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Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as Transforming Education


Transforming Education

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In the new brain-powered economy, education will be the world's largest, most important industry.

We must totally redesign our institutions of learning for the information age. Simply correcting deficiencies of the current system won’t do. We would be left with a perfect system for the industrial age the wrong system. There is nothing so senseless as doing the wrong thing more efficiently. We need fundamental change for a new era, not mere improvement.

An economy based on brainpower requires an education system in which all succeed to mastery of much higher skills, including lifelong-learning skills. But the existing system was designed to tolerate, even produce, a high failure rate (despite a focus on mere basic skills).

Students compete for grades, taking examinations graded on a curve, and are ranked by A’s and F’s, which guarantees a significant failure rate. The prospect of average or failing performance, and pressure to perform, crushes out natural love of learning and creates mental dropouts by the 3rd or 4th grade. For most students, school becomes an onerous place.

The factory-like, assembly-line structure of schools, in which students are moved along without regard to individual differences, also contributes to a high failure rate, while failing to challenge students who can achieve much more than standard.

The theory of knowledge employed by most of today’s schools, in which knowledge is viewed as a thing to be transferred instead of created, is not valid. Students are treated as empty vessels into which knowledge is poured. This process is not conducive to genuine learning and contributes to poor learning habits that will someday have to be unlearned. It ignores modern cognitive science, which tells us that children learn best from immersion in purposeful work they choose to do because they can see relevance and meaning. The increasing pace of knowledge development and its rapid obsolescence means knowing lots of answers is not sufficient; no one can know enough. In a more complex world, there are more questions than answers. We need to learn how to learn, and to think creatively, and we need to learn how to access each other’s knowledge. That requires learning skills and social skills, and personal responsibility for one’s learning.

Educators, too, need to be learners. The accelerating pace of change requires that educators continually learn and adapt to constant change. And educational institutions themselves must be capable of continually learning, improving, and restructuring.

But the existing education system is not a learning system its single classroom structure doesn’t allow significant improvement in productivity. It is a teacher-centered model. The teacher is typically consigned to a classroom with 15 to 40 students the same age, isolated from other teachers and students who might participate in or influence new learning methods. This structure effectively locks in negative productivity, as costs rise each year and teaching and learning remain relatively constant.

Many believe that smaller class size is the answer. Of 28 strategies evaluated for improving productivity in elementary and secondary schools, however, reducing class size ranked 28th. While there is a correlation between smaller classes and improved student learning for grades K-3, for other grade levels there are no significant improvements until class size is reduced below 15. Since the average class size in the United States is 25, the cost of education would double before we would begin to get any improvement from reduced class size.

Because results have not improved, the public is disinclined to allocate more funds to schools. This makes teaching less attractive, and we have a vicious circle. Everyone in the system feels unappreciated and under siege.

The vicious circle must end, because we need to transform the system to meet the needs of a new age. The accelerating pace of change requires a fundamental shift from the teacher teaching model to a learner learning model. Instead of teachers covering a prescribed body of knowledge, self- directed learners learn-how-to-learn in a system that nurtures love of learning, the foundation for lifelong learning.

Rather than covering the curriculum, it is uncovered through a self- directed discovery process. Learners are responsible for their own learning, with a facilitator’s support and counsel.

Instead of rigid grade levels and fragmenting time into one-hour periods, the concept of classes should be abolished and students enrolled in multiage groups with teams of teachers who are not lecturers, but facilitators. Teams of up to five facilitators should participate in learning with groups of 150 students for at least six years, instead of losing touch with each class after one year.

A learner-learning model enables facilitators to spend substantially all their time interacting with students. It enables facilitators to get to know students very well, as opposed to dealing with over 1,000 different students over a six-year period. It also takes advantage of teachers’ complementary expertise and establishes a natural accountability for learner performance.

This multiage approach is analogous to the one-room schoolhouse of the American frontier, which typically accommodated a wide array of students of varying ages and talents, and where teachers relied on students to both teach themselves and help each other learn.

A large open space designed to provide the latest in computer technology would support self- directed learning and teamwork on real-world projects. The access to the Internet by multiage groupings also would allow effective interaction with various learning resources throughout the world, such as laboratories, museums, and businesses and community organizations. Schools of 150 students would be much smaller than today’s large factory models, but when linked through the Internet, they would have the scale of a global schoolhouse.

