Asking new questions
Truth be told, schools as we know them have been a remarkable experiment, and even more so a remarkable success story. As long as we wanted factories at the end of the corridor and lunch line. And perhaps -- provocation to inspire innovation here -- it's time to admit "we won", schools were a success as we knew them, and its time to rethink the original question based on our world now...and the world we're creating every second of our collective lives.
Schools were specific institutions that grew rapidly in number and value in the last 200-400 years (think post printing press, post modern democracies, post enlightenment, post American/French revolutions, post slavery, post Industrial revolution, etc.), specifically in a rapidly changing agrarian-to-industrial nation such as the US (and most developed nations)...whose sole purpose early on was to hasten the transition from field to factory.
Mass literacy, factory whistles, urban population spikes, anti-child labor laws, Sputnik, a changing professional landscape, the GE Bill, civil rights, desegregation, technology, and the vacuum created by the other myriad of institutions and networks that no longer provided a tapestry of guidance/protection helped schools move from an elite few and a basic penmanship experience until the 8th grade, to the default exodus of all formal learning for all citizens, and in theory for free (minus taxes and paying for the latest-greatest Trapper Keeper for back-to-school needs).
Several years ago, I heard Paul Houston say that, despite news reports to the contrary, our schools are better than ever; the problem is that, in his words, “our schools are making incremental improvements in a time of quantum change.” In other words, the schools are doing what they’ve always done – as Christian points out, preparing kids for an assembly-line world – but our world, and therefore our expectations, have changed radically. Our schools have maintained a straight-line trajectory over time while the real world has veered off in new and unexpected directions.
So what if we were to take Christian’s advice? Come right out and say that our education system was a grand experiment, and it was a rousing success, meeting the needs of its time incredibly well – but now it’s time to put that aside so we can move on to the next phase?
I think it would change the debate drastically. We wouldn’t have to talk about reform; we could talk about reinvention. We could put the legacy systems aside and start from scratch, just like Horace Mann did the first time around, looking at society and deciding what kind of education our children need in response.
What does the next iteration of education need to accomplish, and what does it look like as a result? I don’t have those answers – but I applaud people like Christian who demand that we recognize that the landscape has changed, and that we need to unchain ourselves from old assumptions and an old world view in order to ask new questions that will lead to new answers.