What Would Be a Radically Different Vision of School?

| February 21, 2014 | 47 Comments
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There’s no shortage of different opinions about how the education system should adapt to a shifting world and a future with unknown demands, but for the most part, only two dominant narratives of education reform have emerged.

“The predominant narrative is that schools are broken,” said veteran educator and author Will Richardson recently at a gathering of teachers at Educon. “Our test scores aren’t great and kids aren’t learning what they need to be successful.”  This narrative is dominated by those who believe schools need to be organized and funded differently, but Richardson claims that the essential outcomes of improved test scores and other measurable results are the same as the current system. “Different isn’t really different,” Richardson said. “It’s the same outcome, but maybe different paths to get there.”

The other dominant narrative holds that schools aren’t broken — they just need to do what they’re already doing, but better. To improve education, this faction argues society needs to support teachers more and limit standardized testing. “It’s this idea of preservation and improvement rather than doing it in any way fundamentally different,” Richardson said.

But neither of these narratives frames the core goals and elements of a successful education differently. Richardson believes there are many educators that don’t completely agree with either of the narratives dominating the debate about education and wants to define a third narrative for those who think education needs to radically shift away from current models. That third narrative would help articulate what goes into creating powerful learning experiences and holds that technology will be a crucial factor in future learning.

“We need to begin to think about schools in a fundamentally different way,” Richardson said. In his vision of this third narrative, reformers would focus on creating an education system that supports inquiry-based, student-centered learning, where students are encouraged to find entry points into the mandated curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them. Technology is an integral part of Richardson’s vision because it allows students to create and demonstrate their knowledge. “That piece of it really allows kids to create things and connect with other people, arguably more important than much of the traditional curriculum that schools are built around,” Richardson said.

A group of progressive educators at the Educon conference discussed other qualities that successful future citizens will need and that a good education should offer. A successful student should be able to manage massive amounts of information, a crucial skill as life becomes more digital. Students should learn in ways that disregard traditional disciplines like English and math, instead focusing on real world problems that allow for crossover and interplay. The focus should be on providing student-centered experiences that bring out qualities in students that aren’t necessarily measurable. Students should learn to build and manipulate computers, not just use them. Perhaps most importantly students should be taught how to learn, especially since the content or specific skills needed in the future are as yet unknown.

“We need to find a narrative that has at its core a very different valuable thing.”

These qualities are different than what one might find in an average public school, but they aren’t impossible to achieve. In isolated pockets around the country schools and teachers are already teaching using many of these principles, but they haven’t coalesced into a movement.

“We need to find a narrative that has at its core a very different valuable thing,” said Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA). “It may not be the most efficient thing, but it could be the most quality thing to do.” It’s hard to convince people that a new narrative can work until they see a physical manifestation of it. “What we have become is a place that people can see and hold onto,” said Diana Laufenberg, lead teacher at SLA, which has based its foundation on inquiry-based, student-led learning. “We’re a place that can get kids into college.” Now families clamor to get their students into the school, but they didn’t trust the idea at the outset.

“Modern learning is about the ability to self-organize your education, to create meaning for things that have value in the world and not answer to this institution,” Richardson said. But as educators discussed the issue more in depth, it became clear there was more than one definition of what a third education narrative would look like. “I’m not sure if we all wrote down our definition of modern learning right now that we’d all be near each other,” Richardson said.

And yet there was a clear hunger for something other than charter schools or a defense of the status quo. “The underlying problem for any new kind of education is putting out there that level of uncertainty, that level of messiness that exists in the world, the ugly problems that are going to need to be solved by people, not by corporations,” said one teacher. An ambiguous vision of education is hard to sell to politicians, parents, and students.

“Most teachers didn’t sign up for this moment that we’re in, this shifty moment,” said Richardson. As ideas about what makes a useful education morph, some educators are feeling left behind, reeling from all the changes. Others are fighting to hold onto the accountability tools that were used to measure them. But assessing this as-yet amorphous concept of the future of learning would necessarily be varied. More than anything, educators would guide students on a learning journey through the lens of their interests and help them discover who they are as learners.

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  • La la la la

    i agree that schools should change. i believe children need to be taught things like nutrition, cooking, the value of exercise, mindfulness, and compassion. these topics should be as important as math, science, and english

    • caiobella

      So what it sounds like you are saying is that schools do not need to change, the curriculum needs to change.