A grouping of 150 middle and high school students, ages 12 to 18, paired with elementary schools would enable older students to be apprenticed to the schools, serving as teacher aides and tutors to elementary school students. Students would also participate in various administrative functions and school improvement programs.

Students should have a meaningful voice in every decision that affects them, using a democratic process patterned after the New England town meeting. Nothing would do more to inject meaning into schoolwork, bring about a smoother transition from school to work, and assure that school policies and procedures remain relevant.

As students demonstrated success in their apprenticeships to the schools and in community programs, and the fragmentation of school time was ended, opportunities to form high-quality apprenticeships and internships with business and nonprofit organizations would arise. The knowledge students would bring back to the schoolhouse would constitute valuable input for other students and the faculty.

Schools would be transformed into community learning centers as they created programs to support lifelong learning for adults, including corporate training programs. Students would participate in such activities, enhancing their perceptions of the world, while performing meaningful work and forming relationships with mentors they select in a real work setting.

Self-directed learning involves self-assessment, which is a critical element of learning to learn and taking responsibility for one’s learning. Learners would document their work on a routine basis, benchmark their performance, and develop portfolios as a basis for reflection and obtaining periodic feedback from peers, parents, and facilitators. Periodically, learners would schedule demonstrations of their capabilities, replacing tests with celebrations of success. Most important, learners would receive feedback from users of their services as teacher aides and apprentices.

Each year, about 25 learners would leave the group, as 25 entered. An enduring entity, a living system, a learning community, would come into being. Learners would develop a commitment to the continuous improvement of this community learning center. Students would become stewards of the community learning center.

This design would cost less than today’s education system. For example, in the United States, savings of approximately 20 percent of the annual cost of elementary and secondary education would result from more productive student-teacher ratios and facilitator teamwork, using teenagers as tutors, reducing administration, and using technology and facilities more fully. In time, increased productivity would make four-year colleges obsolete, producing major savings in college tuition, allowing students to accumulate capital rather than incur heavy debts. Much larger societal benefits would result from improved workforce productivity and reduced costs of welfare and crime.

Students would enter the workforce at the age of 18 to 20, rather than at 23 to 25, and with much better skills. That would do a lot to improve competitiveness and provide funds for Social Security, Medicare, and other public needs.

Who could operate these new schools? Government-operated schools do not inspire confidence. Far from being innovative, they have been intransigent. The national goals for 2000 that grew out of the 1989 National Education Summit in Charlottesville, Va., are not even close to being achieved. Clearly, politicians and public school special interests are preserving the status quo.

President Clinton’s proposals, such as funding for hiring 100,000 new teachers (less than 4 percent of the teaching force) and building more factory-like schools, do not begin to address the challenge, and would actually make matters worse by reinforcing the present system and delaying fundamental change.

As a matter of America’s social cohesion and global competitiveness, we cannot allow this inaction to continue. Not only are students at risk, but the United States is lagging behind much of the world in developing its own for-profit education sector. In the new brain-powered economy, education will be the world’s largest, most important industry. The nations that become leaders in the information age will be those that go beyond mere improvement of the existing education system to nurture this new learning industry, including schools, equipment, self-directed-learning software, and assessment tools.

Instead of sinking public funds into additional large, factory-style schools, we need to encourage private industry to put small community learning centers in neighborhoods throughout America. Such centers would provide relevant learning environments for self- directed learners and genuine choices for parents.

It’s time to recognize that not only competitiveness, but also equal opportunity itself, requires a new learning system. Increased parental choice is not enough to foster competition within today’s bureaucratic public schools. To achieve both excellence and equity, we need a new, voucher- financed, learner-centered system, operated by for-profit education companies that have market incentives to innovate and to meet each student’s needs.

We are already seeing some states and cities moving in the direction of market-based reform. That trend should be encouraged at the federal level. For example, a federal tax credit for corporations that construct community learning centers (and operate within certain price guidelines) would help shift schools’ capital requirements to the private sector, while accelerating the transition to a new learning system.

We in the United States have a great tradition of public education, which worked well in its time. We also have a great tradition of freedom, both in the economic marketplace and in the marketplace of ideas. Now, our faith in freedom and market principles can be a source of rejuvenation and relevance, as we transform our education system into a true learning system one that continually restructures itself to assure its effectiveness and true equality of opportunity.

Morton Egol is the managing director of Arthur Andersen & Co.’s School of the Future program in New York City.

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 38,42

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