When do you Remodel and When do You Build Something New in Education?

I continue to find educators and educational “dreamers” struggling with a persistent question. When is it best to work within an existing school, trying to renovate and remodel the teaching and learning as possible? When is it best to move on to a school that is a better fit for your vision, values, and/or philosophy? Also, when is it time to venture out and build something completely new? I have a few insight to offer, but to get to them, I ask for you to bear with a few paragraphs as I set the stage.

I’ve always been drawn to older homes. They don’t need to be historic or even that old. For me, it suffices for the home to have a birth prior to my own, 1971. In my adult life, my wife and I have owned three homes, each one a bit  than the last. Our first home, a small ranch, was built in the 1960s and there was nothing particularly striking about it. It included uninspiring fixtures, a basic floor plan, worn linoleum, thick wallpaper throughout, and it had a partly finished basement with the ceiling spray-painted black for some reason. Outside the home, the driveway and part of the backyard was adorned with tons of river rocks kept in place with thick railroad ties. I’m sure it was stylish at some point, but we were fond of it.

Our second home was another ranch, but even smaller than the first. It measured just over 800-square-feet but they managed to fit three bedrooms in it. It was what some described to me as a Sears and Roebuck kit home. Legend has it that the entire two blocks of homes, all the same model, were put up in a few weeks, just as soldiers were returning from World War II. They dug two long trenches the length of the neighborhood block, then filled in part of the trenches between each lot to quickly create the start of basements. Not long after that, they brought each pre-fabricated home in on a truck, assembling a few each week until the neighborhood was complete. When we bought the house in the 2000s, the original 1940s style needed a bit of updating. We tore everything out, all the way down to the studs, added all new electric and plumbing, dry-walled, pained, added a floating wood floor, then finished it off with all new cabinets, appliances, and fixtures for the kitchen and bathroom. With the help of a friend, I re-shingled the roof and put on a nice, new front door (far too nice for the house). The house served us well until two kids came long and things got bit cramped for us.

Then there is the most recently home. We went from a tiny 1940s home to a house more than three times that size, built the year that the Titanic sank (that would be 1912 to help you avoid the urge to leave this article and ask Google). The day that we completed the final walk-through before buying the house, I remember standing in the basement, inspecting a few items. All of sudden I heard a loud gushing sound and saw what looked like a half-dozen buckets of water pouring out of a hole in the ceiling, drenching the floor around me. It turns out that my 2-year-old son was on the top floor and decided to try flushing the toilet. The toilet worked just fine, but the main line attached to it clearly had some issues. We went to closing with the plan of not going through with the deal, but it was an estate and the lawyer managing the sale must have wanted to close things out. So, he wrote a check that essentially covered replacing all the main plumbing in the house, a nice start on what turned into more than a 5-year series of updates and remodeling projects. It felt like we lived in drywall dust for at least two years.

I still live in this third home, and I take pride in the work that we’ve done on the house. Yet, you will often hear me say that, if possible, I’m keen to build a new home next time instead of remodeling something that is already there. It can be rewarding to take something and restore or use it as a base to create something new. Only, that always comes with weighing the potential limitations. For our first two homes, we were simply limited by the design. For the third, that limitation existed as well, but there was also this sense of obligation to design something that honored the home’s history, staying in line with the style of the era in which it was built. Not everyone would feel that need, but for some reason, we did. As long as these limitations don’t get in the way of one’s goals and needs for a home, restoration is a rewarding option.

Yet, what if your dreams and goals don’t fit those old designs? What if you dream of a passive solar home that is partially or maybe even fully off the grid? What if you want an open concept and your home designs (at least within a reasonable budget) are limited by the load bearing structures of the old building? What if you have goals for rooms with specific themes and needs that just don’t fit that old structure? In that case, you typically have two options. Find another existing home that will accommodate those goals or build something new.

Maybe you’ve already started to make some of the education connections. For those who are engaged with education, these same decisions are at work. Some people are content living in the schools of old. They might want to do some minor or major remodeling, but they have opted to be content working without the general design and limitations of the old structures. The goal is to make it the best school that you can, given the reasonable restraints. You might even feel an obligation to honor some of the traditions that go with those old structures. Many people find this to be incredibly rewarding work. In fact, in terms of my full-time work in education, I’ve worked within the existing structures. Readers know I have a constant pull to look beyond, and I’ve had the privilege to do so in my consulting and research, but up to know, I’ve opted for remodeling work.

Sometimes, however, we find that our vision for education, our values, and/or our philosophy grows,  changes, or intensifies, and the current school/structures no longer suffice. This is when many people look for a school that is a better fit. They might not find the perfect fit, but they often find something that is close enough. If people in education are mobile and they are persistent in the search, there is a good chance that they can find something that is a decent match, and they can enjoy a long and rewarding career in that new school.

However, there is also the new construction option. Over the past month, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing at least three founders of schools, each with a distinct and fascinating vision for the community. I can say with confidence that each of these are one-of-a-kind communities and the education ecosystem is better because these people had the courage and creativity to help build something new.

I recently came across a book that I’ll likely be referencing quite a bit in the future. It is a book called To Know for Real: Royce S. Pitkin and Goddard College. Put together by Ann Giles Benson and Fran Adams, it is probably the most fascinating and inspiring book on higher education that I’ve ever read, and it was published in the 1970s. It tells the story of Goddard College’s early years, giving a glimpse into the thought and life of its founder, Royce S. Pitkin. I found myself relating to Pitken (1901-1986) in countless ways. I’m inspired by and drawn to so much of his vision for Goddard College, one of the great models of experimental higher education institutions in the United States. In some ways, as I read the book, I found myself feeling like I was coming home. It tells the story of a radical vision for education where learning and living are blended, learners are co-creators, and there is an incredible richness and relevance that permeate the community.

In the Introduction to the book, I was struck by a couple of sentences. In the early days, Pitkin helped form a network of other experimental colleges, but the authors explain that he was often disappointed by this network, because it was not…”radical enough, did not take seriously enough the notion of learning starting with the individual, and was much too preoccupied with the politics of reform and revision of existing practices” (p. x). This was a network of new and experimental schools and yet, even with these “new constructions”, there was often a fascination, or rather a preoccupation with reforming the old structures. Even building something new, we can find ourselves orbiting around the models and visions of the old educational homes. They become so central to our thinking about education that it takes great care and attention to grow beyond them. Nonetheless, if one aspires to create something truly distinct, to engage in more than reform and remodeling, then it seems to me that a new construction is a good and noble option. As such, I plan to explore and share more stories of these new constructions and their inspiring designers in the near future. Look for those stories here/and or on upcoming episodes of the MoonshotEdu Show.