(All of Garreth’s writing represent a view from the crossroads of education and design. See more of Garreth’s posts here. This is a cross posting of a blog written for the website “Only Connect.)”


I used to chafe at Sir Ken Robinson’s call to start an education revolution.  I used to think redesigning education could happen through small acts of rebellion in teachers’ classrooms.  But what I’ve come to realize is those skirmishes often play counter to each other, or at different times–out of rhythm or at different tempos–and, thus, waste what energy they have to affect systemic change at the grade, building, or district level.

Taking its title from a question posed in a recent conversation with my superintendent, this blog post explores the philosophical shift (obviously revolutionary at the level of thought) necessary for any school district to fundamentally change the way they treat the learners in their system.  At the level of design, the post asserts that adults rarely consider learning about the needs of the users in school, and focus instead on what they perceive the users need.  Adults say things like, “They need ‘rigorous curriculum’ and ‘more seat time.’  These are claims about what ought to be done to learners, not attempts to understand with students what they perceive their needs to be.

Like many other teachers, I use my summer to reset, refresh, and recharge for the coming year.  For me, that means I finally get the time to engage with the words and the voices of people who are interested in shifting the way we–I hate this term–“do school.”  However, for the past three years (more or less ever since I moved from 21 years as a middle-school teacher to my current high-school position) my head has been swimming in the voices and words of these people.  You see, I’ve not been able to smoothly negotiate the tremendous chasm between the culture of learning in a middle school and the culture of learning at a high school.

And the differences are as vast as I suggest.  The pressure for grades, the pressure for academic standing, the pressure for students’ and teachers’ time, the pressure for (insert your own observation here)–it all just adds up to one big ball of stress for students and staff alike.

Of course, given what we know about learning at the level of biology, a little stress is a good thing.  Raising student’s level of concern, putting tasks just out of reach of their present capabilities but providing the scaffolding and assistance to make the stretch–these are good uses of minimal stressors.  They help attach emotional tags to the content we want students to retain.  But the stress I’ve sensed in my own students?  No.  That’s different.  Flat out different.  And it isn’t healthy.

Not only isn’t it healthy at the biological level for students, it isn’t healthy for the system.  These stressors, at least as I’ve observed them in my own district, have had the effect of pushing the act of teaching at the high-school level back into the “sit and get” methods I’d thought we’d moved out of decades ago.

So the culture shock for me?  It lingers.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we know what works and doesn’t work best for learners, and yet we continue to create classrooms that lock students into rows of hard plastic desks, ask them to pay attention for 45 minutes, and then send them off with homework for another few hours.  Add it all up, and it is easy to see how some of my students are up until midnight or later.

If, as someone has said (apparently not William Butler Yeats), “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” then the majority of my students were all wet.  And sure, students need to fill their pail.  There’s a joy in finding things out, whether on your own or from the brilliant and engaging lecture of a scholar on Chinese history post-WWII.  But that’s substantively different than filling a pail for the better part of 7-hour sedentary days in rigid desks in rigid rows inside a rigid system.

All of which is to say, essentially…

I’ve had it!

I’ve had it with a system that knows what works best, or at very least, knows what doesn’t work very well and what is not healthy for students, and yet we perpetually roll out the same unhealthy, non-pedagogically-sound methods.  My own district is an excellent example, if only because we have a list of goals (see image below) created in 1994 that were, and largely remain, forward-thinking goals. And yet we’ve lost our way. Where once we forged ahead, driven by a community-created vision and mission, we now find ourselves wandering back into the future, our students once again little more than pails hoping to tip over into the lottery of Advanced Placement classes and colleges of choice.

You see, we’re good.  By any standard measure–SAT scores, APs taken and passed, State Standardized Tests–we’re good.  But good isn’t good enough for the future our students are facing.  “Good” doesn’t help us help students learn how to become self-directed learners capable of finding and solving real and relevant problems in their community or the world.

And if scholars like Tony Wagner, Young Zhao, Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Lichtman, Thomas Armstrong, George Couros and countless others are correct, it is that final skill set, the skill set of the innovator and entrepreneur (perhaps), that is clearly what we need to develop with our students.

