Welcome To The Bellows Foundation, Where We Rethink and Begin To Rebuild American Education

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Steve Boyle, the founder and president of the Bellows Foundation entered the field of American education in 2001, when he attended Teachers College at Columbia University.  Subsequently, upon completing a Masters in early 2004, he returned to Arizona and formed The Bellows Foundation as a platform for carrying out that rethinking process.  He continues to work on his Ed.D dissertation, the focus of which is a new educational model that better meets the needs of our next generations, improving their critical thinking skills, and assisting them to reach a higher level of social intelligence and a higher level of social consciousness.

He had the privilege to serve as a middle and high school teacher at Patagonia Union High School, near the U.S./Mexico border in Patagonia, Arizona (population 900).  He taught the economics course for high school seniors, general science for grades 6-9, and offered a high school elective in entrepreneurship.

Rethinking Classroom Environments:  He was encouraged by his principal, Dr. Peter Fagergren, to experiment with unconventional learning  environments to improve student engagement, stimulate creativity, and enhance collaboration with their peers to achieve deep learning.   The first experimental step was to remove the traditional arrangement of school desks and chairs, all facing the teacher in regimental order as portrayed in the image below.

Steve broke a few traditional rules that diminished the aura of authority, of formal order with all eyes forward, and the student disconnectedness that goes along with separate seating.  A case can be made that this standard classroom set-up has a negative influence on student engagement, student collaboration, and deep learning because the student can, without attracting attention, silently “tune out” of  participation in the learning process.

Instead, to reverse the disconnectedness of the traditional classroom, he brought in two large mesquite seminar tables and comfortable, high-back chairs that enabled Steve and his students to sit down together, facing one another in an atmosphere of collaboration, informality, and in the absense of an authoritarian aura.  When the students come in for class the first day, not knowing about the new classroom arrangement, there was a moment of silence as they took in the atmosphere.  There was an immediate realization that any attempt to silently tune out was not an option.  There was also a distance problem: the students were going to be sitting closer together with eye contact, which eliminated any attempt to remain disconnected from their peers as they could in the traditional classroom arrangement.

No one was required to sit at the big seminar table, which, initially, was initially threatening to some students.  Accordingly, Steve broke a few more traditional rules to the surprise of the students.  The result was personal preferences were honored:  one student preferred wearing a knitted watch cap, two others preferred sitting a short distance from the seminar table and backed against the wall.  Initially, five members of the football team preferred to sit together at the nearby small conference table, but gradually drifted over to the big table when they realized it was safe to do so, knowing that I would not embarrass them by calling on them unless they gave me a very subtle signal that they wanted to speak.

Gradually, all the students came together in good spirits as a “thought community,” marked by informality, group trust, creativity, and expressions of individuality.

One more comment is worth mentioning.  On the first day of class, at least five teachers and a few administrators came to see the classroom arrangement and stood in silence, letting it sink in.  The comments from the teachers were as follows:

“Good luck, but I couldn’t do this.  I have a lot of material to cover and it requires strict control to get it all in. (This comment might have to do with standardized testing that overloaded lesson planning, which, in turn, resulted in pressure on teachers to “teach to the test.”)

“I don’t like this informality.  I want to stand and I wouldn’t want to let them sit this close to me.” (A concept some refer to as “professional distance.”)

“This wouldn’t work for me because it’s too casual and egalitarian.  I have to stand with my student chart on the podium and call on every one of them to keep them alert and engaged.”

“I could never control the at-risk students who routinely try to disrupt me, if I allowed them sit near me and around me like this.”

As it turned out, for those students in the economics class of 2008, the U.S. economy was actually collapsing week by week and month by month, which (i) maximized student engagement, (ii) sparked their critical thinking, and (iii) raised daily questions in their minds of how the world actually works and who was actually in control of the American economy.  It was like being part of a mystery thriller.  Even some of the parents would send in questions that we would discuss around the table.

