What if…

Posted by on Nov 17, 2008

What if we stopped for just a moment, took a step back, and asked why?  Why are we engaging in education the way we are right now?  Why is it that the modern construct of education not only looks the way that it does, but why are we using it?

Maybe a better way to frame this would be, if we were to stop and start over entirely, what would that look like?

I was sitting with a group of educators recently, and I paused for a moment and looked around at who I was with.  There were teachers from different districts, different grade levels, different experience levels, and different philosophies, but they are all working toward a common goal.  At least I assume they are.  They are trying to educate our youth.  But what exactly does that mean?

I recently read a tweet by someone I can’t currently remember that said students of today are more equipped and prepared now than at any point in history to be successful in the Industrial Age.  I believe that’s both true and alarming.  And it means something.  It means we might not be getting it right.

I return to one of my original thoughts.  If we were to start over, what would it look like?  We’re currently so stuck in our paradigm that I fear we can’t remove ourselves and look objectively at this question.  We are so entrenched with our current infrastructure, our teaching structure, and even our institutional structure, that to really move away from what we’re currently doing might turn out to be too large a Goliath to fell.

Focusing briefly on American education, and I don’t mean to be too American-centric, but that’s the system I’m most aware of, we see how change has happened quite incrementally over the past 350 years.  In the mid-1600’s, the focus of education was almost exclusively on writing, reading, and religious education.  From there, we can see a history of slow, incremental changes from a system where students were largely taught by one schoolmaster, who focused on the aforementioned subjects, to the system in which we currently find ourselves immersed.

This time line accentuates the point nicely.  I think it’s quite telling that there were several attempts at reform throughout our history, but I’d argue none were truly successful.  Of interest is the founding of the Progressive Education Association in 1919, where a major effort was launched to create an educational environment in which students were the center of education, and by so being, should be allowed to express themselves more creatively and independently.  Sounds like we’re still working on that 90 years later.

When looking down the time line, it’s readily apparent that despite all the efforts, research, hours of labor, and investment in improving our educational model, all we’ve really accomplished is the perpetuation of all that we’ve previously done.  There hasn’t been a true reform.  There’s been no revolution.  There remains largely that which has always been.

The most difficult part of all this is determining what has value and what has been done because that’s what we’ve always done.  If we really started over, what would we keep because it’s worth keeping?  What would we cast away because it doesn’t have relevance in our emerging system?  And most importantly, what would be our goal?

I think that’s the starting point.  It all begins with a question.  What’s the goal of education?  I don’t ask that flippantly, but rather quite honestly.  If we have any hope of making true change, this is where it starts.  At the core.  At the foundation.  At the very center of all we do.

So I say we try it.  At least in conversation.  Let’s rebuild our educational system.  And let’s start with a question.

What’s the goal of education today?

Thanks to CoryMarchand for the Flickr image.


  1. Brendan
    November 17, 2008

    I was wondering while reading the NY Times article A teachable Moment. Paul Vallas was quoted as saying [New Orleans is a promising place for education reform}…”because he had no “institutional obstacles” — no school board, no collective bargaining agreement, a teachers’ union with very little power. “No one tells me how long my school day should be or my school year should be,” he said. “Nobody tells me who to hire or who not to hire. I can hire the most talented people. I can promote people based on merit and based on performance. I can dismiss people if they’re chronically nonattending or if they’re simply not performing.”

    That is wonderful as far as it goes, but I kept wondering why didn’t they truly start over? Why have a K-12 school system with students who were already failing? Why not a school system with no grades. Maybe group student by interests, or learning styles, or anything except grade levels based on age. Yes they did talk about one child who was in 12th grade but was put into a 9th grade English class, but that is the exact wrong idea. There shouldn’t be a 9th grade English and there certainly shouldn’t be a 12th grade student put in a classroom who’s very name indicated that he is behind.

  2. admin
    November 17, 2008


    That’s just it. Everyone is so close to the paradigm that people can’t see the heart of the real problem. So we mix up a couple kids’ schedules or perhaps look at some non conventional hiring practices, but at the core, it all remains the same. We still have the entire infrastructure intact. I agree with you completely. What would happen if we entirely redrew the concept of education? What would that look like? I’m not sure that people are ready for that level of discourse.


