What if your school blew up?: The Little Becky approach to school reform

One of the most debilitating aspects of today’s educational environment is the fear of failure. No, I am not talking about students, I am talking about teachers and administrators. There is a constant fear of losing jobs, funding, the chance to do all they hoped they would by working the field of education, specifically . . . making a difference. This fear is the largest barrier to educational reform.

The obsessive focus on standardized testing, textbooks, and core curriculum has done more damage to the learning environment in the United States than just about anything else. It is as simple as the fact that, continually studying for a test just isn’t fun for students, nor does it engage their innate curiosity about life and the world around them . . . and much worse, it creates a permanent perception that school is a boring place, with educators (highly skilled professionals) primarily taking the blame.

In his presentation yesterday morning (5/22) at the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Spring Meeting, Dr. Yong Zhao, Technology in Education & Educational Psychology Director for the Center Of Teaching & Technology College of Education, Michigan State University, commented that standardized testing kills creativity and teaches students that they all need to know exactly the same material in exactly the same way. More importantly he presented a challenging idea, that it might be a positive move to throw out core curriculum. (Listen to his presentation here: Innovation3)

There has been much hand wringing over education for a long time. There have been reform movements and public policy attempts to “turn things around” in school. While the intent has been admirable, the results have not been effective – but why?

After 9/11 the United States scrambled to put policy, organizations, and laws in place that would ensure that the country would be safe from those kinds of attacks ever again. That’s the problem. The terrorist organizations, no doubt, anticipated this so they were already planning ways to disrupt the lives of the citizens of the United States differentlty . . . ways that weren’t being planned for.

There is a direct corollary to educational environments as they exist today: schools are designed to solve yesterdays, and occassionally todays problems – but not tomorrows. The solution is the re-imagining of what learning is, looks like, and how to facilitate it. But to do that, we must be willing to blow up what currently exists. That’s where Rebecca Barry enters the discussion.

Little Becky, as she is known around Dublin, Ireland, is an adorable little girl who was put up to making prank calls by a morning radio show in Dublin. Here she is trying to get her school blown up:

What would happen if your school made a “crash or a whollop,” what would you do? Of course I don’t mean this literally, but figuratively. What if there were no rules, no traditions, no rituals and the idea of school could be re-imagined?

In her book The Future and Its Enemies, Virgina Postrel (blog) asks a series of pertinent questions:

“How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization.: Do we search for stasis – a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embraced dynamism – a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? . . . Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape.”

There seems to be a steady march towards the writing of a new educational manifesto and it is taking place primarily online. EdTech leaders have seen email turn into listservs and then social networks (Ning, Twitter, Pownce), bookmarks in your browser turn into social bookmarking (Digg, Diigo, del.icio.us) and YouTube into Ustream. Technology was misapplied when it was brought into the classroom, being used to maintain stasis, perpetuate tradition and ritual that has existed in education for 100+ years. It hasn’t had the type of influence that was imagined 25 years ago. But, it can . . . and I believe it will in the hands of dedicated EdTech leaders and innovative teachers. It isn’t a panacea, it is the vehicle to implement the process of re-imagining education.

Right now the tools that students are using to construct meaning, identity, and place are considered, by the majority of the educational community, to be disruptive. This can even be the case among the staunchest of EdTech leaders. Considering this: I recall being part of a conversation in Boulder, Colorado while attending the Computer Support for Collaborative Learning (CSCL) Conference as part of my MA work in Pepperdine University‘s OMAET program. We used TappedIn as our classroom venue during the distance phases of the program and during the conference a number of us were sitting around talking to a few of our professors and mentioned the fact that while we were attending their classes in TappedIn, we also opened an instance of AOL Instant Messenger and carried on a parallel conversation. The immediate reaction from some of the professors was indignation. How dare we sit and whisper in the back of the classroom while class was going on. Remember these were professors in a technology rich program designed to prepare us to be EdTech leaders. We explained how this peripheral conversation revolved around the main discussion and actually deepened and extended the one taking place in the “classroom” – and though it appeared to be “disruptive” it actually was as essential as the main discussion. (A caveat, those professors remain, to this day, as the most positive influences in my professional life, many thanks to Linda Polin, Gary Stager, Paul Sparks, Margret Reil, Mercedes Fisher, and Sue Talley.)

Tom Peters. By Allison ShirreffsThe world around the classroom is in hyper-flux, changing constantly at an ever increasing pace. But what about education? The best word to describe change in education is, “incrementalism.” It seems as if reform in the educational arena is always designed to proceed at a baby step pace. This doesn’t work! So let’s blow it up and re-imagine. In his book Re-Imagine!, Tom Peters talks a lot about “relevance” in the business world, (Tom Peters photo by Allison Shirreffs):

“To my 30-year old readers: I hereby wager that when you’re my age, Wal*Mart and Dell will be either dead or irrelevant.”

Sure Peters is a “business guru” but the content of this particular book has massive implications for education. Is he right? We will find out one day, but he has been spot on far more than he has been wrong. So, if Dell can one day be irrelevant, can schools be so as they exist today? Are they already irrelevent as they exist today? How about this from Education Next a journal published by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University:

“Computer-based learning is on the cusp of transforming traditional public education, say Harvard Business School’s Clayton M. Christensen and his colleague Michael B. Horn in the summer 2008 issue of Education Next. Based on their analysis of data on enrollments, about half of all education courses will be delivered online in just over a decade’s time.”

The article goes on to point out that the online student population was 22 times larger in 2007 than in 2000. Are schools irrelevant? Yes, as they are today. But, is the idea of education irrelevant? NO! So when does the re-imagine revolution start? It begins when we look for answers in the way students learn outside the structures of the classroom. It begins when we admit they might be learning far more, and far more practical material, outside of the classroom. It begins when we pick up the phone and call the demolition company – the people who also carry the vision for designing something new – and start taking risks and leave behind the fear of failure (failure = success), leave behind the traditional proprietary attitudes of the educational arena. It begins when we plant idea seeds outside of the comfort of our networks and use our networks to extend our discussions. Nicholas Negroponte, Founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child program, co-founder and director of the MIT Media Labratory, and the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology, once said,

“Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.”

Be sure and read Dr. Scott McLeod‘s post at Dangerously Irrelevant: So what if schools don’t prepare kids for the 21st century?

(A final caveat: I am unashamed about the influence that books, people, and ideas have on my thinking and this post was heavily influenced by the book Re-imagine! . . . the word itself I adopt as a hue-and-cry and I think Mr. Peters would approve)

Additional Reading: “The Builder – Designing The Future of Educational Leadership” posted by Rob Jacobs at Education Innovation.

Powered by ScribeFire and Beans ‘n Cream.


One thought on “What if your school blew up?: The Little Becky approach to school reform

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: