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What Makes It So Sticky?

Old School lives. On and on.

In spite of evidence everywhere that it’s old, defunct, dysfunctional, the Industrial Model of schooling hangs on.  What makes it so sticky?

Everyday we read blogs, look at videos, attend conferences, read research, watch Comedy Central, tweet, talk and write and think about how the Old Industrial Model of education is killing us.  In my own activist work, in fact, I say, we don’t need to describe the failure of the current educational system.  The case has been made.  Abundantly.

And yet while shift may be happening, I wonder.  What makes the Old Model so sticky?

Why Do We Keep On Doing School The Way We Do?  My list of Top Ten:

  1. We require babysitting for our kids. We don’t know what to do with kids if they aren’t in school everyday.
  2. We don’t want adolescents competing with adults in the labor market.
  3. Many people live like they’re still in high school anyway.  What’s the big deal?
  4. Millions of adults depend on the institution for employment, pensions, a sense of self.
  5. If I learned this way, then you should have to too.
  6. If you grow up expecting learning to be fun, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
  7. If everyone thinks they’re smart and capable, no one will do the crappy jobs.
  8. Being asked to change makes me uncomfortable.  I’ll do almost anything not to feel uncomfortable.
  9. Human beings require a lot of prodding, management and shaming to learn things.
  10. I’m afraid.

Take a plunge.  What do you say?

It's sticky.

About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


24 thoughts on “What Makes It So Sticky?

  1. I am there with you Kirsten. So I think the #1 problem is changing the conversation….how do we stop all of us from repeating the same talking points or shift our words in to action? I keep thinking we need to start one school, one neighborhood, one community at a time and just start doing the work and stop talking about it. But then again that is happening…. I think maybe instead of hoping for it to change tomorrow we must remember that change happens over long periods of time and that the only way to continue the tide is to keep doing it.

    So what am I doing? I am working with IDEA to start getting people who are “doing” the change to work together, to start looking for common goals, to share resources and knowledge not hoard or hide their wisdom. I am looking to get children of all ages in on the action, education is for them…. I designing a school that will help empowering others to do the same, I am willing to be open and flexible to continue to redefine and reinvent what I believe education looks like. I will continue to study and research models that act in the same way. I will try to change the subject to the positive things that are happening not repeat tired criticism about the factory model of schools. Not because I don’t believe them but because my energy is better spend talking about what can be. I will remember that education is about drawing out the whole of a person, children or adult. I will share my passion for all the good schools and communities of learning in this country and the world!

    What are the rest of you “doing?”

    always thanks for pushing back to the edge!


    Posted by dloitz | August 15, 2010, 7:00 pm
  2. Hi Kirsten,
    I agree–it’s a slothful pace of change here. Have you read Sarason (i.e. my comment on your post of ‘what the revolution looks like elsewhere’)? What do you think of his writing on this?

    Posted by Jennifer Groves | August 15, 2010, 11:57 pm
  3. your list is great. sad. .. but great.

    i’m reading inquiry as stance just now. earlier this summer i read roger martin’s the design of business.

    we just take things as truth.. we don’t question. we need to question everything…
    but adamantly.

    Posted by monika | August 16, 2010, 1:38 am
    • Jennifer, I’ve read Sarason and think he’s brilliant. He said a lot of things in the early 1990s that we are all debating now. He too understood the power of the institutional frame, and like Snow White many of us fall under the spell of the institution, falling into a deep sleep until we are wakened by…what?

      Monika, agreed. But still the spell lingers…

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 16, 2010, 8:09 am
  4. David, I thank you for this really tangible response. I too am really enthusiastic about IDEA and the thoughtful way they are organizing for change. I hope to be with them and support them and participate with them in any way I can. Scott Nine rocks!

    Here is the dilemma I was trying to get at in this post, one that really consumes me.

    What makes people so attached to the institution? What is it about institutions that are so captivating, even if people within them know they are counterproductive?

    This feels like a central problem to me–one that Ivan Illich wrote a lot about but didn’t satisfy around, except to name the issue. Ideas?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 16, 2010, 8:04 am
    • What makes people so attached to institutions? On a brain level it is fear and security-a one-sided coin if ever I saw one. On the social level I think it has something to do with herd behavior. Don’t stand out or the lion might notice you. Most people never get to the point where they might accept the idea that risks may be their safeties in disguise.

      Posted by Tellio | August 18, 2010, 10:19 am
  5. This is kind of what my thesis is about in some ways. I have been reading “Social Justice- the challenge of Small Schools.” and in some ways the challenge of building small schools or Human scale schools is to understand why we have big institutions. I am not sure I have the answer, but hope after all my research and writing I will have a clearer idea of how to build new communities or redefine what we mean by school.

