Education: The 19th Century Model in Use Today. And What’s Possible.

The Late 19th Century Model of Education

Our national school system developed during the period as independent farmers, whose knowledge and skill base was broad, transitioned to lives as city factory workers. As part of increasing efficiency and standardization, business owners required the farmers-turned-laborers to be compliant workers that performed specialized, monotonous tasks.

19th Century Model School Characteristics:
+teacher in front of classroom delivering information for students to learn.
+student as passive participant, sitting in chairs, following directions of scripted curricula.
+children separated by age.
+information separated into categories or subjects, some deemed more important than others and abstract knowledge valued more than practical, real-world knowledge.
+success measured by scores on standard tests based on information teacher provided.
+extrinsic rewards for success.
+strict discipline policies enforced.
+if the student/school fails (based on test criteria), then increase more of the same.

More than a century later, this is the model which remains the primary method of teaching- especially in inner cities, with large minority populations. A few students flourish. Largely, though, the system delivers compliant, if often bored, students who can collect information by following directions.

Most of the reform efforts today focus on making this model work better, i.e. make it more efficient, do more of it, teach what can be measured (so narrow curricula and increase testing). Hold teachers more accountable.

A Different Approach…and what’s possible.

A school model designed for how kids learn, based on the realities of the 21st century and preparing students for what they, and we, need to thrive.

School Characteristics for the 21st Century:
+acknowledges that, unlike the past, information is readily accessible, everywhere, all the time, and that each student is different.
+acknowledges that children are explorers, who learn best when allowed to follow their curiosity, actively seeking information.
+students are tasked to solve problems directly related to their world, and in the process learn about relationships and context.
+boundaries are set, rules are given, and students are allowed to roam freely within. Note: often, misbehavior ceases when concentration begins.
+as opposed to the one at the front of the room with all the answers, the teachers role changes to one of guide, facilitator, collaborator, mentor, coach and nurturer of creativity.
+success is measured by how the school, and the graduate, supports the needs and well being of the entire community (and world) it resides.

Walk into a place where learning is happening and it may look chaotic, but, like life itself, there are rules and structure. Perhaps ‘controlled chaos’ is a more accurate description.

Rather than trying to make learning happen, it’s about channeling what’s already internal to students: curiosity. In seeking answers, obstacles must be overcome and this is where learning occurs. Often solving these problems requires imagination. This is the birthplace of creativity. If it’s to be developed and nurtured, students require spaces where they’re not afraid to fail.

Organizational leaders want self-directed problem solvers, who can work on teams, communicate and come up with original ideas. The times require we deliver independent, caring, creative, internally motivated life-long learners. So, if we spend god-only-knows how many billions of dollars on education, shouldn’t we discuss how students learn best and what schools ought to look like?

The heated rhetoric about unions, charters, vouchers, testing etc. is a distraction. While important, consider context and think bigger. How would debates about education differ if we began with questions like: What is school for? How best do children learn? Who benefits from the status quo? Who suffers? If we could start from scratch, and take what we know about how kids learn and what the world requires, what would school look like?

This is neither conservative or liberal thinking. It questions underlying assumptions. It’s controversial because it’s not about reforming the existing system. It’s not about tweaking the edges and making a bad system more efficient. Rather, it’s about transformative design change that considers the whole- the child, the school, the economic system in which the school is embedded and the needs of all. Never before has human civilization faced the challenges we face today. We’re not going to solve the problems with the thinking that created them. Changing the paradigm begins with education.

Consider the existing model, imagine what’s possible. Work to create it.

Related articles, big-thinkers, mind-blowing, necessary radical examples:
Do schools kill creativity? Sir Ken Robinson and one of the most viewed TED talk of all time is HERE.

If you’re not yet convinced kids are capable learners on their own, watch this TED talk.

Around a century ago, folks like Montessori, Rudolph Steiner (Waldorf) and John Dewey were on to something.

Want to see a school that flips school on it’s head? See: SFBrightworks

Thought provoking and comprehensive manifesto (in PDF) on education by Seth Godin.

Trying to remake high school (so it’s not a complete waste of time): Roger Schank

And if you want to live on a farm and have kids, read this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *