2014: The Year of Being Transparent


I love the outdoors and the feeling I get when hiking up a mountain or chasing my dog on the beach or cycling through a murky West-Marin wood.  Lately, I’ve been increasingly aware of how constructed spaces make me feel – after all, I live and work in them and spend more cumulative hours inside than outside.  I often think about how education could borrow from architectural works that truly surprise, inspire, and nourish the visitor – the way the outdoors do.  I’ve started fleshing some of these ideas out in a newish blog – please send me your ideas and posts to include.

The greatest constructed spaces build a relationship with their surrounding environment.  It is one thing to erect a gargantuan monolith on top of a landscape as a way to overwhelm a visitor – I’m thinking El Escorial outside of Madrid, Spain, the summer royal castle that has something like a hundred kilometers of hallways and what seem like 100,000 windows.  Impressive, yet intimidating – probably the effect the then rulers-of-the-world were after!

But what about those spaces that truly make us feel like we matter, that we are a small part of a larger whole?  Places that invite the outside in, where walls exist to bring shape to an experience rather than simply enclosing/protecting us from the outside?  The first one that comes to mind is James Turrell’s Roden Crater in New Mexico; when the extraterrestrials pay us a visit, I hope this is where the welcoming cocktail hour takes place (I’d also love to host a staff development day there…).  Spaces like these invite us to expand our sense of what is possible, and to pay closer attention to things we take for granted; an expanse of blue sky is suddenly something more.  


Image courtesy http://www.flat-surface.com

I snapped the picture below while walking around the campus of Marin Country Day School; it struck me as one of the coolest – and most cost-effective – classrooms I had ever seen.  It’s interesting to see the similarities (many) and contrasts (few) with Turrell’s temple above.  It’s by far the most any tweet of mine has been retweeted.  Hmmm…


So how can the modern architecture – and culture – of Education (capital E used on purpose) truly surprise, inspire, and nourish each of us that occupy and create those structures and paradigms?

A recent visit to Napa New Tech High School got me thinking about the role of transparency – as a relational and physical construct – in accomplishing this.  Principal Michelle Spencer shared how they based their founding mission in 1996 around being transparent and inviting the “outside” community into the school as a teaching/learning partner.  The recent construction of the main building for the 400-student campus (students were a part of the design team) is a terrific example of form following function: other than a few older portable classrooms, every conference room and classroom has a window-wall facing inwards, as well as the standard outside-facing windows.  As I watched a team of eight teachers working together in a conference room (most significant design feature: whiteboard wall), a thought struck me: students, staff, and visitors can watch them work together.  It turns out that students aren’t the only ones “on display.”

Seeing as New Tech High welcomed 1,500 visits from educators like me last year, it’s apparent that the whole school has embraced the idea of working in a glass house.  In a school known as an innovator in project- and problem-based learning, the architecture facilitates a sense of connectedness to the collaborative work happening in virtually every space.  They took an important step beyond the standard construct of the 20th Century learning space by physically making every classroom a part of the public space.  They have brought the founding organizational principle of transparency to three-dimensional life.

This is a tough construct (physical, psychological) to overcome; education as a structure and culture has broken down “teaching” to individual units; four walls enclose exactly ONE adult expert for x amount of students.  This has understandably created a sense that this room is “my” room (I certainly had feelings like that in my own scarcely windowed classrooms), a highly problematic attitude to overcome if we are truly operating in an “open-source” culture.  When classroom walls become impermeable, the “school” in which this classroom is located becomes less of an organization and more a random assortment of philosophies, attitudes, and approaches to “education.”

This lack of transparency doesn’t mean that all good ideas wither; it simply means that the school will not be able to scale those good ideas for the sake of every student.  Parents will, by extension, continue the long, unhappy tradition of “teacher shopping” in their efforts to do what’s best for their own kid.  Just as sad are the countless missed opportunities for dedicated professionals (and perhaps some not so dedicated) to learn from each other (different from planning with each other), and to show their students that collaboration doesn’t just yield the best ideas – it’s also lots more fun.  Yes, fun matters – it matters a lot.  As long as we humans have an incandescent curiosity to explore, discover, create, and understand ourselves and others, then FUN makes the Big Picture Top Five.