Rethinking What Collaboration Can Do

Steve’s experimentation was also influenced by Dr. Vera John-Steiner of the University of New Mexico, who, in 2000, wrote a very thought-provoking book titled Creative Collaboration, which was based on a study of successful collaboration of notable partners and groups, some in face-to-face interaction and others in distance interaction by Internet. The result of her examination was that:

“….humans come into being and mature in relation to others, (and that) new skills are acquired, participants develop previously unknown aspects of themselves, and they increase their repertory of cognitive and emotional expression.”

For this phenomenon to occur the learning environment must support both cognitive and emotional development. She states that there is a powerful “relational dynamic” in collaborative work that requires fully articulated and shared goals, a safe place for creative explorations, and unimpeded trust.  The impediments to trust, according to Dr. John-Steiner, are uncertainty, competition, hierarchies, bureaucracies, intellectual ownership, financial dependence, inequity, separation, and emotional disconnectedness.  When the relational dynamics are in order, Dr. John-Steiner believes that there evolves:

“…’thought communities’ that collaborate with an intensity that can lead to a change in their domain’s dominant paradigm……pressing each participant’s perceived limits of human potential.”

In plain talk, this means that her research of successful collaborations strongly suggests that breakthroughs in the discovery process that result in paradigm-changing advances are closely tied to removing the impediments of trust from the working environment of thought communities.

Rethinking a Collaboration of Students, Faculty, and Administrators

We set up a collaboration of students, faculty, and administrators by orchestrating a five-day Colloquium (a “Listening”) at the Circle Z Ranch near Patagonia, Arizona in January 2005, which consisted of forty-three students, faculty, administrators, and other interested parties representing Alverno College, Daemen College, Deep Springs College, Evergreen State College, Fairhaven College, Hampshire College, New College of Florida, Pitzer College, Ursuline College, Columbia University’s Teachers College, University of Arizona, Texas Christian University and University of Wisconsin.

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Attendees included Deans Mike Ford and Steven Weisler of Hampshire College; Dean Alan Jones of Pitzer College; Dara Molloy, a Celtic priest and founder of a learning community in the Aran Islands of Ireland; Josiah Bunting III, President of the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation; L. Jackson Newell, former President of Deep Springs College; Dr. Meredith Aronson, the former mayor of Patagonia; and Carol Soth, a highly respected Patagonia educator.  Absent, but with us in spirit, were Dr. Lee Knefelkamp of Columbia University’s Teachers College (Steve’s dissertation advisor) and Dr. Gregory Prince, former president of Hampshire College.

Rethinking How a Great Narrative Can Help Students To Strengthen Their Internal Compass

Neil Postman, in his THE END OF EDUCATION, provides an excellent insight into the importance of a “great narrative” as a fundamental necessity of any community, big or small.  All such narratives, according to Postman:

“…….tell of origins and envision a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose…..one that has sufficient credibility, complexity, and symbolic power to enable one to organize one’s life around it…….one that provides people with a sense of personal identity, a sense of a community life…..Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future.”

Rethinking What Elements Might Be Missing from American Education

At a conference at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a group of thirteen students listed and explained learning elements that they believed were missing from their education, as follows:

1. Field studies that connect with students’ academic concentrations to deepen meaning and to make classroom-acquired knowledge relevant to the real world of the 21st century.

2. Reconnecting with the natural world and indigenous cultures in order to internalize the urgency for safeguarding a sustainable future and have an undisturbed time to carry on the vital process of self-reflection to consider one’s personal worldview and one’s identity in this context.

3. Discovering and expanding one’s unique creative spirit and range of creative expression.

4. Broadening one’s perspective about real world interactivity, maintaining a sense of responsibility to others, and participating in the achievement of a just society.

5. Considering a variety of realistic life-pursuits that can make a difference in the world by immersion in real world work environments and by interfacing with older men and women who bring intuitive understanding and good judgment from long experience in their life-pursuits.

