The Landscape of Educational Culture

Artwork: (c) Hugh MacLeod (Twitter, Blog)

I just received an Education Week email update and the second article listed was this one written by Betty J. Sternberg. She begins the article:

Consider this description of the work environment of California-based Meebo, one of the Web’s fastest-growing messaging companies, and then ask yourself if today’s classrooms can be described the same way:

“A great team, and tons of meaty problems to solve. … It’s open, collaborative. … We’re facing problems that are pretty unusual. … We take the smartest and most passionate team-oriented people we can find and put them in an environment where they can thrive. We value innovation, teamwork, and good clean fun. … We’re still a small company, so one person can make a big impact.”

She then goes on to say,

“I’ve spent 37 years in education, teaching preschool through graduate students, recently leading a school district as superintendent, and, not too long ago, heading a state agency as commissioner of education. This I know, from watching a multitude of classrooms, pre-K through high school, and from talking to teacher leaders who are in my graduate classes: The culture in most of our classrooms is diametrically opposite to the description of this thriving company. Most student descriptions of a majority of their classes would read something like this: ‘It’s drudgery. We sit alone at our desks and silently answer lots of questions that our teachers tell us look like the ones we will see on the state tests.'”

A very encouraging article to say the least, because at a minimum it presents a more realistic view of current educational reality and the blindered death-grip current educational leadership maintains on status quo thinking and theory. Sternbreg closes with a rather dire prediction:

“We must expand and implement this culture for all our students. They all deserve to grow into extraordinary individuals, not just a record of test scores. If we don’t do this now—finally and with due support and speed—our nation will pay for it soon, and for a very long time.”

What was so shocking was the fact that this story was listed below the main article being pushed by the update, titled, “Role of NAEP Could Change With Common Assessments.”

The article discusses the future of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and contained the following paragraph:

“Now the country stands poised to enter a new testing era. All but two states have agreed to work toward creating common academic standards, with the eventual goal of establishing common assessments.”

The article goes on to discuss new roles for what is often referred to as the “nations report card,” as if education would be lost without the guidance of what, in reality, is the nation’s main tool for legitimizing standardized testing, core curricula, and common standards.

We can’t have both. We can’t create a thriving, innovative, creative, vibrant learning environment and pair it with common standards supported by textbooks and assessed by standardized tests. The two ideas are diametrically opposed. To waste time and money attempting to force these two into a relationship would be as futile as Romeo and Juliet’s parents trying to keep them apart. And remember, in the end their kids died.

It is inevitable that students will learn . . . what is not so certain, is that they will do it within what we currently call “school.” They will find a way to generate environments much like the Meebo description – a place where they can thrive and think and explore and truly learn by doing. A perfect example of the reality of students learning outside of the classroom is evidenced in the following YouTube video:

Read the comments and you will begin to understand how learning already is occurring outside the walls of the traditional classroom.

Current educational “reform” is a smoke and mirrors distraction. For decades reform has been a series of piecemeal attempts to do the same thing we have always done, just differently. The real question, “Should we even be doing what we have always done?” is not being asked. What we need, is to reimagine school from the ground up, drawing on the truths we have learned about how humans learn. We need to take what we know about the power of environments that encourage and nurture creativity and innovation and not “reform” school, but finally begin to create what can honestly be called “school.”

Additional Reading:

Differences in the Work Landscape of the 21st Century” by James Seaman at Lifelong Learning Environments

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