Beyond Schools as Educational Rube Golberg Machines: Getting Informed About the Possibilities

The best advice that I ever received when it comes to education reform was, “Get informed about the possibilities.” If I do not know what is possible and I do not take time to consider or imagine new possibilities, then there are typically three results:

  1. The Rut – I keep repeating the same practices even when they stop being effective or proper for a given population of students.
  2. Educational Rube Golberg Machine -I adjust my thoughts and practices incrementally, based upon each circumstance and observation, but adjusting practices as needed. There is much benefit to this incremental improvement approach, but there is a danger of turning the learning environment into an intricately complex educational Rube Golberg machine.
  3. Leaf in the Trend Wind – I simply follow the currents of the latest educational trends, regardless of their merit or value for my specific context. For some this is a wonderfully pleasant experience.  For others it is terrifying.  Either way, it is largely unhelpful when it comes to educational improvement.

None of these are likely to result in significant and positive education reform. Other approaches are necessary for that.  I would like to highlight one such approach, learning lessons from comparative education.  Comparative education is a field of study that examines educational policy and practice across different education systems.  This is often done by looking at systems in different parts of the world, but the concept can be applied to studying different systems within a given country or society as well.

Whether you are in higher education, early childhood, public, private, faith-based, non-sectarian, homeschooling, unschooling or some other type of learning context; consider what possibilities might arise by visiting, studying and learning from different systems and approaches. The goal is not necessarily an educational shopping trip, seeking to bring home our favorite items and immediately implementing them.  However, I suggest the following potential benefits.

  1. Possibility Expansion – There will likely be new ideas, approaches, models, and perspectives that shed light on our own work in a given educational context.
  2. Tweaks & Adjustments – We will learn distinct nuanced approaches to current practices in our own learning context.
  3. Heightened Awareness – When we return to our own learning context, we will notice attributes that we took for granted or that remained hidden from us. What was previously a bit blurry might become clearer.
  4. Increased Intentionality and Skill in Strategic Change – We find ourselves growing in our ability to make intentional and systematic decisions in our own context.
  5. Expanded Network – This may also provide a new network of people with whom to brainstorm and collaborate, providing fresh ideas and perspective for our own work.
  6. Clarity of Vision, Values & Convictions – It will help to clarify our own educational philosophy and values. In some instances, these experiences will strengthen our convictions.  In other cases, we might be challenged to adjust our own philosophy. On occasion, a person finds a new philosophy that has deep resonance with their own convictions.
  7. Creativity & Imagination – Some find the inspiration to imagine and contribute to new designs and entirely new types of learning organizations.
  8. The Big Picture – While some might remain convinced that there is one right way to “do education,” most will develop a broader appreciation for different approaches, appreciating the idea that different learners, circumstances and contexts call for different education environments.

This comparative approach does not guarantee that we do the right thing in our own context and community, but it does help us open up to the broader spectrum of possibilities. How does one get started?  I suggest seven starting points.

  1. Search the Web – Get curious and do some searches like “What is education like in China?” or “List of Alternative Schools” or “most innovative schools.”  You will quickly discover an amazingly diverse collection of models.  Visit their web sites and learn from the documents and videos that they offer. Many of us focus our online searches to topics of current interest, connecting with like-minded people.  The goal with this search is to move beyond that, learning from largely or entirely different perspectives. Our goal is not to find people with whom we completely agree, but to learn from diverse experiences.
  2. Contact People of Interest – When you visit a web site, look for contact information and send a message.  Explain your interest in learning more about what they do and see if it is possible to communicate via email, Skype, a Google Hangout, phone.  When you communicate, your main job is to be as curious as possible. Focus upon listening and learning, and avoid sharing your own thoughts and opinions unless they invite you to do so.
  3. Visit Places – When you connect with a person and want to learn more, ask about the possibility of visiting. That is how I usually end up visiting and learning from all sorts of interesting models, and I am continually surprised that I can find a myriad of people and organizations within a few hundred miles of where of I live, less than a one-day drive. I should note that some of the more well-known “outside-the-box” schools gain so much attention that they limit the number of visitors, the times of year for visitors, or they might even charge for coming and learning about their school or program.
  4. Find and Attend Conferences – You can certainly explore comparative or international education conferences, but there are hundreds of niche conferences that focus upon certain perspectives.  In addition, if you have the time and resources, attending an education conference in another country is a great way to learn about different educational environments. The important part is to find conferences that you would not typically attend, ones that represent a group of people or an approach to education that is distinct from what is familiar (or even comfortable) to you.
  5. Read Books – The options are endless, but here are a few to get you started: Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, A World Class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation, The Coolest School in America, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools.
  6. Look at Education Beyond Schools – This includes home school co-ops, the unschooling movement, camps, summer education events, workshops, community education programs, online formal and informal learning communities. Also look for emerging models like North Star Academy that are not schools in the formal sense, but they are learning communities.
  7. Look Beyond Education – This is where we look at how learning takes place “in the wild”, within work, community, home and elsewhere.  Visit, read about and interview people in start-up companies, research and development centers, medical facilities, technology companies, entertainment and design companies, and social entrepreneurship enterprises.  Look, listen, and learn about how learning takes place in these environments as well as what knowledge and skills people have…what it takes to thrive in these contexts.  There are ample education lessons to glean from such conversations and visits.

I can say from firsthand experience that this sort of exploration promises many insights, lessons, and new relationships.  It is what occupied much of the last seven years of my research, and I can state with confidence that it has been one of most rewarding experiences of my life and work in the field of education.