6. Developing a frame of mind and coping ability that allows one to address the realities of life with equanimity and good judgment, rather than succumbing to uncertainty, anxiety and depression.

Rethinking How Workplace Simulators Might Bring Our Next Generation To Job-Ready Status

The initial conceptualization of the Workplace Simulator followed our experimentation with replacing the school desks and school chairs of a traditional classroom with a large seminar table with leather chairs (see photo of experimental classroom at top of this page).  This changed the dynamics of the traditional classroom in that it created a greater sense of trust and community among the students and that, in turn, helped pull up their collaborative creativity and heightened their self-expression.

The Workplace Simulator was conceptualized to become a major advance in student internalization of learning because teams of six students each would have the opportunity to enter the Simulator and, for a four-hour period, they would become players in scripted scenarios (aka theater games) that immersed them in difficult work environments with multiple and simultaneous obstacles to be dealt with and overcome.  The analogy to the Workplace Simulator is the aircraft flight simulators that all the airlines use to keep their pilots and aircrews at a high level of proficiency.  In the aircraft flight simulator, every conceivable flight problem is thrown at the pilots and crews from bad weather, engine failures, structural problems, landing gear malfunctions, instrument failures, passenger actions, and the like.  In the Workplace Simulator, there is no limit to the different scripted scenarios that can replicate any work environment and its inherent problems.

The Workplace Simulator is designed to become the epitome of experiential learning, wherein the students must immediately engage in highly realistic work environments of all kinds based on scripted scenarios (aka theater games) that lead to planned learning outcomes.

Rethinking Why Indigenous Peoples Built Their Education Around a Force of Elder Mentors

It may be interesting for the readers to know that Steve’s high school principal revealed why he had hired Steve for a teaching position in the Patagonia school system.  His statement was:

“I hired you because your background in business and finance will fit well with teaching an economics course to our seniors.  But more important is for you to realize what Patagonia students desperately need.  You see, they are in this town of 900 mortal souls and know nothing about the real world, nor will many of them have the inclination to leave this area when they graduate.  What I want you to do is tell them your stories of where you have been and what you have seen.  You have been around in diverse work environments and involved yourself in a number of exploratory adventures.  I want them to hear those stories and the lessons you have learned.”

Our Young Adults Are Facing Obstacles That Parental Upbringing, Formal Schooling, Tutoring and Therapy May Not Be Able To Address

Steve’s experience as a mentor confirmed his belief that the obstacles many students face are not able to be addressed by parental upbringing, formal schooling, tutoring and therapy. Do we conclude that Americans are out of ideas about addressing the full education needed by our next generations under these unprecedented times?  Does history have anything to offer?

Thankfully, there is long historical evidence that the resilience and solidarity of many indigenous societies rested on a strong educational force of elders who, because of their advanced age, long experience, and insights, held the respectful attention of their youth and young adults and prepared them—in terms of resilience and moral character, as well as competency——to face and address changing social and economic conditions of great difficulty.

Returning Older Americans to the Mentor Role to Bring Their Long Experience, Insights, and Valuable Stories of the Real World to Our Next Generations

The goal of this new mentoring practice is to assemble, train, and deploy a force of American elders who have the age, the life-experience, and the insights our next generations need to cope with increasingly difficult social and economic conditions predicted ahead. Such elders are the women and men who have already connected the dots; who know how the world actually works; and who have tremendous energy to draw in our youth and young adults to give them the grounding and the expertise needed to advance with a sense of solidarity and with their inner compasses revitalized.

