A School Without Walls

We have started something that we can not control.  Students are gradually assuming more responsibility and ownership for what they learn and how they learn it.  This is a good thing, but like splitting an atom inside of a cardboard box, there is no hope of containing its power and potential.  Yet, by and large, we stubbornly cling to a traditional school system, attempting to control student learning in the confines of a specific space, time and method.

Here are three reasons (there are many others) that, as educators, we must open the “cardboard box,” extending student learning beyond our classrooms, schools and communities.

(1) We are not the experts.

Regardless of how good we might be at our jobs, I dare say that when it comes to almost any teachable concept, we can find someone in the world who knows more about the topic than ourselves.  Why would we deny our students access to this knowledge?  Technology allows us to bring experts into the classroom.  It allows students to hear from, and interact with, those who have first-hand knowledge and experience with critical concepts in many different fields of study.  It is one thing to read and watch a video about the Lost Boy’s of Sudan, it is another to listen to one speak and ask him questions about his experience.  Good teachers, and effective schools, of the 21st century will provide their students with these opportunities.

(2) Relevance is much easier to illustrate beyond classroom walls.

There is no better way to engage a student in learning and provide relevance than to allow them to assume ownership of a task and grant them an audience.  Whether writing a blog post related to a personal passion and eliciting comments from a world-wide audience, or using writing skills to orchestrate a local community service campaign, students who “own” their work and understand their ability to make a difference will be engaged in the learning process.  This is relevance.  Too often we attach the term relevance to something that students “could” be doing with a particular piece of knowledge (i.e. you could use percentages when you go to the grocery store).  This is neither relevant, or meaningful.  Our students don’t need to know how they “could” apply knowledge….they need to do it.

(3) Knowledge leads to understanding.  Understanding leads to empathy.  Empathy leads to action.

We want our students to apply what they have learned to improve the human condition.  It is too easy to become detached from the human suffering that goes on in our world.  Our students need to have a better understanding of different cultures, and the struggles that others endure.  This understanding helps them develop a sense of empathy and will hopefully lead them to take action.  While studying about the struggles of others serves a purpose, our students need to get their hands dirty.  They need to interact with people in other countries, participate in community service activities in their own community and develop direct connections to a world-wide audience.

A balance is shifting in the world of education and the definition of what it means to be a student, to be a teacher and to be educated is changing.  This shift not only envelopes the content and skills that are being taught, but the methods used by educators to teach.  We have always given a cursory nod to the concept of the “teacher as facilitator,” but now we must truly embrace this role, moving beyond lip service.  Educators, and schools, no longer possess a learning monopoly–what we refuse to provide, our desired audience will find elsewhere.  We have a vital role to play, but we are not gatekeepers.  As educators, it is time for us–at least metaphorically–to tear down the walls of our schools and allow our students to engage in a learning process that is truly meaningful, relevant and boundless.

cc flickr photo: by by brianfuller6385


  1. Margaret Simkin said:

    This article really resonates with me. There are so many ways that we can begin to flip our classrooms. Tricky working around Internet blocks and mobile device bans. Administrations need so much convincing. So do some conservative students for that matter!

    May 31, 2011
  2. Jacqui Hills said:

    thank you for this article, it is succinct and articulates some of the advantages currently open to many of our school systems.

    I like that in teh article you mention ‘good tools and effective teachers’ as an essential part of the 21st Century schools with out walls concept.

    Because they are.

    Without those two key componants in our 21st Century digital education revolution, teaching will become disenfranchised and something a computer can do.

    June 1, 2011
  3. jcook said:

    Thank you for this article. You have described my vision for my school district. However, I am finding that “we” like our walls and do not want them torn down in many instances.

    June 1, 2011
  4. Joe Aldridge said:

    Thank you for your post. We must begin the task of redefining our role as that of a pedagogical expert instead of a content expert.