  3. Jeff Windsor
    November 19, 2008

    I had the pleasure of spending the day with Alan November yesterday, and this subject came up as we discussed the state of education today and what it might look like in ten years. I agree with you that we are too close to see the problem. I also believe that because we don’t have a successful model to follow, we keep doing what we’ve always done. Will it take a Sputnik event to jar the system into taking real steps toward a significant redesign?

  4. SchoolFinder Blog: What Is Wrong With Schools?
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  5. Scott Meech
    November 26, 2008

    What if there is no perfect model? What if the perfect model seems to always be created after the great need for that model? Needs cause change but they tend to have new needs when the change can make the most impact!

    I agree that many of us are too close to the issue which clouds judgment, but many of us have a better ability to filter and see beyond the “now”. In my personal opinion, most of the causes preventing us from truly making change are not educational but political. I truly believe education would change quickly if it were not for the overwhelming outside influences that are identified by Paul Vallas.

    Check out George Smoot on the Design of the Universe. He talks a lot about the problems of seeing the universe as a whole because of where we are at inside of it!


  6. Ira Socol
    November 26, 2008

    First thought – you should really read this blog post from one of my favorite bloggers…

    Next – My own post about the motivations of our education system, that is, why we’re not actually interested in change…

    And finally – I try to tell the future teachers whom I get to “teach” that everything about our educational system is a construct based on (a) Protestant Christianity (the books, the room shape, the sense of literacy, the schedule), (b) market capitalism (the curriculum, grading, the intended purpose), and (c) industrialism (the idea of grades, of one process for all, of assessment). And I suggest that we will not create any meaningful change unless we begin to seriously doubt the philosophies which underlie those constructions.

    I was lucky enough to attend a “School Without Walls” alternative high school. No grades, very few classes, no fixed schedule, no curricular requirements, no need to do anything at all within the school. So I have seen it work, and I have seen it work for the widest variety of kids.

    But I also know the problem – schools, and teacher education, are run by people who have succeeded in the system. In their hearts they do not really understand the failures.

    My first suggestion is that PhD programs in education use affirmative action to change our future leadership. 50% of the next generation of Education PhDs should be the failures, the special ed kids, the drop outs, the “just got bys” – That is the group which would bring urgency to these conversations. That is the group which can begin to imagine something completely different, because “we” know the costs of the status quo.

  7. Doug Sawyer
    November 26, 2008

    I had a couple of thoughts while reading your post and the responses. First of all I find it interesting that we are kind of trying to grasp at the Progressive Ed movement again utilizing catch words such as engaged learning and constructivism. Goals 2000 in the late 90’s tried to use technology to bring back these ideas. I think it was more Fad than anything. Secondly, what’s the goal of education? Shouldn’t there be more than one goal. As kids move into the adult world they go in many different directions. Yet, our education system is based on the idea that everyone will go to college and enter the business world. What about those who will not go college? Or is the goal for every kid to go to college? If so I don’t think it’s a feasible goal. In one of the post above I read “…schools, and teacher education, are run by people who have succeeded in the system. In their hearts they do not really understand the failures.” These are the people that by default are going to do well if the current system continues. What we need to figure out is how to educate those who do not fit into this system. How can we engage them so that school does not become a place they dislike or even fear on some level? How do we engage them so that they are productive, contributing citizens? Is that the goal? The goal of producing life long learners is also falling short in the current system. A kid who sees school as a negative place is going to be hard pressed to go to collage or become a life long learner This is the part that educators have a difficult time understanding because school is not a negative place for them. So three goals for all students, even the ones that won’t do well in the current system.

    1. Help students become productive contributing citizens.
    2. Help students become life-long learners.
    3. Help students learn the skills they need in order to problem solve. ( I didn’t mention this earlier but we have all seen the “Did You Know” videos and we all know this is becoming a necessity.)

    Now, how do we accomplish these goals????