These elders must come from all walks of life and rely heavily on experiential education to maximize their effectiveness.  Accordingly, classroom instruction, which is the forte of conventional academic education, will be minimal.  Instead, internships, on-the-job training, apprenticeships, workplace studies, and extensive use of workplace simulators will dominate the learning environment.  The elders will play a major role in sharpening the critical thinking of their students by broadening their perspectives and organizing them into “thought communities” in which the impediments to trust are eliminated and openness, creativity and the challenging of existing paradigms is routine. One such example is to reexamine the premises of education along the following lines: Institutions of education of any society, in the best cases, hold and project the group compass of those societies; becoming the repository of the ideals, the core beliefs that provide vital direction, and the sense of solidarity to sustain themselves under the most adverse conditions.

Rethinking the Development of a New Educational Model

Rebalancing High School Education: (1) Four Different Learning Environments and (2) Diversely Skilled Teachers To Serve Those Different Environments

The most needed skills and attributes of teachers today must lead to the direct
development of each student’s inner compass, which involves elevating their critical thinking, social intelligence, social consciousness, and their pursuit of creative and productive work that contributes to the natural evolutionary advance of our entire society.

However, this paramount goal is impeded by the current over-concentration of classroom-based learning of academic disciplines as they currently exist. Four high school years of that over-concentration has marginalized other critically important learning environments and has led to the charge that our American next generations are being substantially dumbed down by the time they graduate from high school. This very same argument has been directed at university-level education for the same reasons.

With the above-mentioned paramount goal in mind, new teachers coming into the American high school system today would do well to possess the following key skills and attributes:

1. Long immersion in a variety of non-academic work environments that collectively provide knowledge and experience of how the non-academic world actually works, which must be transferred to every student.

2. Acquisition of substantial direct experience in those work environments as opposed to indirect experience acquired by consulting, think tank activities, and advisory responsibilities.

3. Proven success and advancement in those diverse, non-academic work environments that facilitate the acquisition of valuable direct experience.

4. Evidence of the practice of life-long learning designed to enlighten and enrich one’s worldview and be conveyed to students.

5. Possessing a frame of mind that reflects the belief that America’s next generations are its greatest national resource because they provide the critically important spark of new energy, creativity, innovation, spontaneity, and spirituality that drives the natural evolutionary advance of our society.

6. The direct experience of being a parent of one’s own children to acquire the knowledge of the inner dynamics of child-to-adult development and parental responsibilities, which can be transferred to students.

7. The possession of genuine respect, kindness, and caring of all students, whether or not they are taking courses with that teacher.

8. A rejection of the academic practice referred to as “professional distance” that blocks the crucially important development of trust and genuine engagement between teachers and students.

9. The construction of classroom atmospheres and dynamics that foster that trust, student engagement, and creative collaboration.

In addition, it would be wise to add the specific elements missing in current American education as explained in a colloquium of thirteen students from Evergreen State College as described as follow:

10. Construct field studies that connect with students’ academic concentrations to deepen meaning and to make classroom-acquired knowledge relevant to the non-academic world of the 21st century.

11. Reconnect with the natural world and indigenous cultures in order to internalize the urgency for safeguarding a sustainable future and have an undisturbed time to carry on the vital process of self-reflection to consider one’s personal worldview and one’s identity in

12. Discover and expand each student’s unique creative spirit and range of creative expression.

13. Broaden each student’s perspective about the dynamics of the non-academic world, help them develop a sense of responsibility to others, and help them engage in the achievement of a just society.

14. Help students consider a variety of realistic life-pursuits that can make a difference in the world by immersion in non-academic work environments and by interfacing with older men and women who bring intuitive understanding and good judgment from long
experience in their own life-pursuits.

15. Help students develop a frame of mind and coping ability that allows them to address the realities of life with equanimity and good judgment, rather than succumb to uncertainty, anxiety and depression.

There are four cornerstones needed to maximize the effectiveness of a teacher who possesses the skills and attributes described above:

1. Reconstruction and Redevelopment of the Classroom Learning Environment: The teaching of academic disciplines has a place in the classroom learning environment so long as the time taken leaves sufficient time for the work of a field studies learning environment, a workplace learning environment, and a mentorship learning environment.

