Schools: Fine, Broken, Obsolete?

Just a couple of years ago I started asking my audiences if schools were fine, they just needed tweaking; broken, they needed fixing; or obsolete, they need replacing. As you might imagine this provoked some lively conversation. When I first started asking the question the most common answer was, schools are fine they just need tweaking. But in the last couple of years the answers and the conversation have changed.

One of the real eye openers was when I was at Lawrence high school almost 2 years ago. Lawrence high school is almost literally in the shadow of the ivory tower. University of Kansas is just a few blocks away. So when I asked this question I thought that I might get a very emotional response supporting the way schools are today.

To my surprise, by a show of hands, about a third of the teachers in the room said that schools are fine they just need tweaking. About a third said they were broken and needs fixing and about a third said they were obsolete and needed replacing. I think I can generalize the groups that fit in to each of those answers.

Those who say schools are fine tend to be older, and teachers in core curriculum areas. Those who say schools are obsolete tend to be younger and not teaching in the core curriculum. The interesting group, those who say schools were broken, tends to be more of a mix in terms of age. But this tends to be the group who are more veteran teachers who just understand that something is not right with our educational system.

It really is impossible to stereotype the three groups. I often talk to very new teachers who think the system is absolutely perfect. In conversation with them their dream has always been to stand at the front of the room and teach kids. The current system suits them just fine. And some veteran teachers, especially in the core curriculum, think the system is perfect also.

The thing that is most disturbing to me, in the conversation with teachers who think the system is fine, is that they blame the students and parents for all the problems in the educational system. what they are really saying is if kids would come to us just like they did 25 years ago, and would be passive and compliant, schools would be wonderful. I always try to point out to these teachers that parents aren’t keeping their good kids at home and just sending us the bad ones. Kids, and society, are just different today, and we must change to accommodate those changes.

Of course all of these opinions are unburdened by data. But I can tell you there has been a dramatic shift over the last several years when I asked for a show of hands each of these categories. Where we lack consensus is what’s wrong with the system. And I’m always amazed how politically incorrect it is to even propose a discussion about the educational system as a system.

So you ask, what is my opinion? Well if you read my blog I think you know what my opinion is. I think schools are obsolete. Let me qualify that. I think that the younger our students are the better job we do with them. And the older our kids get the worst job we do. I’m preparing another blog post on this topic so more on that later.

It is my opinion, and again in a future blog post I’m going to go into this in more depth, that our system at the high school level is hopelessly obsolete. In three major areas we need an overhaul. First of all how we teach our kids is all wrong. If we truly want her kids to learn we must more specifically define what it means to learn. I think that it means that they not only retain the information long enough to take a test but long enough to use it long-term and unique situations. I think the only way we can accomplish that is by moving to a system where the kids learn by doing.

Secondly, I think that what we teach, especially in our core curriculum, is completely out of date. See my blog post on the curse of the core curriculum for more information. Our core curriculum is 115 years old and out of touch with our children’s needs in the 21st century.

And thirdly, how we organize to teach. We’ve had many discussions over the years about how important it is to have an integrated curriculum. The seven period day, carnegie units, and departmentalization have stood in the way of an integrated curriculum for decades. It’s about time to change them.

There are many more things to be said on this topic that can’t be said in this space. So stay tuned and in future blog posts I’ll expand on the ideas started here. In the meantime, leave me a comment. I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

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