How Can Education be Transformed?
What is Transformation?
o transform means to change the form, not rearrange it. The Alchemists believed they could transform base metals into gold. In nature, transformations alter not only the appearance, but the character and way of life of an organism. An egg transforms into a fully functional creature, and a larva into a butterfly. Negative transformations can also occur, such as normal cells transforming into cancer cells.
Life-altering events often transform an individual's entire way of thinking and being in the world. Many of you can probably recall an event or experience that resulted in an "aha." Thereafter, it was impossible for you to think about, or even perceive, some aspect of your life in the old way. Those transforming events or experiences may be painful, joyous, or emotionally neutral. At times, they occur after a lifetime of experience, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Or they may be as rapid as a near-miss accident that forces contemplation of one's own mortality. They may be as simple as a question that encourages you to consider something in a new way. However the change occurs, once the wiring of the brain/mind shifts to a new pattern, there's no going back.
Although they may happen naturally, the events and experiences that facilitate the transformation of individuals or institutions are challenging to orchestrate. While we may not know what will trigger transformation in each individual, we do know that there are ways to facilitate the process. "Chance favors the prepared mind."
By bringing old limiting beliefs and presuppositions into consciousness—by questioning everything we do—we begin to loosen the threads of the cocoon. We begin to weaken the shell of the egg so that transformation can more easily take place. In an educational system that is failing its students, its teachers, and society at large, I suggest that not making that effort is literally, unthinkable. [Note: I am not referring to the manufactured idea of "failing" schools based solely on test scores, but to the failure of the one-size-fits-all standardized system to see, hear, and respect each and every learner for the unique individual he/she is. I'm also referring to the artificial definition of "success," and the mindless application of standardization to divide our children into winners and losers, as well as to maintain the social classes.]
"It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."
Difficult, But Necessary Choices
hat will happen if educators continue to ignore the fundamental changes in thinking, the major shifts in form and function, that research in authentic learning tells us must occur? The dinosaur was once the most powerful creature on Earth. It had been around for eons and was highly successful in its ecological niche. And then the unthinkable happened. Within a relatively short time, the dinosaurs were gone—replaced by other creatures that had adapted to the changes in their environment. The dinosaurs had no choice—biological evolution, particularly in animals that large, is slow in coming.
Educational policy makers do have a choice. Evolution of thought can occur much more quickly and can be facilitated by conscious effort. Many have already made that effort. Pockets of excellence exist throughout the educational system. Learner-centered schools have been thriving for over a century.
Unfortunately, many policy makers in public education continue to ignore the signs that parents are no longer willing to wait for them to clean up their act. In 1999, about 850,000 American children were homeschooled. By 2015, the number was 2.3 million, and continues to rise. Many believe that parents choose homeschooling primarily for religious reasons. But an increasing number of parents homeschool for the following reasons:
- to customize or individualize the curriculum and learning environment for each child;
- to accomplish more academically than in schools;
- to use pedagogical approaches other than those typical in institutional schools;
- to provide guided and reasoned social interactions with youthful peers and adults;
- to provide a safer environment for children and youth, because of physical violence, drugs and alcohol, psychological abuse, racism, and improper and unhealthy sexuality associated with institutional schools; and
- to enhance family relationships between children and parents and among siblings.
Please see this website for the truth about who chooses homeschooling and why, as well as how homeschooled children compare on "standard" measures of success. A growing number of families have also chosen to "unschool" their children.
The number of alternative learner-centered schools is on the rise. In fact, many educational policy makers who can afford the tuition, such as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, choose to send their children to schools that focus on the development of the whole child. These schools "succeed" because they are free to shape their culture around providing individual learners with the resources they need based on developmental level, strengths, and interests. Because these schools are private/independent, they aren't under the mandate of one-size-fits all standards and standardized assessments. If policy makers recognize that the approaches in these schools are in the best interest of their own children, why does the DOE continue to double down on standards and assessments for "other people's children."
Unfortunately, many educational policy makers continue to hold fast to the old ways, blaming the public for undermining the system rather than examining the crumbling and archaic beliefs underlying their mandates. They continue insisting that students must conform to schools of the past rather than designing programs that conform to students of the present and future. They continue in the hopeless attempt to produce a largely homogeneous educational system for an increasingly heterogeneous population. They continue unfairly blaming students and teachers for the failure of their ill-conceived mandates. They continue to wallow in re-form as society leaves outdated forms behind.
Perhaps they should heed the words of W. Edward Deming, "Change is not necessary. Survival is not mandatory."
Surveys suggest that the majority of parents are happy with their public schools. Yet we are told that schools are failing and that we need more "school choice." That "choice" supposedly comes through pulling money out of already underfunded public schools and giving it to for-profit charter schools, or distributing it through vouchers. Many parents don't realize that, even if they are given vouchers to allow them to send their children to any school they want, those schools don't have to accept them! They maintain the image of being "more successful" by simply turning away any student with the potential to lower their ranking. Public schools, on the other hand, must accept all students!
