Guest post by Paul Hermes 


In the early morning hours of a Wednesday in October while on my way to work, I exited off the interstate. As I reached the bottom of the off ramp, I breezed through a series of roundabout intersections that I go through on this particular route to work without having to wait or even slow down much. As I got closer to school, I came across my first traditional traffic-light-controlled intersection. I hit a red light and sat there waiting even though no other cars used the green light coming from the other direction. I became impatient and frustrated and felt like I was waiting there forever until I finally got the green light to go.

As I pulled away, I thought about how inefficient the traditional traffic light intersection was and how much better the roundabout process was for me that morning. And then it hit me. This situation is analogous to what is happening and must happen in education. Educational leaders now fully understand that the traditional, industrial-era model of education no longer best prepares our students for their current and future realities—that what we must do within education is not “reformation” but “transformation.” (If you haven’t already read it, please read Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica’s book Creative Schools for more on this topic.) 

It is not a matter of improving the traffic lights in a traditional intersection—making the lights brighter, using LEDs, changing the location of the lights, etc.—it is a matter of transforming the intersection completely, i.e., empowering the drivers within general rules, expectations, and structures to make their own decisions given the dynamics of the unique situation each of them experience when they approach the intersection.

For far too long students have experienced a “traffic light” learning experience. They were told when they can “go,” when they should “slow down,” and when they must “stop.” If a student was ready to go, but their learning light was redthey had to stop and wait even if there was no reason. Or if their light turned green, they had to move forward and go whether they were ready or not. Furthermore, all of the cars, regardless of the driver, the car, its condition, etc. are all directed in the same manner. There is little to no consideration of their individual abilities, needs, hopes, or desires.

Unlike traffic lights, roundabouts give much greater choice and empowerment for the individual driver. Within the structure of the road and roundabout, and under the parameters of the rules of the road, drivers can use their judgment to make decisions about whether or not they should go or need to stop. It is through this lens of a roundabout that we should view learning and opportunities for our learners. Educators still have a responsibility to lay the path and design the process (loosely), and the students still have to follow the “rules of the road.” Through a roundabout mentality, our learners can be more empowered to drive their own learning (pun intended). They can be put in the position to make the decisions, to react to their needs, to follow others, to learn from others, and to “go” or “stop.”

Having a roundabout mentality does not mean a free-for-all where students can do whatever they want. A roundabout mentality means that there is purposeful design and structure that enhances learning and gives the ownership of decisions, actions, and direction to the learner/driver rather than to the teacher/administrator/police/city planner—or traffic light.

Have you started implementing a roundabout mentality at your school? How has it impacted learning?  

Paul Hermes is the Associate Principal at Bay View Middle School in Green Bay, WI. He believes being an educator is the most important profession in the world and has dedicated his life to improving the lives of students, families, and communities. He is the 2016 Wisconsin Associate Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BVPaulHermes and visit his education and leadership blog, Analogies from an Administrator

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