Rethinking School 101: The Changing Human Experience

I recently made a new acquaintance (via Twitter), Venessa Miemis (Blog, Twitter), who is “pursuing a Masters in Media Studies at the New School in New York City, exploring the intersection between technology, culture, and communication. She is a member of the Space Collective community, and has contributed guest posts to Blogging Innovation, MediaRights, gnovis, and Memebox.” Vanessa maintains a blog that is focused on metathinking, Emergent by Design, it is a great “thinking” blog and a recent post caught my attention. The pertinent part for me was:

For several years now, I’ve been studying the intersection of technology, culture and communication, the impacts of social media, the relationship between creativity, innovation and design, and the potential of various futures.

I’ve had this gnawing sensation at the edges of my mind that all these areas were held together by a common thread, but I couldn’t put my finger on the connection. My intention is that by taking this out of the incubation stage in my head and putting it into words, it will become clarified and provide some value.

First off, let me lay out a framework . My ideas are based on 3 main concepts:

* Social media is fundamentally changing the human experience.
* The world is increasing in complexity.
* We are experiencing accelerating change.

I was especially focused on the three bulleted items:

* Social media is fundamentally changing the human experience.

This is, of course, a very accurate statement that, calls into question the foot-dragging that currently is the method of educational reform. I think it important to state that I am not an advocate of reform. During my twenty-three years as a classroom educator I saw one reform after another be presented in the fall only to find it dead by Thanksgiving.

What is needed is change. Not just painting a new color over the old, but a drastic overhaul. I regularly use the phrase reimagining or rethinking school. The globalization of economies, the disappearance of barriers to global communication, and the rapid expansion of knowledge make Vanessa’s statement a rather obvious reality. However, not so in education. Education is a hot-bed of status-quo, and the institutional creep that describes the method of change in our educational institutions, from kindergarten to our Universities, will insure a continuing free-fall in innovative thinking in this country.

What is needed? We need to “rethink” school. We need to begin with our long-held belief that schools, and education, is one of our greatest accomplishments of thought. From there we need to remove everything from the table and begin to answer the question, “What should be the purpose of schooling?” Put another way, answering the age-old question, “When are we ever going to need to know this?” Students have been asking this from the beginning of school. More often than not, the question is ignored or answered with a flippant, “You just will, I promise you.” If, as educators, we can’t answer that question definitively we have stop immediately and ask ourselves a core question of educational rethinking, “Why, ARE, we teaching this?”

That question reminded me of a recent post by David Warlick (Blog, Twitter), in his post David mused,

It’s the difference between the Sputnik challenge of the ’50s & ’60s and the educational challenge of this day.  My teachers were challenged to educate a generation who would send people to the moon and beyond, to explore the frontiers of space. Today, we are challenged to “Race to the Top.” It sounds good, but what does the top look like? There’s no picture of it to inspire us. There is a vague sense that our children will graduate smarter than theirs — as measured by some Common Core of Education Standards.

This thought accentuates the reality that education/school has lost it’s relevance. There is a small, and hopefully growing, group of teachers whose voice is growing louder all the time, “We have to do this differently.” The difference is not a mere change of apparel, it is a starting over  – buying a whole new wardrobe. As David points out, there was a time when there was relevance and purpose that created wonderment (and unfortunately some fear) within the hearts and minds of students. That is gone. Why? In no small part because of Vanessa’s first statement, “Social media is fundamentally changing the human experience.”

How do we rethink school in an age of such fundamental change? That is a question that educators need to grapple with, not politician’s, not administrators . . . educators. I would argue that, in order to rethink school, school needs to become an “employee owned” ecosystem. Teachers need to be the drivers of rethink and they need to bring their ideas and plans to administrators and if they find a tin ear, on to higher levels. It is no insignificant point that, the policy driving education today is the work of non-educators with ties to corporate interests that see the commoditization of teachers and students as a way to increase the bottom line.

Our discussion must begin with defining a purpose, not for Math or English or History, but a reason that schools should exist. We need to end the fractured thinking that has brought us to this point in the history of American education. No more looking at the big picture and breaking it into its atomic parts, pouring them over our students, and expecting them to be able to put them back together into reality – much less expecting them to even know how, when we don’t teach them how. Rethinking means seeing the big picture, seeing the component parts, seeing them together and designing schools that will actually prepare our students to be able to create their future – to construct meaning and design their future.

Art credit: Hugh MacLeod (Blog, Twitter)

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