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Will Old School Practices Remain as Education Redefines Itself?

As the worlds of higher education and K-12 redefine their missions and reshape their offerings, we continue to see resistance to models of learning that seek to engage students in more practically-oriented, design-driven programs. This week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, three articles detailed shifting focus in college curricula in which either the authors or the commenters questioned models in which curriculum veered away from a traditional liberal arts foundation: “The ‘Maker Movement’ Goes to College,” “The Slow Death of the University,” and “Now Everyone’s an Entrepreneur.”  The articles illustrate how, even as change is seen on campuses running innovation labs and encouraging more hands-on, experimental and experiential learning, concern is still being voiced over a lack of adherence to more classical models of learning.

In K-12, we see great strides being made in the public and private sector by programs such as IntrinsicAltSchool, and the Institute of Play, just to name a few programs. At the same time, we are confronting a huge crisis in confidence in our public educational system spurred in large part by the Common Core and PAARC testing.

What History Reveals

It’s a curious exercise to look back from where we are today to the history of education in the United States, and to try to predict where we might be in the next 20 years or so. Beginning with what some people call “permissive” roots, when parents had control over their children’s education to the compulsory era, when the government stepped in and compelled children to attend school, we can see the role that standardization has played in learning over time.

Given the great state of flux at all levels of the educational continuum, from K-12 on through higher ed and corporate learning, one wonders how much of the system as we now know it will remain. Will any of these concepts be in place 20 years from now?

Segregation by Age

Introduced by Horace Mann in Massachusetts in 1848, “age grading” became the norm across the country. Given what we know about how people learn, does strict age grading still make sense? In the big shift toward blended learning design, and with the part that neuroscience now plays in designing personalized learning programs, does age matter as much?

Standardized Curriculum

Also introduced by Mann was the concept of standardized curriculum was implemented in the 1837 with the goal in mind of offering the same high quality learning material to all children no matter where they went to school. The very fact that we have a Common Core Curriculum to fight over nowadays begs the question as to how successful we have been in researching, developing and implementing standards over the past nearly 200 years. One also wonders where we would be if even half the brain power, money and technology now devoted to supporting the new standards and associated testing had been focused on further understanding of how people learn and how to continue to engage them in the learning instead.

Compulsory Attendance

The shift from parental authority over their children’s learning to more governmental control occurred over time but most strikingly between 1852 and 1918 when the movement towards compulsory attendance began and was enacted into law. People will argue that compulsory attendance was an effort to either save or manage the nation’s diverse citizenry, particularly the children of immigrants who would otherwise be working under conditions that were favorable to no one, whether child or adult. So, with child labor laws, compulsory education laws ensured that children of certain ages would be in attendance at schools for a certain number of hours per day and days per year.

Given today’s dropout rates (The Institute of Play lists this as 3M per year, with Pew Institute figures from 2013 at 2.2M), one has to question the effectiveness of compulsory attendance. More importantly, given alternative means of learning, a single model of compulsory schooling doesn’t seem to hold up.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth  

Free public education is a gift; yet, it’s one that we must continue to question as options for learning evolve and as learners, teachers, and families continue to express dissatisfaction. Universities are already evolving their models to include standalone online programs as well as incorporating online elements into on-campus programs to provide more flexibility for their students. Those are changes that recognize the value of new and adjusted models of learning.

For K-12, there are so many options to extend learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom, particularly for high school students. This includes great programs in design thinking like Tools at School and Breaker; as well as elearning days, where kids learn from home, online with peers and teachers; and new school concepts and curriculum models like those of the AltSchool and Institute of Play.

In examining the current state of public education in light of its historical origins, I’m reminded of some of the commentary provided by those involved in the Independent Project. When a group of students at Monument Mountain High School became dissatisfied with their learning, they started a school within a school where they guided their own learning to great results. Speaking about public education, Peter Dillon, Superintendent of Berkshire Hills Regional School District, noted “It’s the foundation of a strong democracy . . . a chance for people from all different backgrounds to come together and learn together and engage in meaningful ideas and grow from that. When schools and districts get that right, it’s tremendously powerful. When they get it wrong, it’s really enfeebling and horrible.”

We need to look at this great gift of ours and make sure that it’s something to actually be appreciated by those on the receiving end.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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