Monday, October 15, 2012

Six Practices of Schools and School Districts Marching to Obsolescence

In 2012, the powerful inertia to keep schools and school districts the same continues to dampen and  neutralize any efforts to innovate and change how schools operate. We are still on a march to obsolescence.

A recent example of this inertia in North Carolina, was when school districts tried to innovate with changing their school calendars. School districts shifted their calendars to better align their semester schedules with student needs. But it was the powerful tourism lobby, Save Our Summers,  that then pushed lawmakers to set legal limits when schools can start and end because, as their web site says, they “seek to establish, protect and maintain a more traditional school calendar.” Maintaining a “traditional” school calendar was not about helping schools do a better job teaching kids, it was mostly about preservation of the status quo, and preserving the school calendar they enjoyed while attending Industrial Age schools, not to mention profit.

These kind of efforts are simply attempts to keep the same Industrial Age schools of the previous century. These forces of inertia are making our schools obsolete simply because too many of them are made up of people who hold tightly to a nostalgic view of an ideal standard school that never really existed, except in the minds of the few of them for which schools worked. As Frank Kelly, Ted McCain and Ian Jukes write in their book, Teaching the Digital Generation: No More Cookie-Cutter High Schools,

“The most important issue facing schools today is the reluctance of those in control of education to let go of what they are used to, whatever their role in the system.”

The people and forces at work to preserve our education system as it is are powerful and strong. There are the politicians who see nothing wrong with the school systems that provided them with opportunities, so they continue to make laws that prop up the Industrial Age schools and districts they know. Policymakers are often beholden to politicians because they are left with trying to create policy that follows the letter of the law and regulations developed by politicians. Teachers, who very often excelled under a 20th century, standardized, Industrial Age education, are reluctant to change teaching methodology because, after all, “It worked for me.” School and district administrators and staff are more engaged in carrying the dictates of policy from on high, and often do not see their place as “One to question why.” Then there are parents, who very often had positive school experiences when they were in school, so they want the exact same schools for their children.

Is it any wonder with all these forces at work, that most reform occurs at the edges of our school system as Milton Chen describes in his book Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools? Is it any wonder we spend most of our time tweaking schedules, lengthening school days, implementing new sets of standards and new testing, and trying to force technology to help us educate students as we always have done? And yet our drop out rates only improve marginally, student measures are down. Our schools are still on the road to obsolescence, because we are still engaged in practices that preserve 20th century Industrial age schooling.

Here’s a list of some of those practices that are really moving our schools to obsolescence:
  • We still design and build schools structurally the way they always have been. While I certainly do not advocate building the open school buildings of the 60s and 70s and causing that fiasco, today, it seems little thought seems to go in the designs of our school buildings. We are still building structures containing distinct classrooms to house students in assembly-line manner to push them through the grades, like products. Perhaps we should be building schools with flexible learning spaces with walls easily removed and reconfigured to meet the needs of students, rather than fitting students to the needs of the building. Perhaps we shouldn’t even build high schools all with the same departmental classroom groupings. Maybe to meet the needs of students, classrooms are arranged by areas of interest or study, with core content teachers working within these instead of departments. Or, maybe one high school need only have art studios, music studios, or an acting theater rather than a football stadium and science labs. Such a school would be structured to meet the needs of art students, rather than STEM or athletics. In other words, we need to design school buildings to meet the needs of all 21st century students, rather than trying to fit students in predetermined school structures that have no flexibility
  • In many of our schools, we still have teachers engaged in teaching the same ways they have always taught and were taught. The argument that lecture is a perfectly fine method of teaching because it worked for me is a step toward obsolescence. We need to stop trying to fit students to teaching and instruction, and instead, fit teaching and instruction to the needs of students. Students need to have the options of learning traditionally if they wish, but they also need to be able to learn through project-based or problem-based learning if that fits their needs. They need to be able to engage in online learning and internships if those fit their learning needs. They need to be able to engage in the kinds of learning that fits them, instead of schools trying to force students to learn in ways that do not work for them.
  • We still are too often engaged in finding ways to get technology to help us educate as we always have instead of using technology to reinvent teaching and learning. Students typing 5 paragraph essays on computers hardly qualifies as technology integration. Having teachers use PowerPoint to enhance their lectures hardly makes for 21st century teaching. Using the Internet solely as an information source, instead of a tool to engage in global learning and connecting, hardly means using it for 21st century learning. Our schools still plod toward obsolescence because we still think of technology as a means to do the things we’ve always done better, rather than using it to reinvent what we are able to do.
  • We still sacrifice kids to uphold policy and procedure rather than developing policy and procedures to meet the needs of kids. How many times do we prevent a student from taking a higher level course simply because they do not have the requisite “seat time” in another class, especially when we know that student is perfectly capable to being successful in that class? How many times do we keep students in our buildings all day simply because our regulations say they have to be in the building 7.5 hours, when it would be to their advantage to spend some time working at the animal shelter? How many times have we had to purchase “state adopted” textbooks and materials because the rules only allowed us to purchase those items, when other materials would work better for our kids? Our march toward obsolescence also includes a hard-headed unwillingness to enforce and abide by policy, procedures, and regulations even though they are not always in the best interest of kids.
  • We are hard at work standardizing our schools, our curriculums, our tests, and even our instructional materials. In public education, there is a strong force that says anomalies and differences are bad. We push for schools that are same, from how they are arranged to even how their web pages are designed. Our government pushes for a standardized curriculum for all in spite of the fact that we know all students do not learn the same way, and don’t even have the same interests. We tell ourselves,  “We’re going to make scientists and mathematicians of them whether they like or not.” We give standardized tests, so that we can “measure” both students and educators and see if we have “added any value” to our students as they have progressed through our Industrial Age assembly line schools. We have policymakers pushing for e-textbooks and tablets that merely make books electronic and encourage the same kinds of learning we’ve always done. Never mind that some students do not learn best from text whether it is electronic or paper. Our efforts to standardize everything demonstrates that Industrial Age thinking still has a tenacious hold on our schools in the march toward obsolescence.
  • We are still caught thinking of school as something “done to kids” between the hours of 8 AM and 3 PM. We force teenagers into classrooms at 7:30 AM when all the research in the world, and common sense, says their intelligent thinking capacities don’t really kick in until much later in the morning. We allows bus schedules and lunch schedules drive when teaching and learning occurs instead of fitting those things to teaching and learning. We allow sports practices to dictate when school ends for all high school students, when there are some who would excel under a class schedule that extends into the early evening. We march toward obsolescence because we refuse to fundamentally rethink the school day.
I do not advocate change for change’s sake. It is just as easy to get caught up in the thinking that we have to change something because it needs changing. Many of the tweaks and changes being made to our schools are the product of this kind of thinking. Yet, our schools continue to march toward obsolescence because we are not willing to fundamentally let got of our own nostalgic view of schools and school districts. The key to moving away from obsolescence to innovation and invention is perhaps in not holding anything sacred. We must be willing question everything about our schools and school districts. By trying to find ways to preserve and better what has clearly not worked for all students in the past is a sure way to continue our march to obsolescence.

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