What Would Be a Radically Different Vision of School?

| February 21, 2014 | 31 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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