William Sprankles @wsprankles

School Improvement – The Political Question: Kingdom or Village?

I’ve been spending a lot of my time recently talking about the new building (the 530,000 square foot middle/high school we are designing).  I meet regularly with architects, interior designers, and technology experts.  Our goal is to put in place a true 22nd learning environment.  Many of these professionals ask me “What’s wrong with the standard classroom?” or more specifically, “What is the goal for your new/modern classroom?”.  So I have done quite a bit of  thinking to explain what I hope for and I’ve come up with a comparative analogy.

Classrooms are like countries.  Some are authoritarian monarchies.  Others are democracies, or as I like to think of them, villages.  In a standard, I will even say “old fashioned” classroom, we have an authoritarian monarchy established.  Sometimes we even call this a “sage on the stage” mentality.  It is easiest to spot these kingdoms because they always have a castle.  The castle is where the king or queen lives.  It has bulwarks and appears to be a solid barrier between the king/queen and his/her subjects.  The castle is a place of safety and security for the monarch.  It contains the keys to the kingdom (answer keys to the tests?) and probably even a throne (much more comfortable chair than a student chair).  From this castle the king can make pronouncements to the peasants, I mean students.   Learning in this classroom is competitive, cut throat and seen as win or lose, pass or fail. It is a very top down mentality and is best described by Phillip Zimbardo in his seminal work, “The Blackboard Penitentiary”  (Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1975, June). Stimulus/Response: The blackboard penitentiary: It’s tough to tell a high school from a prison. Psychology Today, pp. 26, 29-30, 106.).  Zimbardo, famous for his prisoner/guard studies of the early 70’s, describes in this article the nature of the teacher/student relationship in a typical school and posits that much of student misbehavior can be attributed to the “prisoner” mentality.  Almost makes me wonder why there aren’t more revolutions?

On the other hand, there are classrooms that are set up much more like a village.  Frequently all of the desks in these classrooms move.  They move based on a particular activity, sometimes in rows, but more likely in a circle or in clusters with each cluster operating on a different assignment.  In these villages/classrooms the teachers are frequently seen moving among the students, (this has sometimes been referred to as the “guide on the side”) facilitating the process in a way that keeps students moving toward the learning goal but not forcing them into a particular mold.  Don’t get me wrong, the chief of this village is still in charge, but the operation looks radically different in this classroom.  Learning is collaborative, cooperative, win/win.

So the question is, if you accept this analogy, is there a difference?  I don’t want to present empirical data, I just want you to think about it.  How do you react when you are the student?  Which class (kingdom or village) would you rather learn in?  If you were designing a new building, what structures would you impose?  What structures would you eliminate? And most importantly, what would you need to begin doing now to prepare yourself and your students for such a transformational change?

By Tim Dugan

Princeton City Schools

Lifetime Educator, Director of School Improvement & Technology


3 comments on “School Improvement – The Political Question: Kingdom or Village?

  1. Grant Hoffman (@gthoffman)
    August 24, 2011

    Tim, you use some good analogies and references. This sounds like a cultural argument, right? In an old fashioned classroom (one I experienced in high school) it sounds like the prison atmosphere based on the culture created by the school and the teacher. I remember some classes feeling like prison, and some felt like recess (because of the subject matter or teacher played to my interests/passions). How is the team at Princeton planning on realigning the new classrooms to create this culture? Having moving desks and technology don’t simply create this. I liken this to my boss saying “we need to recreate the start-up culture here at work. go buy a foosball table.”. This conversation has happened, and the reality is the culture isn’t created by infrastructure and toys, it’s created, cultivated, and grown with its people. Infrastructure and toys/tech are a huge help in setting mood and providing tools, but the culture is built around its people, or the village as described in your post above. Nothing succeeds without proper execution. In the new Princeton campus it should be all about how these ideas are executed, how the culture is nurtured, how you can play to the students’ interests and strengths. It will be a tough trail to blaze as I’m sure the old-school culture will resist this change, but if anybody is going to create change it will be the team at Princeton. Best wishes, and thank you again for the insight in the post!


  2. Alison Baker
    August 26, 2011

    Hey Mr. Dugan–Alison Baker from your social studies class back in the ’80’s…an innovator then, happy to know the Princeton “prison” establishment didn’t reform you but you are still in the evolution of “change.” Good for you. All the best to you. If anyone can bring such a change to education, I’m betting it’s you.

  3. billbroc
    July 1, 2012

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