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  • Carl Kuzmich

    Students need to learn how to think, to create, to innovate otherwise we are doomed as a nation.

    • SudburyValleySchool

      Children are born knowing how to think, create, and innovate. A school’s job is to give them the freedom to exercise those abilities. Unfortunately, the majority of today’s schools do the opposite.

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  • Gerry Roe

    I too used to believe that it was necessary to invent a new model for education, and I struggled for 40 years to imagine it.Then I read Angeline Stoll Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius,and decided it wasn’t necessary to re-invent the wheel after all. It turns out that this 100-year-old system incorporates all of the student choice and control, collaboration, real-world orientation, etc. that a “third narrative” is likely to ask for. Plus it is highly developed and integrated, well-tested, demonstrably successful, and requires fewer teachers than our present approach. It could be implemented as-is for younger students; for older ones, it probably needs come more work, but the basic design is there.
    With regard to technology, student choice is important there as well. They need to be made aware of the choices, but they are better qualified to make them than either the companies trying to sell their technology or the LAUSD.

    • mamabearmaya

      Us Montessorians pull our hair out every time we read such articles. We wholeheartedly agree that this shift NEEDS to happen but, at same time, like you are saying, ate screaming or from the rooftops: “hello!! Over here!! This has already been going on for over a hundred years!!” Montessori was the national educational system in Italy until Mussolini came into power. It is time tested and has amazing results. How do we get the Board of Education to see this??!!

  • caiobella

    The problem is accountability. Right now the blame is placed on schools and teachers when the problem lies with parents and students. Let’s be honest about who does the learning, kids! These are not robots that we can just fill with knowledge. Students and parents have to have some skin in the game.

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  • Bill Matthews

    Part of the problem is that non-educators consider themselves experts in education simply because they have gone to school and/or sent their kids to school. For most that is their total experience with education. Secondly, far too many writers and presenters speak as though “schools” were some monolithic entity when, in reality, we have a larger number of school models. From my perspective as a former teacher, retired campus administrator, and current high school teacher I see this issue somewhat differently. We are into the second generation of “helicopter parents” so intent on protecting their children from the ravages of education that the kind of freedom to explore, and sometimes fall short, described in the article would be evaluated by these parents as painful and therefore inappropriate. My next point is that my students, I don’t want to generalize, are ill prepared for inquiry based learning. They would rather talk to their friends endlessly, text for hours, and listen to music on their digital devices. While mine is something of a “chicken or the egg” position, I’m afraid that without the support of the tax paying parents any real educational reform is unlikely. Any proposed reform must consider the characteristics of the current learner in order to be successful.

    • Liz Allen G

      I wonder if the students are as distracted when using an inquiry-based method. Inquiry based learning should start early and not cease. We are doing exactly the opposite. By the time a child finishes elementary education, curiosity has been replaced with the reward-seeking, punishment-avoidance. The current model is a great way to destroy creativity and insure that students seek distraction and recreation wherever they can get it.

  • Bill Matthews

    Part of the problem is that non-educators consider themselves experts in education simply because they have gone to school and/or sent their kids to school. For most that is their total experience with education. Secondly, far too many writers and presenters speak as though “schools” were some monolithic entity when, in reality, we have a larger number of school models. From my perspective as a former teacher, retired campus administrator, and current high school teacher I see this issue somewhat differently. We are into the second generation of “helicopter parents” so intent on protecting their children from the ravages of education that the kind of freedom to explore, and sometimes fall short, described in the article would be evaluated by these parents as painful and therefore inappropriate. My next point is that my students, I don’t want to generalize, are ill prepared for inquiry based learning. They would rather talk to their friends endlessly, text for hours, and listen to music on their digital devices. While mine is something of a “chicken or the egg” position, I’m afraid that without the support of the tax paying parents any real educational reform is unlikely. Any proposed reform must consider the characteristics of the current learner in order to be successful.

  • briann79

    In our university, we are still using paper evaluations for teaching assistants. Change happens at a glacial pace, meanwhile children are learning coding on their ipads at home. As Peter Senge says “Children have a deep passion for making schools work.” Having recently earned a school social work certification, I was able to observe in many different schools. Outdated curriculum, the sit ‘n git mentality, and the lack of individualized instruction are making the kids look asphyxiated once they step through the doors. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there, next to parenting.