If ever there were a miracle drug against professional burnout, turning our concrete walls into glass ones would be my first prescription.  I mean, look at the fun to be had when we invite others into “our space” – like this pic shared by Sean Ziebarth of David Theriault talking to his students, making permeable the seeming impermeability of “my classroom/your classroom” (not sure what he’s saying, but I’m having fun thinking about it):


Classrooms are not the only learning spaces that need opening up; the office spaces of our leaders witness plenty of decisions that affect hundreds of employees and thousands of students and parents.  The traditional educational model (traditional organizational structure, period) holds that our position determines our involvement in the decision-making process.  21st Century school leadership understands that leadership can (and MUST) happen across all facets of the organization and broader school community.  Involving more people in decision-making processes guarantees (at least) three things: slower development, deeper understanding, broader ownership.  By having more voices in the conversation, leaders demonstrate confidence in organizational capacity and – of equal importance – show that they aren’t scared of conflict and disagreement; to the contrary, they invite them by design.  Transparency is a means by which we achieve this.

Confident leaders know that the struggle has to come first; its energy, tapped properly, will be the fuel for ongoing positive growth and change.  They want their organization to have a collective memory of the steps they all took in moving forward – a journey they document carefully, as this story will be told long after the leader has left (think of the story Napa New Tech continues to weave).  If they are working from the principle of transparency, then building broad understanding and ownership is far more important than “getting something done.”  Behind closed doors, you can get a lot done, quickly – but to what effect?

If leaders want their teachers sharing work transparently (with each other, students, parents…), they must do their work on a public stage as well, and treat information as something to be shared, not controlled and managed.  Education is not national security; secrecy from the top only contributes to a sense that everyone better keep things to themselves.

Consider how a culture of transparency contributes to a climate where people in an organization admit their mistakes; the tremendous Larry Ferlazzo posted recently on the notion that truly transparent organizations in fact report far more mistakes than poorly-run ones.  In a hospital, this cultural norm could be the difference between life and death; in education, it is the difference between a transformative experience (for students and teachers alike) and a humdrum, mediocre one.

The key currency a leader has isn’t the “power” their position affords them; it is the influence they earn through attitude and action.  A willingness to practice and model transparency lays the foundation for the influence they will have on individuals and – more critically – organizational culture.  This is where the true power of leadership resides: the system-wide tone a leader establishes through their attitude (mostly unspoken) and actions (visible or invisible?).

Despite these challenges, I look ahead to 2014 with deep, joyous optimism because of the countless teachers and leaders out there leaving behind this culture of isolationism (and organizational dysfunction/dis-integrity).  Some examples include:

  • The staff of Fountain Valley High School practicing Instructional Rounds together.  The outstanding blog they maintain is one way they are practicing transparency with each other (participants and non), their community, and the world.  Think about the experience of being a student – or parent – at a school where the sanctity of the private space is giving way to a community of practice.
  • Connected Principals – a one-stop blog gathering contributions from dozens upon dozens of forward-thinking educators/leaders.  The site’s banner statement? Sharing. Learning. Leading.  
  • The thousands of educators around the world using platforms like Twitter or Google + as windows into their work and invitations to collaborate.

So in the spirit of renewal and of establishing a thematic context for the new year (as if a year could be held down to one pre-determined theme!), I propose a 2014 dedicated to transparency.  A year where the private classroom becomes a public learning space.  A year where adult collaboration is visible – to other adults, to students, to the broader public.  For 2014, let’s ask ourselves a simple question each day:

What walls can we turn into windows?

Oh, one more: How cool is it to practice transparency as a cultural, educational, pedagogical tenet?

transparency is the new blackImage courtesy of Amy Burvall

2 thoughts on “2014: The Year of Being Transparent

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