Responding to the call for school choice does not require giving taxpayer money to for-profit charter schools, or to parents as vouchers. If other schools are supposedly doing so much better than public schools, why have the methods used in these schools not been implemented in public schools? Students and parents do deserve choice! But that choice should be WITHIN their public schools—not outside of them. In later articles, we'll explore how that might happen.
The choice to transform is certainly challenging. I doubt that the larva rushes eagerly toward its transformation into a butterfly. It has no idea what awaits it outside the cocoon. All it knows is that it too painful to remain within those confines. The time has come when it must transform or die. Sounds a little dramatic, but in large measure, the transformation of education is somewhat similar. We can only imagine what "life outside the cocoon" will be like. But as reasoning beings, we are pretty sure that it will be very different. Safety and security are fundamental human values. The known, despite its problems and pain, almost always feels more secure than the unknown. Stepping into the unknown is a risk-one that many are unwilling to take.
The process of transformation itself may, at times, be painful. But can it be any more painful than watching the effects of the present system on students? Can it be any more painful than watching the love of learning with which children come into the world wither and die when they are confined to a classroom and told what, when, and how to learn? Can it be any more painful than seeing the stress levels in our children rise as are pressured toward an artifical goal of "success." Can it be any more painful than seeing the enthusiasm and promise with which teachers come into the profession wither away at the altar of standards and high-stakes tests?
Ultimately, if public education does not transform, it will, like the larva that fails to transform, wither and die. Given the damage now being done to children in the name of education, that might be a fitting end!
The challenge that confronts education is not reformation, but metamorphosis—transforming into a viable institution that serves the needs of both today's learners and tomorrow's world. It requires admitting that many traditional beliefs and values on which the current system is based are no longer valid in a changing world. It demands evolving, growing, and learning. It involves reexamining assumptions, renewing commitments, and rebuilding theoretical foundations on the basis of the best available research and experience.
Transformation within an institution as large and complex as education requires more than changing surface behaviors. In addition to individual belief changes, it will require changing the culture of schools and the relationship between schools and society. It will require a redefinition (or quite possibly multiple definitions) of education. It will demand accepting the fact that there is no such thing as a standard or average student and that any system designed for the average fits no one! It requires recognizing that each learner uses different educational strategies that require different educational resources—substantively different resources, not just variations on a theme!
The transformation of individuals and their inability to function within the old structure is a beginning. The growing movement toward "learning communities" in which the artificial designations of teacher, learner, and administrator become irrelevant is a step in the right direction. We don't have to wait until "someone else" wakes up! We don't have to reinvent the wheel, because learner-centered schools have been in existence for over a century. They stand as models that we can emulate, and on which we can build. "School choice" could be as simple as creating multiple learning environments within the same school building or district. Each environment could be based on a proven philosophy and methodology, such as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, Democratic Free Schools, Progressive Schools, or any of the other long-standing models of learner-centered education. And yes, for those who do believe that standardized education focused solely on academic achievement is in the best interest of their children, that model would also be available.
Learners and parents could then choose which environment best suits them. Children would stay in their own neighborhood rather than being bussed to a "charter school." There would be no need of a lottery because the enrollment of each program could be adjusted depending on how many chose it. Taxpayer dollars would stay within the public school rather than being given to "for-profit" charters. And of primary importance, the system would serve ALL children.
The first step is the transformation of the minds of educators, parents, and the taxpaying public who have, for too long, been brainwashed into believing that education requires age-graded classrooms; that the wealth of human knowledge and achievement must be divided neatly into "disciplines" that are then simplified and taught in measured chunks; that there must be a fixed set of standards defining what every child must "know and be able to do" to be "successful"; that children are inherently lazy and need to be foreced to learn; that there is a specific rate at which a concept should be learned; and even that learning requires teaching. EACH of these ideas must be reexamined for validity in the light of current research.
If you are appalled at the very idea of challenging these ideas, I can only suggest that you visit a learner-centered school to understand how the children who learn in authentic ways differ from those limited by one-size-fits-all curriculum and standards. Open your mind to possibilities and resolve to do "just one thing" each day to help education transform rather than reform. If you are a teacher, look at each child in a new way—without assigning a label. Reflect on your beliefs and values regarding learning, teaching, and your goal in the classroom. Think about what works and what doesn't in supporting those goals. And never stop asking questions!
If you are a parent or a taxpayer, question every aspect of traditional education. Why are schools organized by age rather than developmental readiness? What is the justification for standards? What is the true purpose of standardized assessment? Why are subjects taught as separate disciplines? Why is learning chopped up into discrete blocks of time? In particular, question the unquestionable—dissect the most sacred of the sacred cows!
Who knows? One of those actions may be the one that triggers an evolution to another level of thought—to another level of possibility. But if not, you will have taken one step toward being a more thoughtful and reflective educator, parent, or citizen.
"If not you, who? If not now, when?"
~Rabbi Hillel, First century B.C.
We have seen how the metaphors of education as a business or a machine fail as educational models. In the next article, let's take a look at other influential metaphors of education that influence the way we perceive the role of schools and the children they serve.
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