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  • Cap Lee

    Agree. It takes a lot to change the system. My team was fortunate enough to start our own fully public school within <Milwaukee Public Schools. Union and all. We talk about it in our books at http://www.wholechildreform.com. You can link to my blog to get an idea as to what's in the books.

    The point is we did it completely different with kids in the lead. We weren't allowed to continue as NCLB and the naysayers took control. Hetermine jumping off spotowever we did see things that worked. And testing wasn't in the mix except for a small pre and post that determined the jumping off spot as a teacher support.

    In there we have many possible solutions like EXHIBITIONS, demonstrations of learning; READING CLUBS, Teaming with a local book store to bring back the joy of reading.; And on and on. My blogs will give you an idea.

    We got beat down by the ego driven but the time is better now believe it or not. The time has come to design a school with the agenda of children. How can they seek their passion? What pathway will they choose to their success.

    We didn´t ask Who wants to go to college? We asked, what is your passion, and then allow them to develop their pathway. We had Shante who graduated from college in the sports medicine field and then Willie who had the skills for college but preferred to get his hands dirty and do what HE wanted. He served in the US Army and is now a welder and he loves it.

    Go to http://www.wholechildreform.com for all the blah blah you can handle

  • Cap Lee

    Agree. It takes a lot to change the system. My team was fortunate enough to start our own fully public school within Milwaukee Public School Union and all. We talk about it in our books at http://www.wholechildreform.com. You can link to my blog to get an idea as to what’s in the books.

    The point is we did it completely different with kids in the lead. We weren’t allowed to continue as NCLB and the naysayers took control. Hetermine jumping off spotowever we did see things that worked. And testing wasn’t in the mix except for a small pre and post that determined the jumping off spot as a teacher support.

    In there we have many possible solutions like EXHIBITIONS, demonstrations of learning; READING CLUBS, Teaming with a local book store to bring back the joy of reading.; And on and on. My blogs will give you an idea.

    We got beat down by the ego driven but the time is better now believe it or not. The time has come to design a school with the agenda of children. How can they seek their passion? What pathway will they choose to their success.

    We didn´t ask Who wants to go to college? We asked, what is your passion, and then allow them to develop their pathway. We had Shante who graduated from college in the sports medicine field and then Willie who had the skills for college but preferred to get his hands dirty and do what HE wanted. He served in the US Army and is now a welder and he loves it.

  • Cap Lee
  • Summer

    While I think a shift in education is necessary we cannot throw out the traditional curriculum altogether. Nor can we completely depend on a change in curriculum to change the students’ mindset about school. It is important thought for educators to allow students time and materials to express creativity and choose subjects to study independently in addition to or inside of the required curriculum. This will allow students to take ownership of their studies and improve their knowledge of subjects that will benefit them in more areas than the classroom.

  • Susan Young

    There is a thread of ‘sameness’ in all of the models spoken of here and a degree of deficit view that is unhelpful. Teachers and students are working hard to understand improvement in a 21st Century context. The importance of ICT, Inquiry learning, student lead learning and data informed teaching and learning have been at the centre of continuous improvement discussions for some years now. We are discovering how learning environments, community engagement and structures impact on our ability to offer high quality learning experiences for young people. The quality of our relationships within our learning communities, levels of trust and the status of teaching itself, will continue to challenge our collective ability to grow and change.

  • Lauren Reid

    Hey Katrina! My name is Lauren Reid and I am an Elementary Education major at the University of South Alabama. I completely agree with this article. Technology needs to be integrated into the schools worldwide. Some people might not agree, but teaching kids how to use certain techniques with technology can prepare them for America’s future jobs. In schools that have already integrated technology, the kids are blogging, making video’s, and talking to other kids worldwide. I have not seen one bad thing come out of using technology in schools. The kids are more eager to learn, the absence rate has dropped to almost nothing, and the kids like to come to school because they think it’s fun and that’s the way it should be. Teachers who do not believe in using technology in their classroom should really open their eyes and look at the big picture. The world is not the same as it used to be, we are constantly evolving. I am completely on board with using technology in my classroom whenever I become a teacher.

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  • briann79

    As most articles about education or other social issues seem to be about reiterating the problems, here is an easy solution for one part of the problem. If you are using curriculum or textbooks from 1992, albeit revised and updated for the fourth time, stop using them.