But look at that last goal:  “Self-directed learners who accept responsibility for their own physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being, make decisions independently, develop life skills, adapt to an ever-changing world, and are accountable for their actions.”  We wrote that in 1994!  (Yeah, I know, Postman and Weingartner wrote about it in the 1970s…and Dewey wrote about it in the 1920s…are you sensing something here?) I can tell you, neither my district, in all our prescience, nor most districts I know, especially at the HS level, have achieved this.

So it is this frustration that guided my discussion with my superintendent.  (And this meeting was just one of many, both in person and online, I’ve had with my administrators to seek means for change in the district.)

My superintendent and I have a strong relationship.  Several years ago, at her insistence, I left my self-created middle-school humanities class and developed our 9th and 10th grade gifted English program (a work still very much in progress).  Her encouragement and belief in me, as well as the monetary support for attending numerous conferences, was invaluable in my (somewhat successful) transition.

Thus, the conversation I had with her was frank, lengthy, and filled with a lot of affirmation.  And at first I was feeling rather positive about the possibilities this fall for redesigning education. I’ve asked us to host a community viewing of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed and/or a community gathering to watch the XQ Superschools Live Network Takeover on September 8th.  That’ll start the ball of change rolling and hopefully help us build some of the innovator’s mindset in the staff and community.

But we can’t/don’t stop there because in November my high school is hosting George Couros for the day. He’ll be speaking about his ideas and his book and helping the high-school teachers work through ideas as to how those concepts can be realized within their own classrooms.

And then we…um…well, actually, that’s it.  All that build up and drive and then…we stop. Strangely(?) that’s sort of where our conversation stopped because my superintendent said, “Ok,  So what does that type of learning look like?”

“What does that type of learning look like?”

Yes, I responded.  Yes I talked about self-directed learners (pointing, OF COURSE, to our sixth goal from 1994!), Deeper Learning20time projects, Don Wettrick’s Innovation and Open Source Learning class, project- and design-based learning, XQ Superschools, Geniconsulting. I even spoke copiously about the full-time work I’m doing this summer at the educational design consultancy, PlusUs.

Yes, I made the case that we need a systemic change, not just change in certain classrooms, because the grounding philosophy of schools is so “off.”   (Larry Geni makes this argument far more eloquently than I am doing here.  These are his words below.)

The purpose of school is to transfer a broad and rigorous curriculum into the minds of students.

The purpose of school is to prepare students to live productive, engaged, and satisfying lives.

And, yes, I spoke about the Maker movement, and I nailed the reference to Empower: What Happens When Students Own their Learning (especially the last 30 pages or so) and so much else. I’d venture a guess that I’d left very few rocks of progressive education unturned.  And given that one of the final comments I received was:  “I’d love to see your type of learning, this type of learning become more contagious” I have to say that we have some common ground.  Perhaps things are looking up.  Perhaps empowerment, true learner empowerment is in play for this year.

So what does this learning look like? It looks like the future.  It looks like a juggernaut.  It looks inevitable, unstoppable, and, yes, to those who are just sitting around waiting, it’s frightening.  All change is frightening, not because change itself is frightening, but because it is always associated with loss.  Mostly a loss of power, but also the loss of space, loss of comfort, and loss of the story we (teachers) have been telling ourselves and the country for so many years.

empower-sla

But there’s certainly one thing more frightening than change.  Irrelevancy.  I don’t want my district to find itself there.  I don’t want any district to find itself there.  But if we don’t change something fundamental about how we view the purpose of school and about what we do in and how we “do school,” we’ll rapidly discover what irrelevancy looks like.


(Post Script)

Grant Lichtman recently responded to my query about what to do in the face of the “What’s that type of learning look like?” question.  He noted that it seems like the district is in a perfect place for a design thinking challenge:  “How might we learn what deeper learning looks like in practice?”  I like this far more than the ominous image of the future looming over us.  As a design thinker, I should have seen this opportunity.  After all, it is about Redesigning Education, and that is a powerful idea.