Reimagining Public Education

Editor’s Note:
In the first of a series of contributed articles that showcase ideas we think will spark conversation and make a difference to the world, Sam Chaltain examines how changing the way we see education can lead to better learning experiences. Sam created a prezi to showcase the ongoing work of filmmakers Tom and Amy Valens in capturing the unique educational approach of one Boston public school and to provide important resources on the subject of public education in America. 

I know we're already two months into 2013 and most of us are focused on the year ahead, but if you can, rewind back to last year for just a moment and think about what were the most talked about education stories of 2012?

I'm guessing your list looks something like this: Low test scores, the Chicago teacher strike, mounting student loan debt, Newtown. What worries me is that no matter what other stories you may recall, they're all likely to fit into one of the following categories: content, conflict, or catastrophe.

This is a huge problem for future generations of Americans. The prevailing cynicism with which we view "education" is colored by two things: our own personal memories of schooling – which are remarkably similar across the past 100 years – and our national narrative on schooling – which is remarkably negative, dispiriting, and over-simplified.

Combine these two influences, and what you get is what we have – a society that views teaching and learning via a default set of images and memories that inhibit our collective ability to imagine something better, something new. We’re always doing one of two things: we’re either reporting on reports, or we’re trying to explicate promising practices. The result of this is a sea of stories about education that are heavy on the facts and the how-tos, and light on the personal and inspiring stories. This “emotion gap” presents us all with a huge opportunity, as long as we realize that a great story needs to do two things well: it must touch us, and it must teach us something new.
So, fast-forwarding back to 2013, the question is what (and who) do we want to see in our schools?

Science has now confirmed that the stories we tell shape how we see the world. What if the stories we told about schools were less about dysfunction and more about design? What if the picture of teachers we painted was less about apathy and more about expertise? What if the central message of our education coverage was not just that a learning revolution is needed, but that it's already underway? If we can elevate the stories of the people in our schools – the children, their teachers, and the larger community that supports them – and then look for the underpinning ideas that are working and build upon those, we can begin to tell a more optimistic and inspiring story about education in America.

That's why we partnered with the people at Prezi, who have no equal when it comes to helping us paint a compelling picture of how effective our public schools can be. Prezi is helping us showcase one such effort that is currently underway by providing a platform to share a 10-part video series chronicling a year in the life of a remarkable public school in Boston. Every other Thursday until the beginning of June, a new five-minute video will be released on www.ayearatmissionhill.com, adding a new chapter to the A Year at Mission Hill: Reimagining Public Education prezi. Our goal is to tell a compelling story about a single school, and to spark a larger conversation about the state of teaching and learning in all schools.

Everyone knows how it feels to go to school. What if we told the world about how it feels to go to a great school?

Sam Chaltain writes about public education at samchaltain.com. He is the former National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and was also the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 principals create more democratic learning communities. A frequent contributor to CNN and Education Week, he is the author or co-author of six books.