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Why the Factory Model of Schools Persists, and How We Can Change It

By William J. Tolley — November 03, 2015 5 min read

Over a coffee at the recent Learning2Asia conference, gamifying guru Robert Appino and I shared stories of our careers as “early adopters” of innovative learning strategies and techniques. He harkened back to a time, not as long ago as you would think, when he was considered the young “lone nut” at his first school because he would make consistent use of the overhead projector. “What’d we call it? Do you remember?” “The OHP,” I responded. “Yeah, yeah … remember that?” he smiled. So I asked him, in a world of iPads and Smartboards, in a world of personal learning networks and innovative learning conferences—was he satisfied with the rate of progress? Had we transformed learning? “Oh God. We’re not there yet!” he scoffed.

And I had to agree.

Many of us will trace the recent cry for modern learning reform back to Sir Ken Robinson’s now ubiquitous, Changing Educational Paradigms talk. His first TED talk on creativity in schools is the most-viewed TED talk in the world. It was given in 2006, just under ten years ago. So, a decade later, what is the state of change in learning and teaching? What do some of the leading innovators in education think? What’s the state of the revolution just under a decade “post-Robinson?” Why are the lone nuts like Appino discontent?

These questions came back to me recently at the Learning2Asia conference where I met Rob. Much like the annual ISTE conference and the biannual Innovate held at the Graded School in São Paulo, this was a meeting of brilliant and innovative kindred spirits. At a Learning2 conference, everyone is a modern-learning enthusiast and many, if not most, are experts in their fields. Let me assure you, these people know all about Sir Ken: At such an event you would be more likely to come across someone who can recite his talks word for word than someone who had never seen them. Most of these enthusiasts—heads of school, administrators and teachers—are also lucky enough to work with carefully nurtured students at financially stable international schools that encourage and underwrite employee participation in such events; schools that provide teachers and students with the technological infrastructure to support innovative learning.

What’s Taking So Long?

Then why was the theme of the conference “Disrupt”? Why was one of the more popular extended sessions titled, “Hack Your School”? Why were the tone and the theme of most of the mini-keynotes (“L2Talks”) tinged with exasperation at the pace of change in learning? Organizer Jeff Utecht’s closing talk was particularly effective at hitting this note by reminding us that we were a few weeks away from Marty McFly’s arrival, and young Marty wouldn’t need to adapt much at all when stepping back into his high school.

After his sobering, but hopeful, L2 talk “Breaking Traditional Moulds,” I walked right up to Sam Sherratt (the leader of the “Disrupt Strand”) to ask him for use of a particularly disconcerting slide from his presentation. The sketch of creepy-looking students being pumped off an assembly line branded International School of Everywhere was eerily evocative of Sir Ken’s talk, which was Sam’s intention. It was no wonder then, when I pointed this out, that we both smiled at each other and said, “Yeah, what the hell is taking so long?” That our question was more than rhetorical becomes clear when you realize that my school had sponsored a team to attend Sam’s multi-day session aimed at “the ‘early adopters,’ the ‘lone nut,’ or the innovators at their school.” The institution is subsidizing lone nuts: They want the inmates running the asylum. The push for change isn’t being met with pushback from above; the revolution will not be televised, it’s being subsidized.

While my colleagues were getting disruptive, I attended John Burn’s “Hack Your School” workshop. As advertised, Burns’ session was for “any educator interested in challenging the status quo in their individual classroom, division, or school community.” The session literally introduced a step-by-step process to do exactly what it promised, an experiment successfully underway at Shekou International School, which has become a model for other schools—because it has been hacked. From within. With permission. John was not laying his school under siege, he was promoting an institution-sanctioned disruption process for other schools to implement.

The experience of educators at Learning2 is critical for gauging our “post-Robinson” progress because it dispels the myth that if you provide adequate funding and remove governmental oversight and bureaucracy, you’ll hit the ramp to the transformation freeway. Few of the schools represented at Learning2 face the obstacles normally associated with public education, and yet still fewer of them were represented by educators—at any level—satisfied by the pace of change. The common theme of these conversations, presentations, and positions demonstrated that once you have eliminated the social and institutional obstacles to shifting educational paradigms, rapid transformation is hardly guaranteed.

Endgame Needed

“The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. And aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak, when you’re present in the current moment, when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing, when you’re fully alive.” —Sir Ken Robinson, Changing Educational Paradigms.

The disconnect between Sir Ken’s vision and our reality is not that it is out of touch with educators and education leaders, but that it does not accommodate the educational endgame. Imagine if the mission given to educators was to “make your students feel fully alive.” Then the change hoped for by the attendees at innovative learning conferences might have a chance. But the reality is that no matter how well we learn how to hack and disrupt our schools, our best intentions for changing the factory model will fail as long as our efforts culminate in the calibration of our students to factory standards for the college admissions process or the workplace.

More than our schools, our social expectations need disrupting. Our definitions of success and happiness need a paradigm shift. To this end, the lone nuts who attend innovative learning conferences need to carry the conversation forward: Educators and education leaders guiding their learning constituencies toward a tipping point in public opinion. This is the natural way of bringing to reality the ideals of Sir Ken as articulated by Sam Sherratt—a reality wherein “schools … reclaim their power, the power to shape lives, the power to create cultures and to define societies, instead of the other way ‘round.”

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