Why Does More Disruptive Education Reform Come from Outside of the System?

A common critique of the education reform movement (as some refer to it), is that many of the people involved with education reform are not inside the system. What most people mean by this is that it is not the teachers and principals who are doing much of the reforming. Instead, we see community members, policymakers, philanthropists, directors of foundation portfolios, people in the corporate world, and others who sometimes drive the conversation, fund the initiatives, and set the agenda. First, I want to note that I am not convinced that this is an accurate picture. I’ve interviewed countless new and alternative school founders who were educators. In addition, I’ve met many parents and students who helped drive significant reforms and new models, and I would hardly consider parents and students outside of the system (if we do, then that points to a larger and even more serious problem).

Nonetheless, the concern about people outside of the system tends to be related to one or more of the following.

  1. People outside of the system do not really know the intricacies and complexities of the system. As such, their ideas risk being ill-informed or maybe even harmful in the big picture.
  2. People outside of the system sometimes have ulterior motives, even financial ones.
  3. People outside of the system lack the professional position or expertise of trained educational professionals.

There are other reasons, but these are three of the most common.

There are also some good reasons why some of the more innovative reforms come from outside of the system.

  1. People inside the system somethings get so used to it that they have trouble seeing the problem, limitations, or promising alternatives.
  2. People inside the system often have competing interests and, even while some might strive to be altruistic when it comes to matters of school structure and design, self-preservation is often a factor.
  3. People trained in the ways of the current system do not necessarily have expertise in creating alternatives.
  4. They are limited by the policies and procedures within, making it hard to try something new unless they were to leave the system, only they then become labeled as people outside of the system.

Did you notice anything interesting about the first list and the second list? Many of the items are same, but from a different angle. The truth is that good education reform can come from inside or outside of the system. There are benefits and limitations to all reforms, regardless of the origin. There are competing interests with each approach. Yet, when it comes to more disruptive innovations in education, this simple reflection indicates why more seems to happen on the outside. As one who has spent his formative years inside the system, followed by his adult years working in that system, it is apparent to me that we need those external innovators.

At the same time, the most significant lever for change is actually within the system, and that is the student. Students today find themselves in a peculiar position. They are within the schools but often have limited voice or influence. Yet, as K-12 and higher education institutions continue to lose more of their monopoly as the exclusive source of formal learning, that voice will be heard and that influence will grow.

How About a School Debunking Boot Camp for Parents, Educators, and Students?

In my last article, I posed a simple thought experiment. What if were to create a schooling detox program for parents, educators, and students? What if this exposed these people to the breadth of rich learning possibilities and models that are void of most to all the modern trappings of schooling? Might that spark greater interest in more significant and sustainable education reforms? That resonates with me, and I’ve experienced people’s philosophies and views of education change after experiencing something that they deem better and different. At the same time, most of our education reforms are what I described in the last article as trimming the weeks and not pulling them up from the roots. As such, I will use this short article to consider something other than the schooling detox concept. Instead, what might be the benefits of a school debunking boot camp?

What do I mean by that? I’m not entirely sure, but it is starting to take shape in my mind. I envision this as a rich and engaging set of learning experiences that allow parents, educators, and students to critically analyze and critique the history, challenges, affordances, and limitations of the dominant models and practices of schooling today. Unlike the detox which exposes people to the alternatives, this idea instead seeks to surface the flaws in the current system, helping us to directly encounter the negative and limiting effects of status quo policies and practices in education. This approach doesn’t necessarily show us alternatives as much as it makes sure that we face the sometimes harsh facts about the consequences of what we have built.

  • How have our policies and practices elevated compliance over curiosity and a love of learning?
  • How has preservation of the system become a greater priority than pursuing the best education of each learner?
  • How has our approach to assessment and evaluation boxed us into something less authentic and meaningful experiences, drawing our attention away from what really matters?
  • How have we created a model where compliance is valued more than agency, and where complacency is preferred to self-sufficiency?
  • How have we institutionalized and deepened inequality and opportunity divides through our school designs?
  • How does our system unintentionally muzzle the deepest held beliefs and values of families?
  • Why is categorization, grading, and ranking such a dominant priority in the system and what are this limitations of such a system?
  • How do some formal schooling practices actually diminish self-education and informal learning, and why is that problematic?
  • How do some of our policies prioritize mediocre education of the masses to a pursuit of education that honors the rights and distinctives of every single learner?

There are so many other similar questions to explore, and a school debunking boot camp would be a wonderful place to explore such themes. Of course, the people most likely to attend would be those who already have concerns with the dominant system, but maybe there is a way around that. Maybe, in the spirit of being open-minded and willing to learn from diverse viewpoints, such a boot camp could help us face more the the harsh realities and inequities of what we have built into the modern education system.

As John Kotter and many other scholars on change management point out, there needs to be a compelling motivation for change before we actually see it begin to occur. That is likely why many wonderful alternative schools today come from disappointed parents or students, disenfranchised educators, and others who experience something that makes it hard to ignore the problems in the system. Is it possible that a school debunking boot camp could help conjure some of that motivation?

How About a School Detox Program for Educators, Parents, and Students?

While working on some research¬†about the myths, realities, and complexities of the concept sometimes known as Internet addition, I found myself reading through dozens of articles and blog posts about what some call a digital detox. This usually refers to people refraining from or limiting use of computers and other digital devices for a given time to strengthen face-to-face relationships, reduce stress, reconnect with the physical world, gain a healthier balance between one’s life in the digital and physical world, or maybe just to gain new perspective and insight on the role of technology in a person’s life. I’ve done this at different times in my life, with varying results. However, as I perused articles on the subject, a familiar experience occurred. I found myself taking this idea of a detox and applying it to a completely different topic that was on my mind, namely the challenges and limitations of the modern school system. Put those together and you get this wonderfully intriguing thought experiment that I call the school detox program.

Why do our schools persist with so many rituals, practices, and processes that are grounded in traditions that have questionable relevance today? Even as many educator and school leaders are discovering the possibilities beyond existing models, and some of us are heartened by many new models and approaches to education, the status quo is largely unquestioned. We tweak what we are doing. We trim the weeds, but we do not pull them out at the roots. As such, they just keep growing back. I’ve long argued that a key to overcoming this is to help people see and discover what is possible, helping them to experience firsthand that there are better options available. This brings me back to the schooling detox concept and a thought experiment.

A good experiment usually starts with a hypothesis, whether it is an actual experimental design or it is a simple experiment that we play out in our minds. As such, here is my hypothesis. As a starting point, if we can immerse parents, current educators, aspiring educators, and students in a given community to a persistent litany of immersive, open, engaging, empowering learning experiences that are rich with curiosity, learning and growth; but that are void of the modern trappings of schooling like tests, grades, classes, bells, unnecessarily complex processes, and all the rest; the people in this community will be better positioned to help create sustainable alternatives to traditional schooling in that community. Or, if that one seems too grandiose, what if we simply started with a two-week summer camp for parents, teachers, students, and others that was all about rich, rewarding, personally meaningful learning and growth, but it did not have any resemblance to the current system of grades, bubble tests, lecture-dominated classes, desks in rows, potentially outdated regulations and policies, and the rest? Might that be enough of a school detox to jump-start more root pulling and sustainable education reforms?

What would it take to move this from a thought experiment to an actual one? What would your ideal school detox program look like?

Or, is this enough? Perhaps an alternative line of thinking would be a schooling debunking boot camp. I will reserve that idea for my next article.

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.).