  8. susan carley
    November 27, 2008

    You have addressed many forces that keep the educational system stuck where it is, but I think everyone left out one: Parents. Many parents I meet expect that their son’s or daughter’s education will look like theirs. And I’m sure you have all met the parents who are reliving their high school experience through their children. They want their children to learn the same content driven curriculum and be tested in the same rote memory kind of manner. If they see something different, they accuse the teacher (department, school) of being incompetent. It is understandable. They feel they had a good education and are successful because of it, so they feel it is what their kids need. It is also understandable because the parents job is not to keep up with the current state of education and really think about its purpose. To many, education is still a means to a job. We have a lot of work to do outside of our school walls to make the case for the changes that need to take place.

    That said, I still stick with the old idea that the purpose of education is to create citizens that will keep the ideals of the country going — an educated citizenry. That does not mean keep things the same — but to use critical thinking, global awareness, current (now technological) skills and empathy to continue to move the country forward to its potential.

    “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”

  9. Ira Socol
    November 28, 2008

    reading Doug and Susan’s comments above, I am forced to wonder whether it is ever possible to separate “education” from the greater intentions of society. When political commentators describe the US as “essentially a center-right nation” they are being extraordinarily “kind.” It is not that at all. The US Democratic Party is far to the right of every European ‘Christian Democratic’ right-wing party. The US is as religiously fundamentalist as any Middle Eastern state. And US education, from the top (PhD programs) on down are the most conservative in “the west.” Education is conceived of as only about transmission of a very conservative culture.

    Thus, even left-leaning US education is based in a ‘not-so-hidden’ curriculum dedicated to preserving the social order. We see, for example, the least interesting, most formalised theses on the planet coming from US grad schools. We see the greatest fidelity to the industrial processing view of research. We see the most emphasis placed on compliance – attendance, silly assignments, in US higher education. And all of these things filter down all the way to kindergarten and even pre-school, where US politicians of every persuasion believe in abusing very young children with strict academics.

    So, what is wrong with American schools is, essentially, what is wrong with America. Stuck in notions of an elitist Republic which last seemed “revolutionary and democratic” in the run up to the French Revolution, trapped by a conservative religious base which is afforded as much or more influence here than equivalent movements in Israel or Iran, and trusting far too much in our own myths, we have accepted beliefs which elimate our chances for progress.

    What we see in our schools is symptom, not cause.

  10. RYErnest
    November 30, 2008

    Nice post u have here 😀 Added to my RSS reader

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  14. Carl Anderson
    January 22, 2009

    I wish I had come upon this discussion back in November. I really like the thought and tenor of these comments.

    I think the ideas in Clayton Christensen’s books The Innovator’s Dilema and Disrupting Class are very relevant here. He argues that large scale change is never possible in large established systems. Therefore, our current school system cannot change. The change has to happen through migration. As learning alternatives become more suited to fit the needs of a now relatively silent majority the scales will tip and we will see a mass exodus of students from our traditional schools to find their education elsewhere. What is going to tip the scales? Will it be online schools as many have suggested? I tend to think this may have a part but most online schools I have seen are merely traditional schools put on the internet. There is nothing all that progressive about them. Is it charter schools? Or rather a particular brand of charter school? Perhaps. Or is it unschooling? The technology is certainly there for students to adequately educate themselves with the aid of online and electronic resources. These technologies will only improve as time wares on.

    Schools have not always been as they currently are today. Sure, our schools today look a lot like 19th century schools but even though they have had a long run there is historic precedent for a nation or world to change the way the business of education happens. If we narrow our view of the history of education to the last 200 years we are missing too much. There were times in our past where apprenticeships were the number one method of education. How did we make the shift? Was it through necessity? Or was there some other force that made us make that shift?

    I see two major forces that shape how and why we educate our children the way we do: Economic and Political or rather Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian. The last major shift, at least in the US came when we decided we needed an educated citizenry and that the state should sponsor schooling. This was coupled with the need for an educated workforce. Our current economic troubles speak to one of these founding actors. Perhaps one result of the current economic disaster will be a forced change. People (parents included) may be open under the current and near future economic climate to make some concessions about our education system and become open to more progressive approaches.


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