When to Reform? When to Start from Scratch in Education?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller in Critical Path

I’ve had this conversation with dozens of people who are passionate about new possibilities for teaching and learning. Is it better to try to reform the school or learning organization where you find yourself, to find a place that is already a great fit for your values and beliefs about education, or to join the few, entrepreneurial ones who start something new? There is no definitive answer to such questions. So many factors come into that type of decision, not the least of which has to do with discerning one’s calling at a given time in life.

At the same time, I’ve witnessed enough learning organizations to see that massive, transformational changes in the way a community imagines education rarely come from reforming existing schools. Even when starting something new, it is common to be drawn gradually (or quickly) back into standard traditions and practices. That is because those running it have the imprint of past practice. Even when we don’t intend to do so, we easily revert back to what others have done and how they have done it. It is the collective school ecosystem that persistently pulls us toward the norm. What started as a truly alternative project-based learning high school gets pulled into traditional practices as high school students want to take more AP and dual credit classes to get a head start on college. Alternative school programs within a traditional school become restrained by shared resources, standard schedules, and other leaders who don’t fully embrace or understand the importance of autonomy. Well-meaning teachers over-plan and over-structure self-directed schooling out of self-doubt or fear that students really can’t or will not self-organize. The traditional nature of the next level of schooling begins to drive schools toward normalcy. If this happens with learning organization startups, how much more does it happen when one tries to reform an existing entity?

Then we have the Bucky Fuller quote, suggesting that fighting against the existing system is less likely to produce new and promising possibilities as much as independently pursuing those new possibilities. I read this to suggest that our energies are best focused on nurturing and actualizing promising possibilities more than fighting against existing realities, and this can happen in existing organization or by creating new ones. It happens when teachers, leaders or innovators opt not to be drawn into the drama or dysfunction around them (easier said than done, I know). It happens when an innovator embraces a promising practice and throws herself into making it a reality. Then she shares it with those who are willing and interested in learning more. It happens when an edupreneur ventures out to start something new and distinct from the norm. It happens in the smallest or simplest practices as well as grand and complicated ones.

The last part of the quote…about making the existing model obsolete is probably where I might differ from Fuller, especially in education. When it comes to education, there tends to be much more convergence than obsolescence. MOOCs don’t replace higher education. They get assimilated. Online learning doesn’t make face-to-face obsolete, but it creates a massive blended learning movement. The same thing is true for many emerging models. When it comes to education, there is room for many competing, complementing, and co-habiating models.

Nonetheless, for a new innovation to take root, it needs its own space, its own soil, perhaps a very different type of soil than what works for the existing model. As I see it, that soil consists of freedom from most (or all) existing policies and procedures, room for a fair share of autonomy, and the ability to establish its own metrics and measures for progress and success. It needs room to tell its own story in its own way, and then leave it to others to decide whether they prefer the new or existing model. Anything else is judging the quality of a rose by comparing it to an oak tree.

This is a difficult but important question for the educational leader and innovator. Sometimes you find yourself in an organization that create freedom and space for true innovation. Sometimes you are the leading able to help create that space. Sometimes you are the innovator who finds it challenging, even overly inhibiting, to pursue that mission-minded innovation that haunts and inspires you. In such times, it is important to deeply and candidly consider whether it is wise to pursue reform from within, to find another organization that better aligns with your vision and is willing to support it, or to venture out on your own, joining those few but important people who start new schools and organizations.