Five Things Schools Must Do to Survive

I haven’t been to Barnes and Noble in years. However, after receiving a gift card, I thought I would check them out again. I expected it to be slow, sickly, and dying out slowly. However, when I walked in, the place felt . . . alive.

Often in one corner, students were studying at the coffee shop. In the kids area, they were prepping the store for a Harry Potter party, complete with wands and books of spells. As I walked around an aisle, I noticed a flier for a local book-signing and book discussion.  At the front, of the store, they had a nice display for the Nook, allowing readers to bridge the gap between a brick-and-mortar store and e-reading. 
I’m still not sure it’s enough to revive the chain. However, in the death of the bookstore industry, I’ve noticed that many local bookstores have found a way to survive. I’m thinking we could learn a few things if schools are going to become (or remain?) relevant:
  1. A Technology Bridge: There are a few local bookstores that used social media to their advantage. They’ve created a sense of “space” both online and offline that feels warm and inviting compared to the cold world of Amazon. I’m wondering what it would look like for schools to use chats, hangouts and Facebook to connect with the broader world.  
  2. Going Holistic: The coolest bookstores I visit are places where they do more than simply sell books. They also have live music, places to explore art and small areas for people to experience solitude. One of my favorite bookstores has a indoor/outdoor garden where one can read. I’d love to see schools take on this holistic element.  
  3. A Sense of Community: I get it. School is compulsory. However, I would love to see schools learn from the bookstores that create communities and value relationships. Some of my favorite local bookstores that I’ve seen are also coffee shops where people know one another and share a set of values. It’s not listed on a mission statement. It’s organic. 
  4. A Powerful Experience: The biggest thing we can offer at school are experiences that cannot exist online. We can offer gardens. We can let kids observe real science. We can create spaces where they can read and discuss things in small groups. We can bring people in from the community to engage with students in specific subjects. 
  5. A Local Identity: The bookstores that have survived are the ones that embrace the local flavor and help make sense out of the current void of a local politic. What if schools were truly anchored in neighborhoods and reflected the identity of the surrounding communities? 
This might be too idealistic, but if schools are going to become relevant again, I’m thinking we might want to pay attention to what the local bookstores are doing.

I would love thoughts on what else schools can do to become relevant again. Please leave a comment.

photo credit: breakfst via photo pin cc

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

17 responses

  1. I want to believe that school is vibrant, relevant, and sustaining because of the TEACHERS in the school. If each teacher brought passion, compassion, humor, humility into their classrooms so that we can connect to students in ways that no online source can even begin to replace. We need kids to WANT to come to school, so how do we make this happen? What draws me to a bookstore is the ability to touch and leaf through a book; the plush chair and hot mocha latte help too. When a student says that Mr. So-and-so is the best math teacher ever, I think it's due to how he has connected with the student on a personal level, a human level. Because the student is the natural medium between parents and teachers, we are already building community if we find ways to excite the kids in the classroom and they in turn will talk about the subject at home. We all know what to do to reach out to the community (attend a kid's game, read to kids at the library, have a pajamas movie night at school, support a parent's local business), so we just need to stop talking about it and just do it.

    1. So true! It is absolutely about the relationships, the people and the community.

  2. I don't think that schools are irrelevant per se … that's too black and white of a notion, one usually brought out by people trying to sell a book or something.

    But the idea that schools have to change in order to stay relevant is definitely a valid one because we can't just say it's good enough because it's there.

    I like the ideas of going holistic and building a sense of community. I think it can be pretty easy to do this with some basic changes in administrative policies, such as someone always having to be in a room at all times. In my building, administrators are constantly harping on making sure students have passes, etc. … and it gets to sound like a nagging mother after a while.

    If we had time for students to gather and hang out, maybe meet in clubs, and get extra help — and not make the teachers feel that they have to babysit students who have nowhere to go — maybe we can foster that sense of community.

    I will quibble a little bit with point 5, though and maybe offer point 5a) A Refuge: the surrounding community/neighborhood can sometimes be dangerous either physically or intellectually. A school should be a place where a student can feel like he or she is safe to be, where he or she can eat a good meal, and where he or she can express him or herself without fear or reprisal because it goes against their parents' or community's views.

    Idealistic, yes. But you start with ideals and then play with them as you get more realistic.

    1. I like the notion of a refuge better than what I'd written. For many people, it is a refuge and the community is dark. But it can also be a safe bridge to the community as well.

  3. You have a captive audience. None of what you wrote will matter until you don't have a captive audience.

    1. Is he stealing their dreams, too?

    2. I'm a professional dream crusher, apparently.

  4. I don't know if bookstores are the best analogy. Who goes to bookstores? I think it is more social and status… kind of like coffee shops. I don't go to bookstores, and I read a ton! However, what I read is typically the news and technical articles/books. If the info I am trying to gain is not online, I buy a book from Amazon… based on reviews and suggestions. You can't look at a book in a bookstore to see what others think about it 🙂 And, I doubt the clerk knows anything about which book is the best for learning Java. I see local bookstores for people of the same cloth. If there was a niche technology bookstore in my town, I would probably go and participate in its activities.

    I do totally agree that we need to change how education (as an institution) is run. Learning is not sit-and-get from the only source of knowledge we know. Learning does not exist because of grades (the one you are in or the one you get on a piece of paper). Learning typically happens when we need to learn something to make/create/fix something important in our lives. Project-Based Learning helps with this, but is not enough. I think Inquiry-Based Learning is closer to what we need. Either way, the job of the teacher (and the school for that matter) has to change.

    We should look at the resurgence of crafting and making. For far too long, it's been about playing (and competing) and "learning" for grades/tests. We should make the building a community place for creating. The community building (notice how I didn't say "school building") should be open from 6am until 10pm… or 24/7. Look at all of the resources: libraries, huge kitchens, sport courts, internet, technology, wood shops, art studios, music studios, etc.

    I think the best places to look today are the maker communities and start-up communities. The maker communities are creating maker shops for people to tinker, build, learn, teach, invent, etc. — — They are a membership-based place with tons of tools and machines… and people. It's "like a fitness club, but with tools… for makers." Start-up communities have similar shops popping up all over the place, too. These shops are also membership-based. They offer open desks (or designated offices), wifi, supplies, expertise, classes, etc. — Many inventions, new products, new technologies, new internet companies, etc. come from places like both of these.

    The key for both maker shops and start-up (incubator) shops are: 1) a place with the tools/machines needed, and 2) community / collaboration / mentorship.

    The roles of teachers need to change. The purpose/use of school buildings needs to change. — did you notice the BIGGEST issue about the Chicago strike is "where can I put my kid?" — NOT, my child is missing their learning! 🙂

  5. This looks like an awesome book on the subject: One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School

    from the description:
    "He presses questions like: What if school wasn't school anymore? What if we tailored education to every single child? What if students' voices were heard and seen as human beings, not numbers in a spreadsheet? What if school became an incubator of innovation and a bridge between the community and the world?"

    1. I've had some great communication with him and I think I'll be posting an interview with him on this blog pretty soon.

  6. I'm a big advocate for smaller schools. Developing a community when you are trying to manage the movement and safety of 2000 people is tough. Make it 200 and see what happens.

    1. Excellent point. The size can make it unmanageable.

  7. Maybe we can camp out Woodstock styled and smoke out. That will be a grooving mindset and everyone will be just fine until they try nad apply for a real job.

    1. Maybe job applicants will need to know how to write "and" instead of "nad." #justsayin

  8. An interesting and thought-provoking article. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

  9. Great tips…. And so true.I am also facing some of these kind of issues when I was in school.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *