Moving education into our current millennium


Which 1950’s feature is not yet history?

When we think back to the musical Grease or TV series Happy Days, it is with a fond sense of nostalgia over what was. We look at Mr. Smith smoking his unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes, climbing in his Oldsmobile (with no seat belts or child seats) and driving to work. We see him put a contract in the mail, knowing within two weeks he will have the signed contract returned to him through the US Post. Over a business lunch, he has a few martinis and then drives back to work. At the end of the work day, he heads home to read the paper in his easy chair. 

Meanwhile, Johnny and Suzie Smith are sitting in classes with rows of other students their age politely listening to a teacher lecture and daydreaming about the weekend. Mom is at home cooking on her stove top with her radio show soap opera keeping her company. She fills out and mails in a Sears and Roebuck catalog order for a new dress for Suzie. Later that evening, the family takes a break after watching Leave It to Beaver on their black and white TV with rabbit ears. They go to their landline phone on the wall and ask the operator to connect them to their grandmother in a different state. 

A sweet walk down memory lane, right? Part of what makes it sweet is our relief that this is not our present reality. Technology, ingenuity, and competition in the marketplace have forced out the old and provided us with more progressive and timely life tools. We now have transportation that includes seatbelts and airbags. We know that smoking and driving under the influence of alcohol is harmful to our health. Our kitchens have microwave ovens and food processors to ease the job of cooking. Radio shows that are listened to at a specific hour have become podcasts that we can listen to at our convenience. Black and white televisions are replaced with a variety of electronics where we can watch what we want when we want it. And telephones? They do everything but teleport us! 

When we look at the comparison between then and now, sadly, one major element of life is stuck in a time warp. It’s the one area where commerce can not make a quick dollar, so does not compete to provide the latest and greatest. Millions in R&D never get earmarked here. It’s the area where government oversight is provided by people who have no training or experience in the field. It’s the one that impacts our families and future the most dramatically and has the longest term effect. This stuck-in-the-past practice is the education of our beloved children.

Using an assembly-line model that predates the 1950’s to prepare our students for life is not acceptable. In today’s world, we would never accept any of the other features from the 1950’s vignette above. That we have, overtime, allowed ourselves to become numb and accepting of this archaic, ineffective, and often damaging method of providing education to our youth is tragic. 

In the last 100 years we have learned a great deal about how our brains work and humans develop. We also understand that industry needs graduates of high school and college to be able to project manage, create, collaborate with others. Technology has replaced the old school goals of memorizing facts, allowing us to look up information instantly. So with our knowledge, expectations, and tools, schools should be free to be preparing students for life. They should be guiding students in designing, thinking, and problem-solving…providing relevant practice of the skills needed in college and work. They should be using multiple platforms and varied learning experiences. Students should have many ways to demonstrate competency and be able to work at a pace that matches their capacity–not their date of birth. Instead our school system remains one of academic bulimia. We ask our students to passively binge on content information in the name of academic rigor, and then purge this information at the end of a semester. 

We know that this summative assessment after the learning does not allow students to go back and learn from the assessment, nor does it allow teachers to go back and reteach. This major component in our schools does not enhance learning. We know that formative assessment done during the learning allows for both re-learning and re-teaching. However, rarely does our system do anything but summative assessment of short-term memory abilities. In this broken and impossible system, teens are experiencing staggering amounts of stress and anxiety related to school. 

If this model meant that every student graduated and went on to college or careers, then we might find a reason to tolerate it. But the number of students who can’t even make it through our K-12 system is staggering. In my beautiful, privileged, progressive state of Washington, we see the tragic results of this system that no longer serves our students. One in four students does not graduate in Washington State. If that student has been identified as having special learning needs and receives special classes, they have an even greater chance of not graduating: one in three. No other industry would stay in business with a 25% failure rate. When this failure rate involves our precious children it is a travesty. 

When will we begin to demand new options? Who will do the hard work of creating these new options? This is not a task for the government, whose method of “improving” education relies on mandating new tests and cutting more funding from this old system. Nor are venture capitalists going to jump to fund these schools. This is a task for bold parents and educators–those most connected to our youth–to do. One very important way of doing this is to create more options, smaller schools where all students are seen, heard, valued, and able to learn in a way that serves each of them. One that uses successful modern strategies, like flipped classrooms, project-based learning, and holistic social-emotional training.

Let’s stop accepting the modern system which is not modern, and bravely start recreating our schools! Our teens have seven years of middle and high school. We don’t have time to lament and wring our hands; we need to be fierce advocates for our youth and act now. Find or create your tribe of fed-up parents and educators, and of dynamic, hard-working innovators…they are out there waiting to be called to action. Dive in and BUILD the change we need to see for our teen learners. The Micro-School Coalition and book Creating Micro-Schools for Colorful Mismatched Kids are two resources on this needed journey. The clock is ticking…let’s collaborate and get started!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top