    Institutions were questioned and attacked in the 60’s and your book explains how the fight or battle fell short because often we just name the problem and don’t help find solutions. But I really believe a that we can built off of the work of the questioners and namers in the ’60s and start doing some of the work.

    One thing I was reminded in my reading is we need to engage everyone in this discussion. We must understand the blanket of comfort that institutions give people and help to bridge and ease their fears and criticism with honesty and empathy. We might need to stop attacking as if it is US vs Them and start thinking like we are all in this together….and like we do or try to do with children….meet them where they are and go from there.

    These are my thoughts for today! I think this post is important and we need to continue having discussions like this! Oh and did you link this post on to! I think it is important we remember to share our COOP discussion else where….you never know who might join our conversation.


    Posted by David Loitz | August 16, 2010, 4:46 pm
    • David, I am so enthused by what you say, and I too absolutely believe that we must stop talking about what’s wrong with the institution and just get on with the work. Some of the things I’ve talked to Scott Nine about is how we actually do have many, many examples of New Models of School out and about in the US and around the world, but we are poorly informed about what other people are doing. Also, we don’t know our own history well, and we do tend to see ourselves as embattled. It’s me (and my like-minded folks) against everyone else, when there many be so many more collaborators than we actually know. Scott and I have talked about how to make the tent big enough to hold lots of folks, and still be politically powerful.

      But the spell that the institution casts over its inhabitants is really central…I think the only way to deal with that is to name it.

      I also think we’ve MORALIZED PLEASURE IN LEARNING, so that we think learning has to be hard, difficult, dull, or it’s not real. That’s a real part of our old story, but we’re having a hard time moving out of that one, too?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 17, 2010, 11:11 am
    • Yes, we do need to point out the false security blanket that institutions give. That probably means confronting the empty promise that is modern schooling K-Grave. I predict that the bubble of schooling will pop and it will represent a ‘depression’ that is profoudly fundamental. And that ain’t good. So it is our duty to point out what is wrong, why it is wrong and what is being done to build innumerable learning Arks around the world.

      Posted by Tellio | August 18, 2010, 10:25 am
  6. An important question, Kirsten. Kind of walloping.

    This is where I was:

    1. 1. The Achievement Gap is a travesty.
    2. 2. Schools created the Achievement Gap.
    3. 3. Standardized tests showed us the Achievement Gap.
    4. 4. It is only just that students who failed get the same kind of instruction that the students who passed got.
    5. 5. We will only know that the students who failed are getting that kind of instruction when they pass.
    6. 6. We must measure student achievement with standardized tests because we found out about the Achievement Gap because of standardized tests.
    7. 7. Therefore, the only socially just way to eliminate the Achievement Gap is to get the students who failed to perform like the students who passed on the same assessments using the same kind of work, because that work was passing.
    8. 8. It is dubious to think that any other kind of work other than the kind of work that the kids who passed did will make the kid who failed pass the standardized test and eliminate the Achievement Gap.
    9. 9. It is dubious to think that any other kind of test could show that a student has eliminated the Achievement Gap – or “learned” – other than the test that the kids who passed passed in demonstrating the Achievement Gap.
    10. 10. If we don’t get rid of the Achievement Gap this way it will always be there.
    11. 11. We will be guilty of – or blamed for – perpetuating the Achievement Gap if we do anything differently or stop looking at the Achievement Gap as portrayed by standardized test scores.
    12. 12. I don’t want people to think I can’t be a good teacher.
    13. 13. Therefore I have to help eliminate the Achievement Gap by getting the students who failed to pass the test using the work that the kids who passed used to pass.
    14. 14. I am afraid of being shamed by being labeled a failure.
    15. 15. I am afraid of feeling guilty by being part of the problem.

    I still have my fear and anxiety. However, I think now that trusting relationships and authentic work are much more likely to help my students confront and solve real-world problems than most of the work I assigned previously.

    The work from that time of which I was most proud was probably spoke the least to the tests – one assignment was about justice and the other about the power of love to save people.

    I love the people with whom I worked. It’s difficult to talk about issues like this with them because I so valued our time together and what we did. I value it differently now than I did then, but I don’t care for those colleagues any less.

    One reasons things don’t change might be how difficult it is for reformers to go back to what worked for them and to ask the people there to change. Is it enough to go somewhere else and do something else and hope it makes sense to colleagues working in another place?

    What do you think?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 16, 2010, 8:07 pm
  7. Chad, I love having this dialog with you, and I appreciate it.

