Who will lead the educational revolution?
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
How do we change education?
I haven’t run into many people who think that our education system is perfect as is. People have been calling for change for decades. There are plenty of statistics that demonstrate students being left behind and our county losing footing every year when compared to the educational systems of other countries. But for all of the talk of change, when you walk onto most classrooms, nothing looks that different than it did 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. How do we change?
The Industrial Model
There are an amazing number of write-ups by people much more talented than me that explain how the current K-12 American educational model was built for the industrial era. Overly summarized, the compliance of compulsory K-12 education prepared the work force for the industry of the day- basic skills, hard work on a schedule, and assembly lines. While the economy, business world, and American work industry have evolved and changed through multiple cycles since the industrial revolution, the educational system has stayed the same. There are a lot of things to blame this stagnation on: government policies, traditionalism, lack of competition, etc. etc. The bottom line is that the current system doesn’t support the needs of the modern-day student. It doesn’t give students what they need today and it doesn’t adequately prepare them for a changing future.
Advocates for school reform have worked hard for decades and have made strides in important areas. Reform is generally focused on changing educational policy to improve the system. The problem is, real change can’t happen through mandated policy. Take the standards wars. I think we have had a real improvement over time in the standards and that current standards focus more on application than past content standards. But the standards are about what students should learn. For change to happen, teachers have to figure out how to improve instruction. Policy can change expectations, but real change involves change at the ground level. All of the reform in the world doesn’t matter if the people who are working on the changes aren’t given resources or support.
School reform has been in motion for years, but with little actual change in the system occurring because of its efforts. Policy change just doesn’t change schools or classrooms in the same way that compliance and mandates don’t really change the culture of any organization.
This is why reform can be dangerous. It can stifle creativity and innovation. Teachers, parents, and administrators can sit around talking about having their hands tied. If only district or state policy was different. These excuses blind people to the work they can be doing now.
I love school redesign. One of my most thrilling assignments as an educator was creating a new school model focused on entrepreneurship. School redesign can be an important way to change education.
But it isn’t really replicable or scalable. As we see these amazing creative schools, we might feel like that looks great, but it isn’t possible at our school. These schools are generally small, well funded, and have strategic advantages. I would get frustrated when people would visit our school and talk about the facilities or other advantages that couldn’t be replicated. It often made them miss the innovation that could be a part of their school.
School redesign often starts from ground zero, but most schools already are part of a district, have existing Staff, traditions, and other things in place that make redesign at a large, top-down scale difficult. That doesn’t mean innovation and change can’t happen, it just means it might not come all at once in the form of a full school model redesign.
I believe in an entrepreneurial form of educational change, one that starts at the bottom, with innovation happening in small spaces. This is really how innovation always happens. It is no accident that startups are the ones who have disrupted the corporate world. Innovation happens with people looking closely at small problems and think about new kinds of solutions, while large organizations think about systematizing processes that keep things moving.
The idea of disruption means that stakeholders are experimenting with new ways of teaching and learning. This can be within the system, but it focuses on new forms of doing things. As incremental changes mount, it leads to radical change and starts to get adopted beyond its initial small group focus.
Educational disruption is different than disruptive innovation. Like I said, most disruption in corporate sectors has come outside of large organizations. Because of this, many have thought the same thing should happen in education, that outsiders- edtech companies, consultants, billionaires, etc. should lead the charge. But in education, the small spaces where innovation can happen are not led by outsiders, though outsiders can help. Innovation happens in classrooms and schools. These are the islands. The disruptors have to be insiders.
So, here’s the thing: I totally believe that disrupting education is a community effort. All hands on deck. At the schools I have led, I have made consistent efforts to reach out to community leaders and involve them in rethinking schools, especially in the areas of student outcomes and career readiness. We had entrepreneurship mentors and technology consultants come through our doors and into our classrooms every day. American K-12 public education has done too little over the years in garnering participation and collaboration from outside industries. I am on board with all of that.
My concern with many of the reform and redesign efforts is that they tend to value talent outside of education more than inside education. Look- I knew when I was in college that I wanted to be an educator. I completed traditional educator training. I have degrees in Education. I am passionate about education. Ask my wife, outside of sports and religion, it is about the only thing I talk about. I taught and I became a school administrator in traditional public school districts. I apologize for none of these actions or decisions. I knew I wanted to work directly with kids, so I did. But so many of the solutions for these movements are about bringing people from outside of education to fix the problems. They ride in on a white shiny horse to save the day.
I understand that outsiders can often bring perspective that helps those inside of the box think outside of it. But many insiders can think outside of the box and they also understand the nuances of navigating the box to connect the outside and the inside. Education definitely needs outsiders- we need everyone. These are all of our kids. But there is often a neglect of talent inside the system. Many of us will give everything to making things better for our students. We sacrificed flashy careers, status, and higher paychecks to do this work. Don’t forget that many of us want to disrupt this system- and we are the boots on the ground that can make it happen. Let us be part of the process. For all of the educators we highlight that shouldn’t be in front of our kids, there are many more passionate and talented individuals who are great for kids. I am in awe of so many of my colleagues. What a waste to not leverage this existing talent pool in disrupting the outdated system we currently work in.
Who are the disruptors?
The title of the stakeholder matters less than what they do. The disruptors are the ones trying to change the status quo. Through a lesson. Through teacher empowerment. Through developing engaging curricula and content. Through designing school processes that promote student voice. It isn’t the title that matters. It’s the doing.
Educational disruption is already happening. You probably know several disruptors, though they wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves in this manner. They are the ones doing things differently, doing things better, making strides to improve not only student performance, but student experience, engagement, and motivation.
Scaling this disruption requires us to point it out and celebrate it. Let’s start there. Share the creativity you see and celebrate it.
One tool for teachers to collaboratively innovate can be found in my book Design Thinking PLCs: Revolutionize Teacher Collaboration.