For Schools of Modern Learning
~ by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon
“There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.”
~ Peter Drucker, Educator/Author
The shift from efficiency to effectiveness is a difficult one to make for existing schools. Age old narratives about education and the systems we employ are deeply rooted in our culture.
Regardless, a growing body of evidence suggests that traditional, efficiency-based systems of schooling have peaked in terms of their ability to serve our kids, and that continuing to focus on a more efficient approach (i.e. trying to “do the wrong thing righter”) in a world of accelerating change is increasingly putting our childrens’ futures at risk. For instance:
- Students report widespread disengagement at school, with only 32% saying they are “involved and enthusiastic” about school. (Gallup)
- A recent Stanford study of middle school through college students showed that most are “easily duped” by information that flows through social media channels, and that the authors were “taken aback” by students’ lack of preparation. (Stanford)
- Only 35% of 5th-12th graders said they could “find many ways around problems” in a recent survey. (Gallup)
- Despite rising graduation rates, research shows fewer students are prepared for college or a career. (New York Times)
- Across the US, public school funds are being cut, and many states face huge teacher shortages. (Learning Policy Institute)
- Student debt is at critical levels, at a time when the college degree is no longer a ticket to the middle class. (Boston Review)
- The current generation of teenagers is anxious, depressed, over-stressed and fearful. (Pew)
- For most Western countries, scores on global or national standardized test scores are flat or declining. (Pisa)
- Only a third of business owners agree that graduates are leaving education with the skills needed for their company. (Gallup)
Ability to Learn
Experts who study the world of work are growing more and more concerned that current systems of education are increasingly irrelevant when it comes to the preparation of students for what is a fast-changing and uncertain future of employment.
Already, trends show that a significant number of people, perhaps as many as 50% of the U.S. workforce, will be doing some sort of freelanced, short-term, contract work as opposed to holding traditional 9-5 jobs. And that may be because many believe that technology will make jobs obsolete at a frightening pace. One study by Oxford University suggests that 47% of jobs in the U.S. will be threatened by automation in the next 20 years.
Regardless of what the future holds, there is little doubt that success in the future will first and foremost depend on one’s ability to learn, not on one’s accumulation of knowledge. As author Harold Jarche says, “Learning is the work.” With the half-life of information getting shorter and shorter, and with opportunities to network and learn from others continuing to expand, those in the workforce who are not constantly learning will be hard pressed to find success in the modern world.
In short, effective schools are those that focus on developing students as learners, whereas efficient schools still prize knowing over the ability to learn.
In short, effective schools are those that focus on developing students as learners, whereas efficient schools still prize knowing over the ability to learn. Raising the Bar for Change
No question, conversations around “change” in schools has accelerated in the past few years. But despite good intentions, we believe the bar for those change conversations is still too low. A fundamental re-imagination of the work of schools, classrooms, and teachers is now urgently required.
Current calls for “21st Century Skills” or “personalized,” “flipped,” “blended” learning are not grounded deeply enough in what we believe is the most important shift of all: creating cultures in schools where both adults and children are seen as learners who have deep agency and ownership over the learning that they do. Too often, well-meaning initiatives like “Makerspaces” or “Genius Hour” or “Hours of Code” give the appearance of change but in reality do little to create and nurture community wide cultures of self-determined, continual learning. They don’t fully challenge the efficiency model of education.
We need to rethink the power relationships we create in schools between students, teachers, administrators, and parents and understand how those relationships support or inhibit deep student learning. We need to build greater transparency into the work of students and teachers, helping them become fluent and literate in the ways of the globally networked world. We urgently need to raise the bar when thinking about “change” in education.
The modern world demands that we create the conditions in our classrooms and schools where students:
- Have freedom to pursue their questions, not ours.
- Create their own curriculum and design their own paths to mastery.
- Act as apprentice learners who work with teachers who are master learners, first and foremost, not where they are seen as “empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.”
Certainly, we must be sure that students have the basic skills and knowledge they need to “succeed” in the world that is coming toward them. But more than that, we now need to focus on nurturing the curiosity and creativity that kids already bring to us, giving them opportunities to do work that matters to them for real audiences and purposes.
In short, we need to focus our work on what is clearly the most important skill of all for this moment: developing kids who are deep, powerful, curious, agile learners first and foremost.
What Reimagination Looks Like
What might a higher bar for change look like? We believe that any conversations or actions around change should be guided by the “Ten Principles of Schools of Modern Learning.”
The 10 principles below and detailed on the next couple of pages are based upon the work that a growing number of schools and districts are already doing to transform (and we mean transform) student learning in schools. In every case, these principles apply to the work of entire school communities which includes students, teachers, administrators, parents, support staff, and local residents.
The 10 Principles for Schools of Modern Learning
- Have clearly articulated and shared beliefs about learning that are lived in every classroom.
- Live a mission and a vision deeply informed by new contexts for learning.
- Have cultures where personal, self-determined learning is at the center of student and teacher work.
- See curriculum as something that is co-constructed to meet the needs and interests of the child.
- Embrace and emphasize real-world application and presentation to real audiences as assessment for learning.
- See transparency and sharing as fundamental to a powerful learning environment.
- Use technology first and foremost as an amplifier for learning, creating, making, connecting, communicating, collaborating, and problem solving.
- Develop and communicate in powerful ways new stories of learning, teaching, and modern contexts for schooling.
- Encourage community wide participation in the equitable, effective education of children.
- Embrace and anticipate constant change and evolution.