    Here ye, here ye! I think the first death nell on the AYP, NCLB, Race To The Top era of educational reform was officially sounded yesterday, when New York City’s “closing” of the achievement gap, described in a front page article in the Times, was revealed as a travesty.

    Justification for the reform model under which we have all been living since the early 2000s symbolically, just evaporated. Because Arne Duncan is very tight with Joel Klein and Bloomberg, and psychically they all swim in the same pond, this really does matter. How we measure what “improvement” looks like IS going to be affected by this, if not instantaneously.

    This matters. Momentum is growing for new models. Which suggests we ought to get over to EdGov and start posting…

    On your second point, everyone is afraid, all of us. And I love the people I work with too, and have certainly felt the spell of the institution fall over me. That’s why what we’re doing here is so important. We are supporting each other, and helping each other think more clearly, about what we each need to do. To be less afraid.

    If we don’t talk about these things we’re letting our fears rule us?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 17, 2010, 11:28 am
  8. Hey Kirsten,

    I read that article last night and felt the same way. I post on my tumblr site and facebook, but really felt like we need to talk about it here too.

    Here is what I wrote….

    Triumph on Racial Gap Withers in New York Schools –

    we will be hearing about this for a while. I am not sure how tests can ever truly give holistic view of how schools are doing. Maybe it is the model that is failing not the teachers. I am starting a moment to get adults to take the STD with the children this year.

    Lets all take this test and spend time in real classrooms and see for ourselves what is happening…..This is Public education and the Public should be holding it accountable not tests written by a few companies.

    Posted by dloitz | August 17, 2010, 12:38 pm
  9. David, need the link to your post?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 17, 2010, 10:26 pm
  10. Kirsten wrote in the comment section:

    “What makes people so attached to the institution? What is it about institutions that are so captivating, even if people within them know they are counterproductive?”

    I recently had a two-year experience with a non-school institution that gave me a tremendous amount to think about, not to mention some real insight into school institutions (I homeschooled so I bypassed all that with my own children).

    First, institutions are based on ritual and schedules that negate a lot of the need to think and innovate. That’s a relief (it’s even a relief part of the time for some innovators).

    Second, I think a lot of innovators tend to misunderstand the general population. Most people are not and do not want to be innovators, and they wish the innovators would leave them alone (how would you like it if someone was always trying to make you be something you didn’t want to be, to improve you?).

    Third, there aren’t nearly enough innovators to make massive change happen. Innovators are trying to force their own personalities on others so their numbers will be sufficient to effect the change they want, and it’s not going to work.

    Change can happen. It is happening. But it happens at the small level, not the mass level. The solution is not to try to force the institutions into radical change. It’s to simply create better options to serve the people who can be convinced to use them. As the better options grow, so too will the number of people using them. But as soon as the better options get big enough (big, not numerous), they will begin to take on the characteristics of the institutions we now dislike, so beware. Small is not better because it’s small — it’s better because it’s what works.

    And a final word: As long as we keep trying to do this via government power and money, we will continue to be frustrated. Part of the innovators’ work is to figure out how to do it at the level of liberty – because that’s what works. It’s not about doing it better for people or to people; it’s about freeing people to do it better for themselves, in all the variety that freedom produces.

    Posted by tdbwd | August 19, 2010, 3:22 pm
    • There are so many great points in this comment, I’m pausing and taking them in.

      -So true that rituals make things easier, even for innovators. Sometimes we all like to turn into the same stall in the barn at night?
      -It’s also a great point that pushing people around and telling them what’s wrong with what they’re doing is unwelcome and unproductive. What I find though, is that evidence of Old School failure is everywhere, and on the lips of all kinds of folks, not just brave young visionaries and anarchists and homeschoolers. That dissent and dysfunction is piling up, gaining momentum, going to break through, is breaking through, although we aren’t all knowing these things at the same time…
      -You, dear poster, say you don’t believe policy is big game worth hunting. And on that I disagree. Because there are all those kids who will never go to alternative school, private school, their local learning center. That’s why it’s worth being in that big game, as unseemly and undignified and ungratifying as it is.

      I think all of us at the COOP are signed on for the “change can happen, is happening, the options are getting better every day story.” We’re talking about scale up. Beyond?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 20, 2010, 2:18 pm
  11. I think the primary reason why schools stay largely the same is because of inertia and lack of vision and will to create something different. It takes creativity, critical thinking, tons of work, new vision, persuasive capabilities, exploration and inquiry, introspection, cooperation, motivation, and and sheer talent to challenge and change entrenched and seemingly intractable systems (like traditional schooling) that have become ensconced so deeply within society. I believe this is why so many alternatives originate through independent schools, some of which take hold and spread (e.g. Waldorf and Montessori), occasionally even into the public arena. Changing the entrenched system is going to take both grassroots efforts and high level national discussion which has not yet begun in earnest. My personal belief is that until we begin a true discussion about the purpose of schooling – which I believe ought to be to provide kids with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a better world so that they become true solutionaries – we will not change the system of education.

