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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Will it ultimately be students who force a change in schools?

One of the conversations I often get into is, "what is going to really drive changes in schools?" As we discussed , it is not going to be easy. (Home and unschoolers are driving innovation in childhood education outside of the industrial school system, but that will not translate to pressure on the schools for decades.)

Some think it is going to be new teachers. There are quite a few smart, dedicated professionals entering the profession. But after a few years, most seem to be crushed under the weight of the systems in place. The biggest problem is that good teachers are not scalable. Unless there is a massive influx of revolutionaries at all levels simultaneously, including administration and teachers, there will not a be a critical mass, and the best will be picked off one by one, either by social pressure to conform or the isolation of gaining petty awards.

Meanwhile, some think it is going to be the federal or state governments, through more standards and testing. That may get rid of some of the worst instructors, but any "knowledge" that can be tested through a multiple choice test is knowledge that is not going to serve any student in the 21st century.

Some think that it going to be parents. Cynically, the reason why parents will not be the driver of real change can be summed up in two words: "Free daycare!" Plus, parents fear the retribution of schools (because schools can make a student's life hell, through bad grades, bad teachers, and suspensions) even more than their children do, and sometimes develop their own version of a Stockholm syndrome.

Some think change is going to come from the business community. But the industrial educational complex has a rich immune system targeted at those incursions. And sadly, the behavior of a lot of businesses during the last ten years has removed any "competence high ground" the community may have earned in previous decades.

I further wonder what will happen when some pioneering country adopts some better approaches to education, gains massive economic advantage, and the other countries are forced to catch up. This was the path of the Quality movement that forced corporations to change, and later codified in the Malcolm Baldridge award in the US (an award, by the way, that forever changed the way not only manufacturing plants are run but also the way that people spell my last name). This may still be the case, but it is at least a generation away.

No, I think it is ultimately going to be the students. Every year, waves and waves of students are born into a different world than was imagined by the architects of our legacy (manufacturing and presentation centric) school system. They are growing up with increasingly different media and different social tools. And they, like millions of corks riding the same waves, are moving in unison. It will simply be harder and harder for teachers to push the same old product on students.

Individually, any student gagging on the process can be labelled as a "trouble maker." They can be isolated. They can be swarmed. As the numbers grow, they can be collectively drugged, while schools invest more and more in roles (such as school psychologists) to suppress them.

But the pain level for teachers is growing every year. We are only a few years away from the massive collective student rebellion/disconnect (at all ages) of this legacy system. Soon, even the "good" (and by good, I mean the most eager to please) students will respond to the presentation of traditional content as if the teacher was speaking a foreign language - desperately trying to "get it," find the patterns, comply, gain praise, but ultimately getting increasingly frustrated.

This should come as no surprise, of course. All of the signs are there. One can very easily track the rejection of presentation-models of instruction.

In corporations today, where there is the most freedom, most employees under 45 will strongly push-back on any pressure to attend classroom instruction. (And these people are, obviously, both older than college and K-12 students, and also most beholdent to the classroom paradigm.)

Universities today, likewise, have a massive problem with student engagement. And they are most acknowledging and owning up to the pain, mostly because they have to instruct - they can't throw up their hands the way most corporations can.

Today's K-12 students are zeitgeist time-bombs, with very short fuses. They are already rejecting books and even movies for interactive media such as social networking and computer games. While this is just for entertainment, it is a very accurate canary in the coal mine.

We are seeing the collapse of schools, even if in slow motion, through greater numbers of students who are rejecting programs (to the best of their abilities). Soon the crisis will reach its own tipping point, speeding up, and schools will suddenly be unable to communicate at all with students.

It is very likely that the ideal tools to develop student are intellectually incomprehensible teachers and parents (including me).

Like the environmentalist of thirty years ago, so to are groups of people trying to advert the upcoming crisis - to provide the paths for smooth transitions to the future. Let's hope we, as society, listen - if not to the alarmists, at least to our children.


  1. Just what you said :).

    This video is a young woman who is supporting, with her Valedictorian speech, exactly what you're saying here - change will come from the inside and from the very people the system was designed to control.

    And that's as it should be, ne c'est pas?