned how to do school,” Britten said. “That’s why the first thing they want to know is ‘will that be on the test?'”

What Will Happen

Those involved in the process will serve different purposes, from experimenters and planners to future thinkers and “anchors” to keep everyone grounded in reality.

They will form a vision, he said, around “What should our educational system in this district look like in order to, in the end, help all of our kids build on strengths, build potential and incorporate dreams and choose to be successful?”

Britten challenged staff to dare to try new approaches.

“As we constantly bump our heads against things that don’t work, we should be looking at how to change,” he said. He said he realized the question running through teachers’ heads: “What about my evaluation?”

“I don’t care about evaluations. I will stand up here and tell you, you’re all highly effective.”

He said the teachers represent the best hope for students and their futures.

“You and your kids are more than just test scores, and that’s what I want you to know as you go through this year.”

Lee Middle School eighth-grade teacher Vlad Borza, who is on the human-design team, said he wants a vision that creates a long-term, sustainable plan. He said he likes the philosophical side of human-centered design, but thinks it needs to have a strong foundation and structure.

“People are progressing toward a more creative culture, but I kind of worry that we are saturating it with this cool aspect of creativity. There’s got to be some base there, and I really want to see that,” Borza said. “It’s very easy to jump on that bandwagon right now.”

Lee Middle and High School Principal Kathryn Curry, who is also on the team, said she wants her staff to feel comfortable taking on new ideas.

“I still want to stay grounded in the fact that we do have responsibilities, but also allow them the freedom to try something new and, if you fail, try something else,” she said. “Our goal is to meet the needs of our students, and we can’t keep doing that by doing it the same way we’ve been doing it.”


Steelcase Foundation

New North Center

Human Centered Design

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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