What is called for in the classroom learning environment is a rearrangement of classroom dynamics which requires the removal of the traditional school desks and chairs, all in regimental order facing forward where the teacher stands prominently as an authority figure.
Instead, the classroom should contain a large seminar table and comfortable chairs where the teacher sits among the students and maintains an atmosphere of creative collaboration marked by trust among all parties at the table.  For details, rationale, and images,
please click on the symbol at the top of the top menu and read the Home Page.

2. Construction and Development of a Field Studies Learning Environment: What is called for is to get the students out of the classroom learning environment and deep into the natural world, and far away from the overwhelming distractions of the media, entertainment, advertising, fashion, crowds, signage pollution, noise pollution, air pollution, and over-development. Then, the students are to be brought to remote, carefully selected field bases that facilitate learning elements #10 to #15 and mix the students with older, knowledgeable and experienced teachers from diverse, non-academic work environments.

For details, rationale, and images, please click on the four subjects listed in the top menu, titled: “Perspective Field Bases in Patagonia, Arizona; Boulder, Utah; Petersburg, Alaska; and the Ecuadorian Rainforest.”

3. Construction and Development of a Workforce Simulator Learning Environment: What is called for is the introduction of pragmatic learning by doing of the dynamics of the American workforce in order to help students consider a variety of life-pursuits and to achieve job-ready status in today’s workforce. For details, rationale, and images, please click on the subject listed in the top menu, titled:  “Workplace Simulators, Critical Thinking, Teamwork, Leadership.”

4. Construction and Development of a Mentorship Learning Environment: What is called for is a group of well-trained older men and women of substantial experience and knowledge in the non-academic world, who have the skills and attributes to address the paramount goal described above through story-telling and discussion in an egalitarian atmosphere. Such mentorship can be achieved in the revitalized classroom atmosphere described above, the Field Studies learning environment, and the Workplace Simulator learning environment.   Mentorship learning can also be achieved by simply having students and mentors mix together to converse and compare notes in any commonly accepted locations.

One cautionary comment: The practice of “professional distance” modeled by certain traditional teachers in their interrelationship with their students disqualifies those teachers from participating in mentorship environments of any kind because it blocks the building of trust and authentic engagement between mentors and their students. The same is true for creative collaboration environments which rely on the same egalitarian principles of interaction.

The incorporation of four equally-important learning environments would also require a re-balancing of  educators possessing different skills and attributes. In any high school setting, what would be called for would be: (i) a reduction of academic teachers; (ii) larger
numbers of older teachers with the qualifications described above to work in the field study learning environment and the workplace simulator learning environments; and (iii) older mentors to create their own mentorship learning environment apart from the other three
learning environments or within them in a complementary manner.

This re-balancing of teachers, mentors and learning environments would be like a breath of fresh air if, from within the American public school system, there arose a coordinated movement to experiment with such adjustments as a reflection of the American school system’s immune system in action to appropriately adapt, as any organism or organization must do, to insure sustainability and to protect the natural evolutionary advance of our entire society.

To have this experimental educational model tested in the high school setting, I believe the first students should be chosen solely from among the at-risk and resistant profile. This model could genuinely be cast as experimentation to reduce the drop-out rate and to reach,
motivate, and propel such students forward to college or the job market. Furthermore, institutional resistance, if any, to this experimental model from senior faculty, senior administrators, and the school board might be minimal. Instead, there might be
enthusiastic support from these constituencies, as well as from the at-risk and resistant students and their parents.

Building a Body of Work To Empower Our Next Generation

In the meantime, from 2010 to late 2013, Steve researched and wrote a book, A Grandfather’s Encouragement To Our Next Generation (2013) to help our American and global next generation develop their own unique perspectives of “how the world actually works” and how to go forward in their life-pursuits.  In early July 2016, Steve completed  Restoring The Peace (2016), which is the first part of a sequel to the first book, titled:  American National Service:  Rebuilding America and Its Economy From the Ground Up.