Elementary Schools Can’t Change Because We Need to Prepare them for High School and College

When I speak about new models of education and the opportunity to change how we design our learning communities, I hear a frequent reaction. We would love to change but we can’t until the next level of school changes. I don’t agree and here is why.

I know that people like to point out the challenge of preparing for the next level (high school or college), but I taught at a University during my sabbatical where incredibly bright students from many alternative school models come and thrive. These students are the most curious and engaged that I’ve ever seen in my 20+ years of teaching. We might not be aware of them, but there are many different types of high schools and colleges for all types of students. Yet, I realize the concern. Those might not be local for every family. And yet, look at how well the Montessori schools are doing around the country. They are thriving and there is good research to show that those students transition fine into other schools and develop some habits of independence that carry on for life.

Some will point to anecdotes of specific students who went to a Montessori school and didn’t transition well but those are just anecdotal. In fact, one study of students in Milwaukee who attended Montessori school from age 4-11 (it was a longitudinal study) showed that these students got much higher standardized test scores in math and science than students who did not attend Montessori school. There are real concerns that people have, I know, but hardly any of them are actually tested out with even modest reviews of the literature or direct research. We like to turn back to our personal experience, opinions, and feelings; but this topic is perhaps best addressed by getting a group together to test our assumptions. We can do this by reviewing the existing research directly or maybe even doing some research of our own.

Leaders of highly innovative and effective schools tend to do this. They do their homework, which equips them to clearly communicate and defend the vision while also identifying people who can join in making that vision a reality. Others are satisfied with the status quo or their fears prevent them from even exploring the alternatives with any depth.

My direct advice is not simple, but I am convinced that we would all be better off with this approach. Also, as a disclaimer, I offer this advice to myself as much as anyone else. I’m far from perfect in this regard.

  1. Stop focusing up preparing students for the game of school. Start creating rich, challenging, deep, substantive, formative, compassionate, meaning-rich, creative learning communities that have value for students in the present while also preparing them for a rich and rewarding life.
  2. Learn from other learning communities but refuse to join in the “keeping up with the Joneses” nonsense. Figure out what you value and what you want to be as a community. Run with that.
  3. Engage your community in co-creating and co-designing your community around a set of shared values. Do not let the values of other organizations rob you and your community of your own core values.
  4. Take that that fear and re-invest the energy into clearly communicating the value of what you do and why you do it.
  5. Put a reasonable but modest amount of effort into making sure that your school offers a valid pathway to future learning communities, but do not be controlled by the outdated or dysfunctional practices of the next level.
  6. Crave candid feedback on what you are doing and learn from it, but ignore the feedback of those outside of the community who just want to pull you back into the dysfunction models of other learning communities.
  7. Share your story with others.

There are schools that do these seven and they are inspiring learning communities, the type that I want for my own children. I am confident that our larger education ecosystem would be better off with such an approach, and maybe the next level of education will learn a little something. If not, then we will just have to create alternatives on those levels as well (which is happening…not fast enough, but it is happening.).

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation; as well as Founder and CEO of Birdhouse Learning Labs. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Elementary Schools Can’t Change Because We Need to Prepare them for High School and College”

  1. Tim Schumacher

    Interesting timing of your post. I just was at a think-tank of San Diego County educational leaders and community partners last night. One superintendent of some K-6 public schools told me how they aren’t waiting for the middle schools and high schools to change, but send their graduated students on to those schools as agents of change (I’m imagining a large wooden horse entering those campuses). The result is that their vision for K-6 education is impacting the other schools (slowly), and those graduates are the best evidence that they are on the right track. I believe the best direction for school transformation is from the bottom up. Some of our best innovators have been working at the early childhood and primary levels.

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