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City Slickers and School Transformation: Finding the One Thing

I was going through my video collection last night and came across one that I hadn’t thought about in a while. The movie City Slickers follows the adventures of a few friends who try to renew and re-purpose their lives by going on a cattle driving vacation. There’s a great scene in the film where one of the searchers, Mitch (Billy Crystal) and Curly (Jack Palance), the crusty-edged cowboy who has seen this type of critical response to mid-life before, get into a conversation about the meaning of life:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

Mitch: No, what?

Curly: (holding up one index finger) This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing, just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh**

Mitch: That’s great, but…what’s the one thing?

Curly: (pointing the same finger at Mitch) That’s what you’ve got to figure out.

There are many ideas floating around—here, and in other places—about how we can make schools more effective, efficient and responsive to the needs of those that they were created to serve. (I’m assuming that schools were created to serve our students, but I may, in fact, be wrong!) There are some who want to totally burn down the entire forest and start again. There are others that would be happy with small, incremental changes to the way things are currently done.

But, I’m wondering how I would respond if I were asked to identify the one thing on my own school transformation agenda. Despite the passionate and innovative spirit with which we approach this type of thinking, it is clear that the structures of school are stubborn and very resistant to change. But what is the one thing that, if implemented properly, might help us move schools closer to where we would like to see them.

Before throwing this question out to the community on this late November weekend, I thought that I would provide a response of my own.

For me, the change that would provide the most leverage for transformation would be a shift from age-based movement through the system. For me, it is this traditional practice that carries with it quite a few of the assumptions that we make about how students learn, not the least of which is that there exists a predictable trajectory of skill and knowledge acquisition. Challenge this practice, and we could be on our way to creating a whole new way of looking at education, and a whole new experience of school for both students and teachers.

I have a position in my school this year that sees me teaching pretty well every student in the school at least once a week. One moment, I’m sitting on the floor of a kindergarten class singing “Five Little Monkeys.” The next moment, I could be in the music lab, working with a group of grade eight students. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t ask questions like, “Why can’t this grade three student team up with this grade six student on this project?” or “Why can’t my music classes more closely resemble my extra-curricular keyboard ensemble where students from ages 10-14 are gathering to learn Pachelbel’s Canon in D?

Yes, I’m thinking that if there was one thing that might open up our schools to the innovative spirit that is so desperately trying to gain admission into the way we go about doing school, it would be the practice of corralling students into stalls and pens based on their age. (The farming metaphor just crept into this piece at the last minute, but it has a connection to what we do to students once we have them corralled–WE GRADE THEM…hmmm….)

So, what would it be for you? What is the one thing that has emerged for you as a powerful possibility for transformation.

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


10 thoughts on “City Slickers and School Transformation: Finding the One Thing

  1. I completely agree with your assessment of the age grouping problem. We feel a compelling need to group students into cohorts when once they finish high school, they enter a world where we are no longer deliberately grouped by age although it takes a few years for the age grouping effect to “wear off” completely. I think also that you are right, that in order to break down this paradigm, an awful lot of other transformation would have to happen to our system?

    I mean, what if students learned in a system where they were never placed permanently in cohorts? What if they could CHOOSE what they wanted to learn? I think that students should work in a system where they get much more choice about what they learn. There may be some important basic things that we would expect all kids to know, like the basic literacies of life, but that beyond that, they could start to have a lot of choice about what they do.

    Posted by David | November 13, 2010, 8:15 am
  2. I’m sure there are lots of other examples people can find in their lives when they interacted with people in a meaningful way who are outside their age cohort. In fact, people probably rarely interact with other people who are exactly their own age. It would be preposterous to go around life only talking/working with people who are exactly the same age as one’s self.

    Posted by dwees | November 13, 2010, 9:49 am
  3. I was going to say that my ONE THING was the standards. That if we could just refrain from comparing every child’s learning to some predetermined list and timetable of skills and knowledge, all would be well.

    But the more I think about it, (sigh,) there is no one thing. It’s a flawed world view that must change. The problem is not rooted in specific practices, methods or structural problems – it is much much bigger. As long as the purpose of education is conceived of as efficiently producing competitive workers (see Kirsten’s earlier post: what’s the purpose of education) we are in deep trouble. As long as we think accumulating information is the goal and that “it” is best understood by separating ourselves from “it” and carving “it” up into digestible little bits we are lost. Entrenched in this world view as we are, we will always produce systems that isolate, alienate and fragment. We will not find community, connection, relationship, creativity, collaboration or personal meaning-making.

    Bummer. No silver bullet I can see. Now I’m depressed. Think I’ll go for a walk in the woods.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 13, 2010, 11:19 am
  4. Actually, I’m not looking for the silver bullet cure-all, but one thing that, if we did it, might start to open things up to a new way of thinking.

    Its a complex world that we’ve created, and we can’t address all of the issues all at once. And there are some things that may never change.

    But if we started with something….what would it be?

    I like the walk in the woods idea!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 13, 2010, 11:31 am
  5. Maybe a walk in the woods is the one thing? How many children get to do part of their learning outdoors? Our urbanized world is definitely decreasing these types of opportunities for this.

    Posted by dwees | November 13, 2010, 12:17 pm
    • A lot of progressive work happening in ecopsychology discusses how our separation from nature is a root cause for a lot of modern problems–from pollution to mental illness. Richard Louv’s book is just the tip of the iceberg on this one. See the work of Michael Cohen, E.O. Wilson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, the Center for Ecoliteracy, David Orr

      There are some great schools that are incorporating this “one thing.” Willow School, Ridge and Valley Charter School, EarthWalk Vermont, White Pine School, The Walden Project…

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 13, 2010, 9:25 pm
  6. I think that you may be right! Ever read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv?

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 13, 2010, 2:07 pm
  7. School has to be designed based on what we know about learning and our learners, rather than on what we know about its adults’ daily schedules; moreover, what we know about learning has to be channeled into efforts to benefit our communities and world.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 14, 2010, 9:25 am
  8. This is a provocative question. What comes to mind for me right away is if adults did not see themselves in POWER OVER positions in relation to kids. If that fundamental paradigm about schooling changed, I think a lot of other things would also change.

    Revolutionary leadership does not take advantage of the emotional dependence of the oppressed. (Paulo Freire)

    Posted by Kirsten | November 18, 2010, 9:43 am

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