  • Jake West

    We are a radically different vision of school:

    http://www.learningstorm.org/

    We are not just talking about it, we are doing it, every single day. It is messy, challenging and difficult, but we are shifting the inert sands of the status quo. We are currently in discussions with the BC government to be the first to pilot an entirely new approach to grades, curriculum and university entrance starting next year. Fingers crossed.

  • Sharkey Support

    Have we thought about allowing student to explore – teach them the basics to be able to explore, help them be able to design their own projects then learn from masters/professionals and then apply on their own and show what they know?

  • Shannon Arvizu

    So pleased to read this article. We’ve built AltSchool on many of these tenets: Custom built lesson plans based on the interests and passions of the individual child, schools that are small by design, incorporation of technology at all levels of the school. And we have found that teachers are VERY eager to participate in this model of learning. In fact, in our first six months of operation, we’ve received 700 applications for teaching positions. So, we can’t underestimate the desire of educators to propel change in education. Our systems have to support both the zeal of inspired teachers and the needs of individual students. It can be done.

  • SudburyValleySchool

    This “radically different vision” has been flourishing in Framingham, MA for over 40 years. At Sudbury Valley School, students age 4-19 are in total control of their own education. No standardized tests. No required classes. No homework. If Will Richardson is right, and, “Modern learning is about the ability to self-organize your education,” we’re baffled that more folks aren’t clamoring to find out how to build Sudbury model schools.

    • xekc

      And if you’re here up for putting references fully – that one above was copied from Summerhill School in England, doing about the same for 93 years now.

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  • http://www.academicantics.com Academic Antics

    We started a new program a few years back to address some of these issues. We offer small group a la carte classes, taught by specialty teachers. We focus on cooperative, hands-on learning. A student might be in one class, or in ten, supplementing with online coursework, individual study, internships, or other programs, knit together either by their parents (as homeschoolers) or by a local non-site-based charter school.

    We have a variety of classes, from traditional subjects like Algebra (taught with projects, games, and activities rather than textbooks) to non-traditional classes like our STEAM Teens class (a Science Technology Engineering Art & Math “maker” class with a Steampunk theme.) http://www.academicantics.com

    I think blended programs such as ours is the future of education, allowing students access to the ways they best learn each subject.

  • Mr. Jones

    Perhaps it was radical 40 or 50 years ago

  • Elizabeth Rubenstein

    let’s quit letting politicians and publishing corporations from telling teachers how to do their jobs!

    • Knox Siwash

      Ahem. Teacher, correct thine own sentence.

  • Phoenix Smith

    See also in the Seattle area: Puget sound community school, The Attic, Three Dragons Academy

  • Kirsten Durward

    My experience, which is more international than national, is that many educators are ready to take it to the next level, but are hampered by administrators who are afraid of parental reactions. So we talk a lot about research and we read ‘Drive’ and we watch TED talks and we spout Ken Robinson and Dylan Wiliam. We have goals of inquiry education that is conceptually driven and rooted ‘in real life experiences’ and inclusive assessment based learning that meets the needs of all learners. We claim to be constructivists who put learners at the centre. But the reality is that we have assessment driven learning that is led by meeting standards, overrun by a technologist agenda and mediated by behaviourist interventions. A long time ago, my first head told me that children are not biscuits, we cannot make them all the same. Why then standards? Everything I read, and everything I have experienced, everything I know as a learner, and everything I have worked with as a teacher, everything tells me that standardisation is wrong. It failed with the National Curriculum for England and Wales. And it’s going to fail with the CCSS. It is a very expensive mistake.
    People learn when they are engaged. They learn when they are interested. Most of the kids I taught to read learned because I love reading. Many of them struggled, many of them came from dreadful backgrounds; we didn’t have any of the devices or half the resources or support systems that are around now. But we did go out and play rounders if the kids were flaky. And we did do drama in the classroom. And we did respond to personal interests. Yes not every child in the school learnt all the same things. But they all learnt. They all learnt how to get along with one another too. As teachers we worked hard and sometimes it was grotty. But we also had some elements of freedom. If I had the technology of today I don’t know where I could take those kids. But I don’t know if I would have the same freedom to explore with them and inspire them that I did then.
    One thing I don’t read about, but how about this, the more education becomes standardised, the less interesting it is, the less interesting it is, the less interesting it is, not only are we churning out mindless drones, but surely fewer and fewer interesting, creative and intelligent people will be attracted into the profession. I don’t even have it hard compared to most educators right now and still I find that the focus on standards is stagnating our thinking and driving teachers round and round in circles without being in the least bit helpful to improving student learning

  • bknewyork

    The sentence “We need to find a narrative that has at its core a very different valuable thing,” embodies the problem with this entry in an endless stream of attempts at educational reform. It incorporates the view that there is a specific problem to fix, that there is indeed a model that could work. The whole idea of a model for education ignores how innovation takes place.

