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The Three Column Schools:

Building a Joyful Learning Community


Justin M. Schwamm, Jr., NBCT


When you think of a typical school -- or even a “very good” school -- what are some images that come to mind? Most of us probably envision rows of “student desks” in a classroom, students armed with paper and pencil and notebooks, the teacher “giving notes” and students “taking notes” about some academic topic. What’s the purpose of it all? To transmit knowledge, as efficiently as possible, from the brain of the expert (teacher or curriculum developer) to the brain of the student. How will we measure the transmission? Through a pencil-and-paper test which can be quickly, accurately, and objectively “graded” or “scored” by the teacher or, even better, by a specially designed machine. What happens after the test? Teacher and students move on, all together, to “study” the next “topic” in the “curriculum.”

For the past eighty years or more, the vast majority of schools have been designed like this -- in a way that proponents and detractors alike refer to as the “factory model.” Deeply influenced by the early twentieth century “industrial efficiency” or “scientific management” approach of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his colleagues, factory-model schools are designed to prepare their students for “the world of work” in twentieth-century factories.

Unfortunately, those twentieth-century factories are mostly shuttered, their products obsolete, and their promise of lifetime employment (“thirty years and a gold watch”) long forgotten. The “world of work” in the twenty-first century is a very different place, and it calls for a very different kind of learning environment. Just as the one-room rural schoolhouse of the nineteenth century gave way to the huge twentieth-century learning factory, the learning factory, in turn, is now giving way to new structures.

I have spent most of my life in twentieth-century learning factories, most of them “very good” or at least “adequate” by any measure. For the past twenty years, I’ve worked as a high-school Latin teacher, aiming to inspire authentic, joyful learning in my students. And yet, at the same time, I worked hard to be the “good teacher” -- the one with well-organized, nicely formatted lesson plans, always turned in on time; the one who always helps his colleagues; the one who who dots every “i” and crosses every “t.” The one with a perfectly decorated, engaging classroom where students are passionately engaged, but also orderly and quiet. Perfectly organized, but perfectly flexible.

I have obviously failed, over and over, despite many successes along the way! After all, it’s very hard to be inspirationally great and adequately good at the same time. As Jim Collins famously says at the beginning of his book Good to Great, “Good is the enemy of great.” And as Robert L. Fried notably puts it in The Game of School, it’s very hard to “play the game of school” and engage in authentic learning at the same time. And now, after two decades of trying to change the system from within, I realize that a new chapter in my life is beginning. It is time for me -- and possibly for you -- to start working on the new system. It is time for me -- and possibly for you -- to start building a network of joyful learning communities that we call the Three Column Schools.

The mission of the Three Column Schools is to build a Joyful Learning Community whose participants collaboratively break the cycle of poverty for themselves, their families, and their communities. We plan to begin in small, poor, rural communities in southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, where the need is great and the opportunities are few. Over time, we intend to build a national network of collaboratively governed schools where there are no limits on learners’ performance, and where everyone is encouraged to be as great as he or she chooses to be.

Our vision is to build an international network of learning communities where everyone, but especially families from multi-generational poverty, can develop the knowledge, skills, understandings, and contacts that families from multi-generational wealth and privilege expect and provide for their children. Our learners, teachers, families, and other community members will work together to lift ourselves and each other up.

Our goal is to have at least ten Three Column Schools underway in the next five to seven years, each one providing a vastly superior education, when compared to local school districts or conventional private schools, at significantly lower cost. We also aim to “be the change we seek in the world” by providing training, support, and materials to students, teachers, parents, and administrators in more conventional schools who want to change the paradigm from “learning factory” to “learning community.”

Why Three Columns?

