There are times when I truly wonder if traditional schools can actually change in any appreciable way that moves agency over learning and teaching to the learners and the teachers. Reading Bruce’s column from last week, I was struck by the dedication on the part of the Finns to push their thinking and practice forward in spite of what most would consider to be a very successful school experience that their kids currently enjoy. That kind of vision and proactivity, if you will, is so rare in the schools I have visited in the US. The barriers to change seem so much higher here, and they are well documented: standardized assessments, lack of money, expectations of parents, onerous policies, etc. Anyone who steps back and looks with some objectivity at how education in the US operates must be stunned at the dysfunction on lots of levels.
A few stories from recent visits to schools and conferences illustrate the issues. In one, a very energetic and passionate superintendent had been making great strides at brining innovative thinking and practice to her rural school. She had built a MakerSpace, had supported teachers who were piloting Genius Hour in their classrooms, had thoughtfully purchased new technologies to support teachers and students to support an evolving vision of project and inquiry-based learning, and more. But when I met with her, she was not optimistic moving forward. It seems that the week before, two former employees who she had let go for general incompetence had gotten themselves elected to the school board, and she felt certain that all of her efforts were going to be stymied in the future.
Cultural issues are a huge barrier as well. In another district I visited recently, about 1/3 of the staff called in sick for a professional development day, and many of those in attendance were obviously disengaged and some bordering on hostile. Granted, this district was in the midst of a transition in leadership, but it was painfully obvious that this was not a culture that learns, to reference Peter Senge. They had high test scores, parents were happy, and they saw little reason to engage in a conversation around rethinking classroom learning or to allow their worldview to be challenged in any real sense.
Finally, at a large edtech conference I recently attended, I was struck by the almost exclusive focus on tools and apps and the newest thing. From what I could tell, very few sessions did anything to challenge the traditional narrative of education or suggest that technology’s biggest impact on students is to amplify the learning that they can do on their own. I wondered aloud what was fair to expect from those in attendance in terms of a willingness and a desire to question the status quo and seek to expand the contexts for their work.
Truth be told, more often than not, these are the realities that I meet in my travels. It’s disheartening because despite all of the external barriers, at the core I sense a real disinterest and powerlessness for significant change that honors the changes that are happening in the world and the shift toward self-determined learning that is only accelerating. We seem unable or unwilling to get to the core questions that the Finns seem to be asking on a regular basis: What’s changing? What are the impacts on learning and education? What new skills and literacies will our students need to succeed? How must we change to ensure that happens?
So, can we really change here in the US where we’re a mix of tens of thousands of different districts with different leaders, different resources, and different agendas? When by and large the systems that impact schooling are more about preserving the status quo than evolution?
Some are trying. I’ll end this with a bit more optimism. One district that I’m working with has taken a long term view of change and has engaged in an ongoing strategy of capacity building, support for open, honest conversations, and a thoughtful plan for moving schools to a different place in the 5-10 year future. It has poured time and treasure into creating the conditions for real, sustainable change to take place, fully understanding that the change conversation is grounded in learning and not technology. Teachers are empowered to innovate, parents are embracing those innovations, and the district is moving, deliberately, toward a modern vision for teaching and learning.
Moving traditional schools to a more modern approach to teaching and learning is painfully difficult, and the barriers are huge. Can it happen? Sure. But whether it can happen at the scale and speed currently required is the lingering question.
Image credit: Phil Whitehouse