    Posted by Zoe Weil | August 20, 2010, 9:44 am
    • Zoe! So lovely to have you here! My friend Peter Bergson and I were just talking about you and your work. I really hope to know you more.

      What would a serious conversation at a national level look like to you? (I think they they they are having them, down Washington Way.) How would you get that going?

      For instance, on the goals you outline, how did/does the ASCD’s Whole Child initiative look to you?

      ASCD has over 200,000 members and this initiative was intended to launch a discussion among teacher, very mainstream public school teachers, about what teaching is about and what are the central values of education. Does it stack up for you?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 20, 2010, 2:26 pm
      • Hi Kirsten!
        Thanks so much for the warm welcome! It’s great to have found this site, and I hope to get to know you as well! Thanks also for pointing me to the ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative, which I hadn’t read. I agree with it, but I would say it doesn’t go far enough or address what I think are some of the biggest issues we face. For example, in this paragraph: “These 21st century demands require a new and better way of approaching education policy and practice—a whole child approach to learning, teaching, and community engagement. We need to redefine what a successful learner is and how we measure success. It is time to put students first, align resources to students’ multiple needs, and advocate for a more balanced approach. A child who enters school in good health, feels safe, and is connected to her school is ready to learn,” I feel that what’s left out is as important as what’s here. I agree with this whole child approach, but I believe that more needs to be said about putting the fate of our planet and its inhabitants (human and nonhuman) first, too. There is much in this initiative that if enacted would go far to transforming schooling, but unless we explicitly address the need for graduates to have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to create a sustainable, healthy, peaceful world, this goal can get lost. There is one pertinent, but brief phrase to this effect in the initiative (“solve complex problems”), but I worry it disappears with the focus on putting the child first and preparing them to be a successful work force in a changed and changing world. I so appreciate this as a mainstream statement that can influence schooling, but I think that the national conversation I’d like to see happen revolves not only around changing outdated teaching/learning approaches, but also around the world in need of system-changers and solutionaries who question and challenge any and all entrenched systems that are destructive, unhealthy, and exploitative.

        In terms of what this would look like, I don’t know how it is fully launched. What becomes a headline issue that generates national discussion is mysterious to me. Right now it’s whether an Islamic Cultural Center should be built near Ground Zero. How this happened is strange as the story is an old one from 2009 that suddenly generated heat now. I’ve never been good at tapping into or generating media attention or political attention. I welcome your thoughts and everyone’s!

        Posted by Zoe Weil | August 22, 2010, 12:10 pm
  12. I think tdbwd has it right here. Change is happening, but, to paraphrase a former student of mine, you can’t change this system the way you might change a painting, with one broad stroke of color. This system has to be changed like a piece of music, one note at a time. Change at the level of liberty, as tdbwd notes, is where the groundswell begins.

    Joseph Campbell, in speaking to Bill Moyers about the Power of Myth, noted that if you want to change the world, you must first change the metaphor. What is the new metaphor to replace the “assembly line” metaphor so outdated? I mean, I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and one of the first things I read when I hit the classroom was about the need to shift education from the assembly line model. But I’ve yet to hear a compelling metaphor. I’ve always thought the world wide web would be a great metaphor for how we learn now–our minds reaching out and the world rushing in as we seek connections, synthesize mass information, and transform ourselves.

    Unfortunately, I’ve come to understand that such shifts have been tried since the mid 60s (think Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and before that, Dewey’s work in the early part of the 20th century also speaks about a different kind of teaching, even if he was partially responsible for the system we have now.

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | August 20, 2010, 1:35 pm
  13. Garreth, I so agree with you. I’m writing right now about the new story for education. I think that’s a critical piece of what needs to be “born.” The story is in the birth canal. Waiting.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 20, 2010, 2:28 pm
    • The new metaphor needs to be something involving growth and development for sagely humanity and recognizing complex systems. Instead of the mechanical, linear system that is summarized in the “assembly line” metaphor, the acknowledgement of the overall non-linear nature of learning, paired with respect for the individual, community (human and more-than-human) and responsibility of the individual for the community, are the concepts to capture.

      So what is it tersely? The web system of education? The networked system of education?

      Posted by Adam Burk | August 24, 2010, 6:36 am

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