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Friday, December 30, 2011

Why education reforms are failing


The complexity, scale, and importance of school reform is mesmerizing. In fact, this scale often ends up obscuring solutions; as a single idea, “school reform” offers such immensity—and so many distracting particulars–that the whole is missed for the part.

Traditionally speaking, school improvement has focused on, well, schools. (I suppose that makes sense.)

Its stepfather, education reform, unfortunately stands a bit taller, and so gets tangled into all sorts of additional mess—bureaucracy, funding, political rhetoric, and even corporate influence.

For all of their collective gnashing of teeth and wailing, each is missing the point entirely. The gremlin bounds within a much larger ecology.

Imagine a world without school. Not simply our current world where schools have disappeared, but rather a world that somehow has evolved separately from our own, and “school” never existed. How might it be different? Start at the beginning. Why should we learn?

Citizenship might be a good first response.

Citizenship requires awareness, and awareness starts with learning of some kind. The need for a literate society extends beyond concepts of industry and workforce: the human spirit has prevailed for millennia in societies absent our sprawling Capitalism. So in this kind of society, where does the “learning” happen?

History’s greatest learners and thinkers thrived in alongside formal learning institutions, not because of them. That’s not to say they don’t offer value. Certainly, offering physical areas where people gather share resources, and cognitively mingle is a noble endeavor. The problem is, culture has turned their backs on schools, trusting the “industry” of education to shape them minds of their young. For generations families have sent out children to these “learning places,” and hoped for the best. Provided learners seems to be learning, and are “getting good grades,” the machine whirred on.

Now, that idea has calcified. You go to school to learn. That’s where learning “happens.”

And you learn not for self-knowledge or hippie notions of citizenship, but to “get a job.”

These ideas are difficult to change.

As a society, we’ve lost context. To us, learning happens “at school”–at best, it’s supported at home with equally-broken methods of tutoring. And if learning is mediocre or worse, harmful, we think first to fix the school. Improve the teachers. Improve the curriculum. Study harder. Send them to a “private” school.

Flip the classroom.

This focus on the “school” is a normal first reaction. However, after uncountable failures to “fix school,” it’s curious we haven’t learned better.

Part of it may be due to sentimentality. We’re so attached to the notion of school—it’s a cultural icon after all—that we cannot see other possibilities. Lunchboxes, recess, pigtails, and letter grades are powerful symbols. Ultimately, while formal locusts of learning are entirely appropriate, entrenched and highly artificial constructs of academia are not. Prevailing definitions of intelligence, creativity, and even collaboration are not simply overly-narrow, they’re lies that have been told through a stained-glass mosaic of report cards, standardized testing, and the illusion of “higher education.”

And all were made possible due to a distracted society drunk on sentimentality and old ways.

Take for example, the icon of education, the letter grade.

In the best of cases (where they aren’t simply thinly-veiled measures of learner compliance), letter grades are standards-based and objective, but entirely incomplete as a measure of a child’s understanding, progress, or value, depending as much on emotional support at home and general reading level as they do on higher-level content knowledge. Spirited creativity, collaboration, and higher-order thinking (ideas learners are instinctively drawn to) is less accessible and expensive, so schools do what any most businesses would do: measure what is accessible in as cost-effective a manner as possible. The problem is, schools aren’t businesses, and there is more at risk than profit.

Out of this tangle stems corporate-sourced notions of “plans,” “policy,” and “standards,” each domains of the inattentive and impersonal.

Letter grades simply offer an opinion on how well the student understands academic standards created by people who they’ve never met in states they’ve never seen. (And let’s not even approach the fact that many of the grade-assigners—the teachers—can’t even agree what the standards demand that a learner actually understands, nor the best way to measure that understanding.)

Even “whole child” initiatives fail because they are woefully insufficient, akin to throwing a towel to a person waist-deep in a pool.

It is hard to call our current results anything else other than outright failure. What are the terms of “failure” in education? It depends on who you’re asking. Failure can be defined by a range of results from the obvious to the tempting comfort of mediocre progress on norm and criterion-based standardized assessments. But this is all failure.

And every time—every single time—school reform is going to fail.

Education reform will fail each time as well.

Why? Because by design each shifts the opportunity of learning–and the burden of “accountability”–away from the individual, the family, and community.

And it doesn’t matter where. It’s gone. Learners are now “components” in a “system” and dangerously anonymous.

It almost doesn’t matter that this shift is towards industrialized buildings full of over-worked teachers delivering non-authentic curriculum whose success is measured by myopic standardized testing. Even the best school and education reform possible still de-centralizes learning, intellectual authority, and the opportunity for cultural and spiritual guidance that can only occur in local circumstances. In either case, self-knowledge, self-pace, and self-actuation are gone.

Learning starts with self-awareness, affectionate knowledge of “other,” and practice reaching for that which is just out of reach. This can be supported in schools, but not birthed.

Learning necessitates a kind of “intellectual life” that is grown in an intimacy available only at home, in neighborhoods and other communities where “self” and “other” are carefully known.

Here, even digital environments are available. A ”community” is any place where the learner is intimately known, and seeks to know “other” with similar intimacy–whether that “other” is a person, an issue, or both. This includes difficult thinking about difficult issues, and honoring all the uncertainty any “solution” might bring.

The enormous effort of learning reform is Sisyphean in both repetition and scale because the challenge itself overwhelms through repetition and scale. Repeatedly we train our sights on the wrong targets, looking to improve curriculum, assessment, and schools through plans, policy, and standards.

Plans, policy, and standards have no knowledge of the intimate—or the learner. They are lifeless conjurings from well-intended institutions applying corporate spirit to that which is decidedly non-corporate.

And so when they lead, they will always lead to failure.

–Terry Heick

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