Reform by Reframing
The human mind struggles to reframe existing systems. Breaking away from what has been to redesign something potentially better requires courage, vision, and initiative. This may be one of several obstacles to educational reform, but one school in Israel accepted the challenge with remarkable results.
In the 1990’s the Israeli Ministry of Education called for proposals that envisioned “an innovative school of the future” that would “remain within the standard budgetary constraints of the regular primary school” (p. 9). A proposal for what became the Cramim Experimental School was accepted, and the school began operation in 1995.
The minds behind Cramim reframed school as “a knowledge system, based on the state of the art, interdisciplinary study of the nature of humans, and the nature of knowledge” (p. 8). Significant time and energy was given to establishing a true learning community, in which teachers operated within organizational groupings similar to those of the students for “professional development, social networking, community cooperation, adaptation of subject matter, problem solving, and decision making” (p. 15).
Technology played a central role in the classrooms. In fact, traditional desks do not exist in Cramim’s “double-space learning environments” (p. 13). Instead, there are small tables for collaborative work, mini-auditoriums for multi-media and student or teacher presentations, and a computer gallery with multiple workstations for students. A teacher’s office completes the space. Additional centers specific to science, technology, music, media, art, and theater compose the rest of the school building.
Students were divided into groups based on age (5-7, 8-9, 10-11), and each “home” (the double-space learning environment) provided learning space for students from two different age groups. Thus, the instruction and learning was partially nongraded.
The teachers had been trained to teach in the established system of schooling, but Cramim was truly experimental. As a result, even though Cramim hired teachers with degrees in education, they found it necessary to retrain the teachers to operate as partners in the learning community.
While the experimental school has been supported by the Ministry of Education and Tel-Aviv University, Cramim has had to prove its effectiveness via traditional measures of achievement. Following a period of stabilization, the school began administering various testing instruments to assess student achievement. The students outperformed their peers in the traditional schooling system in all areas of the TIMSS tests and all areas of the MEITZAV—a national test given in Israel. As a result of this success, the Cramim model has now been replicated in eight additional schools. These new schools are showing similar results, even though the instructional approach is an overt departure from the established system.
The experience and success of the Cramim Experimental School illustrate several likely conclusions.
First, success at true educational reform requires thought and preparation. The school’s formation team spent three years exploring and developing a theoretical framework. They considered deep issues, including the nature of human beings, the nature of knowledge, and the sociocultural environment in which education would take place. This resulted in a thorough theoretical framework that provided guidance for everything from the school’s architecture to its instructional program. Such an approach far exceeds thinking behind the trial-and-error approach found in many “reforms.”
Second, in bringing successful reform to life, details matter. If the theoretical framework is shelved and never applied, the planning is void of value. However, a commitment to the framework forces consideration of many details. Classroom design, student grouping, technology integration, teacher training—these and many more details become important if the framework is to be given a proper experimental treatment.
Third, the theoretical framework becomes focused through goal-setting. From their preparation, the team identified ten school goals that address the importance of individual development, the world-view students would develop through instruction, the role and importance of creativity, and several other noble ideas. These goals, a distillation of the theoretical framework, guided pedagogical decisions.
Fourth, the physical environment contributes to a reform’s success. The Cramim Experimental School required distinct architecture to implement its program. Had the school been forced to use traditional classroom spaces, the success the school experienced would likely have been jeopardized. Additionally, the building design cued teachers in to the type of instruction the school desired. It was much more than a roof and four walls. It communicated values rooted in the school’s theoretical framework.
Fifth, the ideas of school as a “knowledge system” and of a “learning community” seem complementary. The concept of community is frequently mentioned in “reform” plans, but this case study questions the possibility of traditional educational approaches allowing the fostering of a learning community. Cramim suggests the reframing of school is a prerequisite to establishing a learning community.
Finally, Cramim suggests that a reform designed without significant mindfulness of standardized testing can produce successful students even when achievement is measured through testing. As one notable educator has said, if you develop a good school the test scores will take care of themselves. Cramim supports this idea.
It should be noted that despite Cramim’s success, policymakers in Israel have not expressed an interest in the innovation or its remarkable results. Though they frequently mention “evidenced-based policy” in their speeches on education, the politicians have largely ignored the ten-year action research of Cramim School. As a result, Cramim and its associated schools continue to operate “outside the current culture of school education” (p. 18).
Questions Worth Pondering
- What do we mean when we use the term educational reform? Is small-scale trial-and-error an effective means of exploring reform?
- Do we know the theoretical framework behind our current practice? Do we have principles that guide our pedagogical decisions?
- Why do many “reforms” fail to reframe school? Without reframing, is authentic “reform” possible?
- How do we build the needed support to reform through reframing? Can such an approach be attempted in our current sociocultural environment?
- If we could, how would we reframe school? What would be the nature of the resulting reform?
Chen, D. (2010). Schooling as knowledge system: Lessons from Cramim Experimental School. Mind, Brain, and Education 4, 8-19. Available in pdf format for download.