As a young teacher, I was deeply influenced by Mortimer Adler's work in The Paideia Proposal, and later on I was fortunate to get to know Adler's successors at the National Paideia Center in North Carolina. One phrase, in particular, jumps out at me every time I read the “Declaration of Paideia Principles” -- “the best education for the best being the best education for all.” Leaving aside the rather elitist notion of “the best” (and the related question of how to define that), it strikes me that poor kids and privileged kids have very different school experiences. It’s time for that to stop, and the Three Column Schools intend to make that happen in our communities. Our name itself is partly an homage to the Paideia movement.

As you may know, Adler talks about "Three Columns of Instruction" -- didactic presentation of organized Knowledge, intellectual coaching to build Skills, and seminar dialogue to build Understanding of enduring ideas and values. I strongly believe that all learners need opportunities for all of these types of learning -- but so often, factory-model schools concentrate on a "drill-and-kill" approach to both Knowledge and Skill, an approach which ironically builds neither. And yet, if the children of privilege and power benefit from a blend of Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding, how much more important must this be for children from generational poverty? They and their families need hope for the future, and the Three Column Schools aim to help these families build a realistic, tangible form of hope.

There's another important set of three, though, which Adler and his colleagues don't talk about. If you look at the many, many lists of 21st-century skills, they can be classified all sorts of ways -- but I like to put them into groups called Creativity, Community, and Entrepreneurship. Existing school models are terrible at helping learners with these, mainly because they're designed to build conformity, compliance, and an employee mindset instead. I'm sure you can see the influence of Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, and lots of others on my thoughts here. And of course, from Daniel Pink's book Drive, we have the three contributing factors to intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

So there are lots of threes that influenced our choice of name. Another is the three-word phrase Joyful Learning Community, which sums up what we hope to build with the Three Column Schools. It also stands in stark contrast to the unstated ethos of many factory-model schools, where joy, learning, and community tend to take a back seat to order, teaching, and isolation. To be fair, most of the people (and, please remember, I’m one of those people) who work in factory-model schools aren’t opposed to joy or authentic learning or deep community; it’s just that the structure within which we toil is designed to produce quiet, compliant factory workers rather than joyful, eager creators.

Look and Feel

I've been reading about all kinds of alternative school models over the past few years, and I'm sure you'll see the influence of lots of them in the design of the Three Column Schools. Our goal is NOT to reinvent the wheel; it's to help a community (and we define that in a slightly unusual way) build something together.

Picture an old house, an old abandoned church, an old commercial building in a small town -- something with lots of different kinds of spaces in it. If I made the choice, it would be a building from before the factory model became omnipresent, but actually an old textile mill would work well and would have the added irony of repurposing a factory for a post-factory world. In this space, there are comfortable, individual work stations for about 150 learners, as well as some conference tables or small-group meeting areas and a central area for presentations and whole-school meetings. (A larger school would be divided into "houses" or some such terminology, with no more than 150 per "house" -- I take Dunbar's number pretty seriously.) With these 150 learners, there are about 10-15 adults: a few master teachers, some apprentice teachers, and (depending on the community) a business manager, a receptionist, maybe a cook. Outside, there's sufficient parking for everyone who drives, and there's a community garden that's tended by the learners, the teachers, family members, and other members of the learning community. Nearby, there are other old buildings owned by the learning community -- some are already in use as housing or retail space, some are being rebuilt by community members, and a few might be awaiting their eventual rehab and repurposing.

When I say "community members," I'm referring to the students, their parents, their teachers, and others with an economic stake in the success of the school, because Three Column Schools will be cooperatively governed -- and cooperatively owned -- by the members of their community. If you think of the Albany Free School and EdVisions Schools models, you can see how this might work -- and you might also think of the way that an old-fashioned legal or medical practice is owned by its equity partners. Like those partners, community members would gradually earn or purchase their shares in the community, and they would meet regularly to make decisions about the direction of the school.

