Reform: To return to a good state.
Redesign: A plan for making changes to the structure and functions of a system so as to better serve the purpose of the original design, or to serve purposes different from those set forth in the original design.
I look at the reform movement in education and see a form of insanity that boggles the mind. It is as if the past education structure was good and all we need to do is bring it back to its previous glory by adding more time on task, core standards, professional learning communities, small learning communities, measure math and reading, measure more math and reading, phonics, whole language, tracking, social promotion, class size, blended learning, standards, merit pay, site based management…. I could go on an on and write a book about each of these reforms, in fact many books by respected people have done just that. Yet all of these reforms neglect the concept that the existing structure is by its very nature designed incorrectly for the development of a 21st century learner and economy.
I have come to the conclusion that the word reform is a bad word. When I think of reform of schooling I think of reform school. When I think of reform school my mind drifts to the word prison or jail: a place of containment to serve time. This was fine when we were educating youth to assume factory jobs in a burgeoning industrial economy of mindless repetition.
Here is the problem; the world has changed. Our form of schooling has not. We still process students in batches expecting all students to emerge at 17 or 18. But now the factory no longer is accepting applications, so what do we do? We expect all graduates to go to college. Yet according to a recent Harvard Study, “only 4 out of 10 graduates earn an associate or bachelors degree by their mid twenties.” (See Pathways to Prosperity).
Is the current design of our schools training our young people to assume a successful track towards a life of hope and prosperity? Or are we setting the vast majority of our youth up for failure? It is time to stop tinkering around the edges of our school system and consider for a moment a fundamental shift on how schools need to be redesigned not reformed to promote a different set of ends. If I was to ask a diverse group of people in our communities what they wanted their children to graduate from school with, I can guarantee the list work look much like this:
1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills
2. Effective Oral and Written Communication
3. Leadership Skills
4. Curiosity and Imagination
5. Ability to handle Change
6. Initiative and Entrepreneurship
7. Accessing and Analyzing Information
With these skills graduates will have the tools to create their own future as opposed to relying on an outside source for their well-being. If the end goals for an educated person are these seven skills then how do we operationalize this vision? In other words, can you design a school that promotes and prepares students in these areas? If you were given a magic wand, how would you redesign schools?
Lets start with the foundation of what healthy development and learning looks like. Emerging from the womb, all humans are incredibly dependant on caregivers for everything they need. As a child grows they begin to take on tasks that were once done by their caregiver. If you have a small toddler, the conflict arises when the child wants to take on tasks that the caregiver thinks they are not ready for. Life becomes a constant pull between dependence and independence. In most societies it is the expectation that as a child grows older they will reach a point where they will be responsible for most of their decisions they make and how they organize their lives.
What is odd about this concept is how it is played out in formalized schooling. I would argue that Kindergarteners have more autonomy and choice about what they do in a day, than the High School Senior. Developmentally this is at odds with what we should be promoting. Better teaching won’t solve this problem, more money won’t solve this problem, nor will better facilities.
What will solve the problem is a close examination of the role of the learner in this system. Currently the student is considered a consumer/product. Schools provide content and time for students to process delivered lessons. They are then tested on the knowledge retained and moved to the next level, much like the processing of a manufactured good. The teacher and school are the tools for delivery of the product. This type of system is de-humanizing for the student and the teacher, and results in bored for both.
Small children have a sense of wonder before they have been placed in school. I have a four year-old and she is constantly asking very deep and thoughtful questions (she also asks very whimsical ones). Her curiosity is rich and varied and she is passionate about learning new things and mastering skills in her own time. Sometimes this causes great frustration on my part especially when we need to be somewhere on time.
Why do I bring this up? Currently, schools are designed for students to answer the questions posed by the professionals. There is very little opportunity for students to ask their own questions. In fact I would argue that students who ask too many questions in class are often considered disruptive or inconvenient to a teacher’s lesson plan. It doesn’t take long for students who ask too many questions to be put in their place.
So if the current system requires conformity and compliance; yet we know that humans need autonomy, mastery and purpose to be motivated, will reforming elements of the system really achieve the desired result? Or does the entire system need to be re-designed?
Schools that honor the developmental needs of kids and “the schools our kids deserve” contain many if not all of the following elements:
- Project Based
- Individualized Learning Plans
- Heavy dose of practical field studies
- 1:15 student to teacher ratio
- Emphasis on reading and literacy.
- Community Involvement
- Caring Adults
- Real choice for students on what they learn
- Facilities that promote collaboration
- Technology to promote higher order thinking skills
- Expectation that service, college and work are complete before graduation.
Can we really have a school with these design elements? The answer is yes, I happen to be the director of such a public school in Minnesota. More on our school can be learned from an interview I gave for EdReformer. Currently I am working with a group of parents to start a similar school in Northern Wisconsin. (See Quaking Aspen Field School). What is needed to start a school like this: courage and desire. Aren’t you sick of kids just doing time? I know they are!
 This list comes from Dr. Tony Wagner’s book: Global Achievement Gap. In the book Dr. Wagner interviews over 400 industry leaders asking what qualities they want from their employees. Even in highly technical fields, respondents without exception listed these skills as the most important skills for the 21st Century.