    June 1, 2011
  5. Heath Morris said:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. A school without walls is a great concept for teaching. As the world changes, the methods of education must do so along with it. The idea of allowing a student to “own’ their work and be more involved in society is fantastic. It shows them how the things learned in the classroom are applied everyday in the world. Thus, instead of memorizing pointless facts and dates (that they would soon forget), they instead interact with an audience leaving them with a lifelong knowledge that will impact the world.

    June 1, 2011
  6. This is a great answer to provide families who are wondering why it is important to integrate technology into teaching – and that also answers the challenge of the “world getting flatter.” Terrific post!

    June 1, 2011
  7. Hi,

    This blog is brilliant, this clearly demonstrates a 21st century school and teaching ethos. I particularly love the willingness to try, open the door to new ways and innovative approaches. Challenging the status quo of traditional tried and tested practices that are ceasing to work is inspiring.

    For me I feel many of these principles can cross over into teacher education (andragogy), we must challenge the status quo of usual CPD practices.

    By harnessing the collective capacity of a school or a network of schools there is a wealth of knowledge, understanding, ideas and tips. Teachers are looking to Twitter, Skype, Facebook, You Tube and more to share practice, answer questions, seek new ideas, seek support, school must knock the walls down, bring teachers together in an uncomplicated manner and where it matters most – in the classroom

    Experiential learning opportunities! Matching theory to practice, seeing it in action rather than just receive information to later experiment with.

    Teacher education is equally important as student education, I hope the walled garden approaches to CPD also change to borderless opportunities as we have seen within your blog.

    My favourite part:

    “We have started something that we can not control. Students are gradually assuming more responsibility and ownership for what they learn and how they learn it. This is a good thing, but like splitting an atom inside of a cardboard box, there is no hope of containing its power and potential.”

    Thank you for sharing!

    June 2, 2011
  8. […] a cautionary reply June 2, 2011 Connected Principals recently posted in support of adopting the schools without walls model. Connected Principals post […]

    June 2, 2011
  9. Ryan said:

    I am sympathetic to your goal, but have posted a cautionary reply to your first argument.
    Respectfully yours,

    June 2, 2011
    • Jeff Delp said:


      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog post. I can appreciate your concern with the issue of expertise, but I want to assure you that my position is not that teachers can not be considered experts, or that they must defer their instruction to others. Instead, I will argue that as educators, we owe it to our students to use any means possible to provide them with relevance through meaningful instruction. Technology offers us opportunities to expose students to “applied” curriculum – as a support to the efforts of the classroom teacher. This might include discussions with those who have have first hand knowledge of a situation (i.e. the Lost Boy’s of Sudan), or someone who has dedicated a lifetime to the study of a specific topic (i.e. a marine biologist who studies whale migration). A simplified view of this might be that it provides an excellent opportunity to answer the age old question…why is this important? Whether through Skype, blogs, e-mail correspondence or online chats, our students have more access to information than ever before. I believe we have a responsibility to help them manage this information and use it to pursue their passions. However, this does not mean that teachers do no possess expertise in their curriculum area.

      I will not presume to speak for any other administrator on Connected Principals, but personally, I don’t consider myself an expert. Every day I learn new things from other educators (teachers and administrators)–many of whom I have never met face to face–simply because I spend a lot of time reading and participating in forums like this blog. I believe our students should have the same opportunity. As a school administrator, my primary role is to support teachers in their challenge to meet the needs of every student on our campus. In doing so, I view teachers as colleagues and believe that wise school administrators make every effort to involve teachers in decisions that impact their instruction and the learning of students.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and engage in the conversation.


      June 2, 2011
      • Ryan said:

        I think the distinctions you make between first-hand experience, field experience, and expertise are a step in the right direction, and bring you more in line with your second two arguments.

        I do caution you to be careful in your use of “expert,” particularly in a time when many teachers feel that their profession is under attack.

        For example, you write “I don’t consider myself an expert. Every day I learn new things from other educators.” Being an expert is compatible with lifelong learning. Even the most distinguished academic, or expert, has the responsibility to continue learning and to adopt a different stance in light of new evidence or argument.

        Thank you for your response and please keep writing for this excellent blog.

        June 2, 2011

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