    In a free market that allows experimentation and failure there is constant innovation. Why? Because there is skin in the game for the experimenters, and the experiments almost always happen on a small scale; so the potential damage for a failed experiment is very limited. Any enterprise has to continue to grow and evolve. Government schools are not set up that way. And they can’t be set up that way. A culture of innovation that involves skin in the game is utterly antithetical to the way government institutions function.

    Education will evolve as dramatically as cell phones and computers if we unshackle it from a command-driven, top-down funding approach and organization and allow a customer-centered approach. The customer is the parent and the students. We’ll not only get staggering micro-innovations leading to leaps of progress we can’t even imagine today (could you have imagined the iPhone 6 in 1999?), but a huge increase in educational choices.

    To the author of this thought-provoking article: we don’t just need three options. We need tens of thousands of options. Many will fail and some will succeed beyond our imagination.

  • MichaelSc

    “A successful student should be able to manage massive amounts of information,
    a crucial skill as life becomes more digital. Students should learn in
    ways that disregard traditional disciplines like English and math,
    instead focusing on real world problems that allow for crossover and
    interplay.”

    This statement sums up a lot of the new unstated demands of education that are being overlooked. I’m not into doom and gloom when it comes to this stuff, because I’ve worked in schools around the world. Our system is a breath of fresh air in contrast to most I’ve seen. However, we do need to move away from static subjects, and into the modern era as fast as possible.

    Textbooks could be on computers, and the costs saved from buying two or three years worth of books could be used to invest in personal computers. Districts should move away from textbooks, and toward workbooks and computers at the secondary level. Ebooks could be used for homework in flipped classrooms to supplement immersion in primary or secondary research (on the students’ level). For example, research in writing shows that synthesis is much more important in developing critical thinking skills than journaling, brainstorming and even peer-work (Goodwin, 2014 para. 8). (Of course, I don’t think critical thinking is the only skill that needs to be developed.) “Managing massive amounts of information” means learners working with their senses in a way that helps them to understand something in full.

    http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr14/vol71/num07/Teach-Critical-Thinking-to-Teach-Writing.aspx .

  • Mark Berger

    there are many good ideas on the topic of the necessary shifts in education found here:
    http://www.ultimateprep.wordpress.com

  • darhug

    I teach a small group of special needs students. Their special need is reading. Many of my high schoolers read at a 3rd grade level due to some real disabilities. I have intuitively (not being “SPED trained”) made the curriculum what they need each day. I started with a couple of things I love to teach (poetry, Macbeth, some short stories) but have let current events (Ferguson, MO, the minimum wage debate, et al) be what drives my classroom teaching. I then just scaffold with connections to literature and writing. They can all think and argue, so I let them discuss and research freely.Their assessments are products (essays, presentations, debates, service activities) that are driven largely by student interest. I will be interested to know, at the end of the year if 1.) they show growth and gains as measured by the state, and 2.) if I still have a job next year.

  • Mark Berger

    yes, a third narrative is needed, that should not be the question- the first two are simply rediculous suggestions…. preserve and improve? really? that’s not even a serious comment or strategy.

    the third narrative, as Richarson identifies it, should indeed be about the learner finding paths to a curriculum and meaningful work opportunities that actually create understanding. test scores do NOT measure learning, so any suggestions that aim at improving test scores are off the mark by definition.

    http://www.ultimateprep.wordpress.com presents the essentials of the third narrative. They were presented on a slate.com competition two years ago and came out in the top 3.

    let’s not spin our wheels trying to invent what has already been invented. And please stop saying that technology is the key or solution. it’s a tool that will be part of any solution, but the medium is not the solution.

    mark

  • jAcque

    None of this matter when you don’t gravitate, too the whole of each mind only too the mind that you want too understand and then your teaching is done. Did you ask who get it or does it matter if everyone on the same page. How you dooooooooooooooooing!