Bells and Cells and other Big Fat Myths

How much of what we do every day is part of a routine, habit, or in some cases almost a ritual? I know that for most of us the getting out of bed, shower, teeth thing certainly is, but when it comes to our work the context of the question shifts, and maybe it’s a cause for deeper reflection.

Take school bells for example. For most schools, some loud noise, usually a bell is a signal for students to move to class, or move to a new class. It’s an organiser, keeps kids in the places we want them to be, but are they really necessary?

It’s not a debate I want to continue here, but they are plenty of examples and discussion online, and it’s just one of the many practices we take for granted as a necessary part of a school day. What I am interested in are the assumptions that underpin such practices. On the one hand maybe it does make sense to have an audible means of organizing large numbers of students, on the other there is an argument that this is an opportunity to support a culture of students accepting more responsibility for time management and self-discipline.

It leads to broader issues around the structure of the school day, the structure of learning groups, and how the physical learning environment best serves those outcomes.

All of which begs the question, why do we do what we currently do in our schools? Are we doing the right things by our students, or just doing the wrong things right, because that’s the way we’ve always done it?

The answer isn’t bells or no bells, 40, 50 or 100 minute lessons, or mixed aged or segregated classes. The answer is found in our beliefs about how our students learn, and under what conditions they will learn most powerfully and deeply. Yet too often I have been invited to an ‘innovative’ school which I’m told is ‘at the vanguard of a fresh approach to education’, only to find transformation tokenism rather than genuine commitment.

It’s not about the superficial symbols such as new zany building designs, or lots of technology, but rather, what lies beneath; and you’ve only got to scratch the surface lightly to uncover the enduring signs of legacy pedagogy. It doesn’t matter whether you were a school, but are now a college, academy, free school or whatever… if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…then the reality is  nothing significant has changed for the learning experiences of students.

But just to make the story interesting, paradoxically those symbols can be incredibly significant when the process of transformation is viewed holistically. Too many well intentioned transformation initiatives falter as they try to fit a square progressive peg in a round legacy school hole. They get trapped by what Cuban and Tyack refer to as the ‘grammar of school’ which include many of the symbols and rituals mentioned earlier around schedules, buildings, technology and groupings that on their own have such little impact.  Papert takes the metaphor one step further…

“The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons. This phenomenon is related to “assimilation blindness” insofar as it refers to a mechanism of mental closure to foreign ideas.”

So in the end, a holistic view of transformation requires a shared understanding of how kids learn in today’s world, a commitment to contemporary practice that leverages those beliefs, situated within a learning architecture that provides the best conditions possible.

So the biggest and fattest myth is that the learning needs of our young modern learners today are well served by the traditional model of schooling.

So the biggest and fattest myth is that the learning needs of our young modern learners today are well served by the traditional model of schooling.  If we are genuine about providing an environment that allows our kids to have agency over their learning then we should stop addressing these ideas in isolation.

Our use of technology in schools has, for the most part, added to the library of myths around transformation. We were delusionary thinking that pedagogy in any significant way drives technology. This is where Papert and nearly every other prominent edtech person diverge. As Gary Stager says, “Technology drives pedagogy. It always has. How and what we teach is the direct result of an era’s technology. Schooling today is dominated by texts, tests, and boards at the front of the room.” 

Our practices over the past 3+ decades clearly show that our technology use in schools has too often been conformist and compliant; in fact intentionally anti-disruptive. As Will said recently, surely the reason  we want kids to have ubiquitous access to their own personal computer is to ensure they have agency over their learning.

Laptops, new buildings or longer class lessons on their own, change very little if anything at all; while innovative practice isolated in cells and timed out by bells reeks of frustration, burn-out and little evidence of sustainable long term impact.

Perhaps the truly biggest myth about school change is about its possibility. So little has been changed by so few, that many still find it hard to believe it’s even possible. Maybe we should start by busting some of the myths that endorse our existing model of school and create some truths that better reflect the realities of learning in our modern world.

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