Why transformation is the only path for K-12 education

08/09/2011  |  David Houle and Jeff Cobb
Future of Education

The following is a condensed version of Chapter Five of the new book “Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education” written by David Houle and Jeff Cobb. Published in April by Corwin Press this book is already causing much discussion among teachers, principals and school superintendents across America who are searching for a 21st century vision of K-12. The companion web site to the book is www.shiftedtransformation.com.

Education does not simply need to be changed; it needs to be transformed. While new policies, curriculum updates, more training and increases in salaries for teachers, and better approaches to testing may all have a significant impact, they seem unlikely to produce the more fundamental shift that is needed. There are two key reasons why we must prepare not for incremental adjustments or restructuring, but for a deep-seated change in the form, appearance, and nature of our educational system.

The first reason is that “pouring new wine into old bottles” will only have so much impact. The teaching of new skills sets geared for the 21st twenty-first century is essential — and should be embraced immediately — but if our institutions themselves are flawed, if we are as badly out of sync as we seem to be, how far can we really get by working within old paradigms? We have tried for decades now to introduce reforms into schools that recapture the glory days of education in the early industrial era, but these efforts have failed again and again to hit the mark. Indeed, they have often led to new problems and the need for yet more reform. We need new paradigms and an entirely different way of looking at the role education plays in our society.

The second reason we must prepare for transformation is that it is most likely unavoidable. The forces of change and the sheer speed and scale at which they are impacting us make it highly likely, if not inevitable, that our lives will change dramatically in the coming decades. These forces are coming at us like a truck barreling down the highway and now that they are in motion, there is little chance that we can stop them. The question is not whether they will have a transformative impact, but whether we can take the wheel and direct them towards the best possible future.

We can’t know what our destination will look like any more than the Wright brothers could have foreseen all of the details of modern space travel, but we can begin to articulate a vision for how our educational system must change in its form, appearance, and nature.

A change in form

The form of school right now is a box: boxes on a calendar, box buildings, box classrooms. Boxes suggest borders, boundaries, and neatly defined spaces and ideas, but in a world where borders and boundaries are increasingly blurred, where ideas flow and change with a speed unmatched in history, boxes are not the form upon which our schools should be based, physically, psychologically, or intellectually.

Indeed, the extent to which schools should have a standardized form at all is perhaps one of the biggest questions with which we need to wrestle as we consider the future of our educational system. The question is partly about buildings and physical architecture, but it is more about non-buildings and non-physical architecture. As we have the increasing freedom to access knowledge and educational resources through the Web, mobile phones, and other sophisticated communication devices, we have to question what is gained — and what is lost — by confining our children within four walls for pre-established periods of time to be fed content that fits within a pre-defined set of measurements.

The common perspective on computing these days is that it is moving into “the cloud” — a place where data and applications are no longer confined to a specific server box but are distributed across a far-flung network infrastructure. Whether “the cloud” is the right metaphor for education remains to be seen, but it is clear that we need to do much more than simply rearrange the chairs in our classrooms or knock down a few walls. We need to break out of the box entirely.

A change in appearance

How a school looks may seem like a trivial detail in the grander vision of education, but we all know intuitively that our surroundings—how they look, how they feel, the moods and attitudes they support — have a great impact on our day-to-day lives. And a growing body of research suggests that over the long term, they can have a tremendous impact. Why would we expect that shipping our children off to drab, confined, linoleum-paved containment areas each day would result in the types of motivated, creative individuals we need to carry our society forward in this new century?

A transformed school will not look like that brick building set apart from the society it is intended to serve. A transformed school will be an integrated part of the community and its students will be active participants in and contributors to the community. In short, a transformed school will look more like life.

A change in nature

School right now is as much — or possibly more — about what to do with our children for most of the 16 to 18 years that they cannot well survive on their own as it is about truly preparing them for and helping them lead productive and fulfilling lives.

So much of the language of school has more to do with conformance, standardization, and remediation than creativity, opportunity, or self-actualization. The focus of schools needs to shift radically to the latter—but saying this just barely scratches the surface of what needs to happen. The nature of schools is deeply connected with the nature of all of our other major institutions, particularly work and government. A true transformation in the nature of schools can be achieved only if there is transformation in these other areas.

At work, we already see signs of such a transformation. We have long since left the world of the secure, lifelong, 9-to-5 five job. Most of us now work in the state of flux and insecurity that characterizes our new economy. This is the negative side of the equation, but the positive side is the high degree of flexibility and choice this new world of work can offer to those who embrace it.

While unions and other organizations continue to fight for the rights workers enjoyed under the old economy, most of us have yet to claim our rights to the positive side of the new economy. Many of us do not need to be tied to place anymore to do our work; most of us do not need to be tied to the same rigid schedules that have defined previous work. Everything about our current K–12 education system aligns to the fact that the vast majority of parents have to be in a particular place for a particular period of time each day in order to earn an income. And this constraint has become even more rigid as more and more households require two incomes to make ends meet. Both workers and businesses need to wake up to the new realities. As the possibilities for freeing work from time and place develop, however, so do the possibilities for school.

But this type of shift will not occur until governments wake up and begin to fully support it. A recent Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report argues that governments are too focused on supporting labor from an industry perspective. They are geared towards supporting institutions like, for example, the auto or financial services industries, when—the reports authors suggest—they should be focused on helping individuals pursue occupations. We would take this a step further, and say that government policies should be geared towards helping individuals develop capabilities that will be broadly applicable throughout their lives, no matter what their occupation or industry. True support from this perspective would require not simply a change in educational policies, but much deeper rethinking of how we design our cities, how broadband and wireless access should be managed, and what the social safety net really needs to be like for a society that is increasingly made up of de facto “free agents.”

A transformed educational system will be a deeply integrated part of our communities and it will be a place where a lifelong process of capability development begins.

Signals from the future

While changes such as running more wires into schools and changing the elements of the curriculum may have a positive impact on our schools, they smack of playing “catch-up,” of simply trying to keep ourselves in the current global game. But if we expect to be prepared for a future we can hardly foresee, we cannot simply play catch-up. We must think differently. We must leap forward.

A transformation of the magnitude suggested here will not come easily or without pain, but it will likely come faster than any of us imagine. In some cases, it will be necessary for us to make sweeping changes across the policies and practices that govern our current educational system. It will also be necessary to make a significant financial investment if we really hope to achieve our educational goals.

David Houle, a globally renowned futurist is the author of two books, “The Shift Age” and“Shift Ed: A Call to Action for Transforming K-12 Education,” co-authored with Jeff Cobb, which was published by Corwin Press. His web site is www.davidhoule.com.

Jeff Cobb is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur focused on the social and economic impact of new technologies. Through his company, Tagoras (www.tagoras.com), he is one of the leading voices in the field of continuing education and lifelong learning.
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