Pedagogy at a Three Column School would be a mix of the very "progressive" and the somewhat "traditional." That is, if there were particular kinds of Knowledge or particular Skills that needed to be demonstrated to everyone -- or to a particular group -- that would be done by one or more senior teachers, using that central presentation area. Most of the day would be spent on student-initiated projects, in which learners build and apply Skills and Understanding by using their academic Knowledge to solve real-world problems; most of the teachers' time would be spent assisting these groups and helping them with any obstacles. Some projects would involve creating learning materials for less-advanced learners or for members of other Three Column School communities; some would involve community internships; some would involve working on rehabbing those old buildings I mentioned earlier; and of course some would involve working in the community garden, which would produce a lot of the food that community members would eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In many places, the whole community -- including parents and other family members whose schedules allow -- would come together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each day would begin or end with seminar dialogue, initially led by the senior and apprentice teachers but soon involving student leaders, about important issues in the community itself and in the wider world. In short, the atmosphere would be similar, in many ways, to a really excellent preschool, but “all the way up” through the teen years. It would also be similar, in overlapping ways, to the workplace of a great 21st-century company.

To "graduate" from a Three Column School, you as a learner would have demonstrated a thorough mastery of the "core" knowledge and skills that elite colleges expect from their applicants, but you also would have created real-life solutions to real-world problems, created learning materials for others, and probably been involved in the start of at least one successful, youth-run business. You would also be part of a community that had moved, or at least begun to move, from despair to hope. What better preparation for the kind of creative, but knowledge-intensive work that the 21st-century economy offers in abundance?

Greater Quality, Lower Cost

Depending on the needs and preferences of its community, a Three Column School might choose to receive public charter funding, or it might choose to forego public funding entirely. Either way, the absolute cost per student of a Three Column School will be no greater than the per-pupil expenditure of its surrounding school district. In fact, we think we can provide superior service for 60-70% of that per-pupil expenditure, even as we compensate our teachers significantly better than teachers in those surrounding districts.

If you examine the budget of a typical school district, you’ll find whole departments and program areas that are not necessary in the Three Column Schools model. Since we stress the development of practical as well as academic skills, and since we aim to support local businesses, we have no need for the Operations and Maintenance departments of a typical large school district: if we need a plumber or an electrician, we will contract with a local business rather than hire a full-time employee with full-time-employee benefits. Starting from scratch, as we are, we need not perform non-core functions in house if it is easier and cheaper to contract with an outside provider -- so, at least at the beginning, we won’t need Finance or Human Resources or Purchasing or Transportation departments, either.

Since our learners generate their own learning materials, the whole area of textbook procurement, storage, and distribution can be eliminated. Since our schools are collaboratively governed, we need no complicated hierarchy of administration, with the accompanying fixed costs for support staff, office furniture, and office space. And since all of our learners are able to work at their own pace, we should not need the extensive Special Education departments that endeavor (sometimes in vain) to make learning factories offer personalized education for children who learn at a different rate from “the average.” At Three Column Schools, there is no “average.” Everyone is both expected and supported to achieve at the highest possible level; most of our learners will complete the “conventional” K-12 school curriculum in a significantly shorter time, pursue their passions, start businesses or other organizations, and go on to achieve what Stephen Covey calls “primary greatness” while their age-peers in factory-model schools are still slogging through meaningless, repetitive lesson after meaningless, repetitive lesson.

Call to Action

Do you want to be part of the Three Column School vision? Do you want to help build a Joyful Learning Community in your part of the world? If so, please get in touch with Justin Schwamm (jschwamm <at> trescolumnae <dot> com) and let us put you to work!

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Justin M. Schwamm, Jr., is a National Board Certified Teacher of Latin with a passion for helping to Build Joyful Learning Communities of students, parents, and teachers. After twenty years as a public school teacher, he is the co-founder of the Tres Columnae Project (http://trescolumnae.com/beta), a collaborative community for learning Latin online, as well as of the Three Column Schools Project. He is inspired by his own children, 14 and almost 10, and by many Latin students, past and present, who are part of his "Latin family."