A couple years ago, I stumbled upon a profound retelling of the American education system, called “Changing Education Paradigms”. Like all things so pristinely intellectual, it came with a British accent and was told by a knight, Ken Robinson. In his broad British sweep over the history of education in America, he landed on an important theme: today’s schools hinder creativity and passion. And they are hopelessly outdated. They were built to staff factories, and now they must be reimagined to create individual growth.
For me, the thought of our public school system still conjures the image of the school I worked at in North Philadelphia after college. Like many schools in that part of the city, it was designed by the same architect who designed many of that city’s factories. Of course, there are two tragedies there – one, that the building was designed as it was, and two, that it is still used as it is. No changes, no modifications. The space always felt stale and uninspiring, like a textile mill with desks and the occasional mosaic to trick kids into thinking the space wasn’t so ugly.
Robinson makes some great connections between today’s schools and yesterday’s factories. Like the factories they were modeled after, many schools today would prefer to atomize students and prescribe them to a series of discrete and testable paths, where they compete for the glory of “proficient”, or for those geniuses among them, “advanced.” In this model, talent and passion seem subsumed, carried downward by an ever-moving sea. But, where does all this proficiency go? What profound tributaries does it empty into that we should all be so eager to usher it forward rather than dam it up?
Today I watched another talk Ken Robinson had given at TED a couple years ago and was inspired by a potential path forward for our schools. In this talk, Robinson calls for a “learning revolution” to change the way we think about education.
For Robinson, one of the most important things we can do is change the metaphor. No longer should we think of learning as a mechanical, scalable process. Instead, in order to move forward, we should reach even further behind and reclaim some of the sentiment that guided earlier societies. We should move the metaphor from industrial to agricultural, because, in Robinson’s words:
You cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do is, like the farmer, change the conditions under which the talents will flourish. We can’t clone systems, but we must customize them. We must create movement in which people develop their own solutions but with external support and a personalized curriculum.
Surely, the educators among us recognize that learning is an organic process, and yet sometimes it feels as if the education system exists to prune branches rather than grow trees. Now it’s time to change the way we speak and think about education. It’s time to root out the elements of education that no longer make sense, and replace them with something that has always created abundance: our diversity of ideas. No one purpose should hold monopoly over education. Like the farmers we are, we must start sowing an ecosystem, so we can grow the potential of each student.
Zach Wagner, Learning Designer, has a background in educational technology and research from Harvard. He is also smart-as-a-whip, great to work with, and very much in demand these by his peers here at Six Red Marbles.
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