As The World Changes, How Should School Change?

Image attribution flickr user Spark Fun Electronics

As The World Changes, How Should School Change?

by Terry Heick

As YouTube replaces television and all media seeks to be social, there is a growing civic discontent over the economic chemistry of our nation.

As foreign policy is carried out in real-time over social media and entire news cycles last less time than it used to take to print a newspaper, there are new questions for education to answer.

As users can read exactly the news they want than what is actually news, the context for learning–and students–is being turned upside down.

In a digitally-connected and increasingly ‘global’ world, the very nature of democracy and laws and discourse are challenged. While America has long a blue-collar nation established through notions of rugged individualism and close-knit communities, issues of industrial gravitas were born during the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, and metamorphosized into wider-reaching corporate influence and greed which arrived in the public consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s, primarily through film (e.g., Wall Street featuring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglass).

In this system, the vast majority of the power—political, influence, and financial—is controlled by a select few, where a symbolic ‘1%’ (or maybe closer to 3%) have control and others scramble for what they can get. While straight political discussions are mercifully beyond our interest, the issue can’t be ignored entirely, primarily because the systems of education—i.e., formal learning institutions–have inherited a parallel infrastructure stricken with a parallel imbalance–one that promotes a narrow vision of academic success that works well for the ‘1%’ while clumsy and woefully inadequate for the rest.

Consumerism and Education

As consumers, Americans demand high levels of quality. Cell phone carriers strive for ‘zero dropped calls,’ automotive manufacturers offer not 36,000 mile warranties but those that last 100,000 miles, and online purchasing is increasingly social, allowing for unprecedented roasting and yelping of any app, service, or product that doesn’t cater to every conceivable consumer whim.

But strangely, we don’t demand the same level of excellence in our formal learning systems. Movies like Waiting for Superman paint the average American family—very much ‘consumers’ of our multi-billion dollar education system—as helpless and passive.


While not quite passive, families stir and rant and flail, all the while hoping for district-sponsored lotteries to decide the fate of their children. In a nation full of grit and can-do spirit, this is curious. Perhaps some of the reason is perception. In a society that has trouble evaluating the quality of a learning experience, it might make sense why more people aren’t upset. If students can read, are getting ‘good grades,’ seem happy enough, and get into college, then K-12 has done its job, yes?

Who can complain when there is only accountability for test results and not the quality of learning experiences or life outcomes–precisely because the layperson cannot begin to evaluate the quality of those learning experiences beyond those test-based measures? Amazon has 800 word reviews on exercise machines, but the best we can do to evaluate the quality of learning is to ‘hear’ school X is ‘good’ or know a teacher that’s ‘good’ at school Y, crude measures we would never accept in our food, electronics, or sports wear.

The Credibility of Academia

As public and civil discourse is often anything but civil or even true discourse, the needs to know and terms for communication have chnaged. Further, the ability for the average citizen to carefully ‘curate’ exactly what they want to read and see and view creates new opportunities for critical empathy, thinking, and reasoned research and dialogue. It’s just an entirely different world today than it was even just ten years ago and our most recent efforts at ed reform/ focused on standards and data have done little to prepare students for any of it. The world they see on their screens and see in the classroom couldn’t be more different.

At the district and school levels, schools utilize various incarnations of ‘professional learning communities’ and ‘data teams’ to promote collaboration for teachers in pursuit of the ultimate goal: 100% ‘proficiency’ of each of these highly academic standards, as measured on a state-administered test dominated by multiple choice and short-response questions. An example of these standards includes the following English-Language Arts High School standard for literature:

“Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.”

While it is difficult to argue the importance of close reading of a variety of digital and non-digital text, there is tremendous challenge in establishing whether or not a student ‘understands’ how to do this—if they have ‘mastered’ this standard.

To measure mastery, teachers give assessments—informal and formal, quizzes and tests—to provide a starting point. Then, after ‘research-based’ instructional strategies are implemented, standard-mastery is measured again, and data is compiled, analyzed in said ‘data teams,’ and instruction revised again accordingly. On paper, this all makes sense. If a track-and-field athlete can be considered as an analogy, you see how far the athlete can jump, train him to jump further, then measure how much further he’s gone. The challenge here is that jumping distance is black and white, while notions of ‘understanding’ are not.

And the highly academic nature of reading and writing standards—while full of ‘rigor’–only serve to further detach the learning from the reality of the learner. If the ultimate measure of understanding is the ability of a learner to transfer understanding from a highly scaffolded situation to one without scaffolding—and hopefully from the classroom to the ‘real world’—highly artificial and academic standards, instruction, and assessment ‘data’ only serve to further obscure the learning process from those who matter most: the learners and their families.

In creating this highly academic world, we’ve moved the content, the instruction, and the notions of success beyond the grasp of learners, into institutionally-centered constructs that ultimately erode learner and social capacity.

Paraphrasing Ken Robinson, schools seem setup to make ‘little college professors,’ instead of vibrant, creative, self-aware members of a healthy and interdependent community. The big idea behind PLC-driven reform of standards and outcomes-base instruction is to make more learners able to achieve ‘success’ within this dated model of academic performance. But what if we revised how we measured proficiency?

Or, if we insist on constant measurement and data, widened the scope of what we were measuring and the data we’re documenting?

Or brought in communities to make decisions on curriculum, assessment, and instruction—and not via a school-sponsored PTA meeting, but on equal ground, where the school’s role in the community—and the community’s role in the school—have been carefully reconsidered. (Families won’t engage? Don’t know how? Well, it could be that parents and families don’t know how to help in schools and then we know where to start.)

Or, in perhaps the ultimate current model for a vision of learning, personalized learning for each student for their unique knowledge demands. Sound daunting? Of course it is; have you considered the alternative? 


With modern digital and social media, and potentially innovative learning cycles available through project and problem-based learning, there are tools available to discontinue hurtful traditions that are primarily academic. The key will be to awaken that 99%–the families and communities–to the very serious issues at hand, and help increase our collective cultural capacity to spot, produce, and revise authentic learning forms for learners who have the universe at their fingertips.

It seems to me, then, that we have three choices:

1. Leave things alone. Academics trump everything.

2. Integrate applied academics in pursuit of critical literacy–personal and social change.

3. Shift away from academics entirely.

Towards what? Well, that’s the exciting part. Once you’re willing to turn away from academia, a thread comes loose in the tapestry of scholastics as we know it, and we’ll be forced to sew something altogether new and different. Created in the 21st-century, this would necessarily be created with 21st-century thinking in modern contexts.

This will require a humbling modesty on the part of institutions to once and for all admit that they cannot possibly educate children alone–and to stop pointing at sporadic success as proof that ‘school works.’ While a decent number of students can be caused to be ‘proficient,’ this evaluation–and thus the product–is almost entirely academic. And thus imbalanced in a decidedly non-academic world.

Rather than improve ‘school,’ maybe we should think of what students need to know to grow healthy communities, and work backwards from there. To do that, we have to be willing to leave ‘school,’ as we know it, behind.