Can an old dog really learn new tricks?

  Perusing this week’s Diigo Course 1 links, I stumbled across a blog post by an Icelandic teacher/writer, Ingvi Hrannar Ómarsson. In the post, he discusses 14 things that are obsolete in 21st century schools. He concludes with Henry Ford’s thoughts on ingenuity:

If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Included in his list of the obsolete, along with archaic technology policies and unhealthy cafeteria food, is the notion that “all students get the same.”  Ómarsso notes that “school systems were originally set up to meet the needs of industrialism. Back then we needed people to work in factories, conformity was good and nobody was meant to excel or be different in that environment. That doesn’t fit our needs today, let alone the future but many schools are still set up like the factories they were meant to serve a 100 years ago.” In my own personal musings about the efficacy and practicality of the traditional classroom, I always come back to that image of the old-fashioned one-room school house…you know, the one that looks eerily similar to the classrooms of today.

This struck a chord with me, probably because I had also recently watched “If students designed their own schools”, a fascinating short documentary, where one intrepid high school in Massachusetts is rewriting the rules of the traditional high school experience. The “Independent Project”, as Monument Mountain Regional High calls it, puts the onus of the learning on the students, allowing them to be, as NY Times writer Susan Engel calls them, “the authors of their own education.” As one senior in the video notes, “If the question is yours, the answer is going to feel great when you obtain it.” 

Monument Mountain Regional High isn’t the only school capitalizing on this new wave of autonomous learning. In his blog, Will Richardson discusses a similar idea, and cites Northstar and The Princeton Learning Cooperative as two models that are willing to “shed the traditional narrative of how kids become successful in the world.” Indeed, Richardson goes so far as to perhaps support Philip Schlecty’s point that if school’s can’t ‘get it together’, then: 

customized, commercially provided education is likely to replace both public and private schools…Those left behind will be the children of the poor, who will be trained in state- run bureaucracies rather than educated in outstanding schools, making even more real the social class divisions that are tearing at America’s social fabric.

Schlecty’s vision of a post-industrialized educational system is scary – Hunger Games‘ish post-apocalyptically so. Perhaps a bit much of the doomsday, but certainly worth considering.

The bottom line – it is glaringly obvious that significant reform is needed in the organization and structuring of our schools. It seems crazy that we expect our students to excel in an educational system that is more than 100 years old. Sure, it works for some, maybe even for many. But is that enough? Shouldn’t we keep striving for more? For something…revolutionary?

The horse and buggy: 2.0

2 Replies to “Can an old dog really learn new tricks?”

  1. Yes, everyone sitting in a desk and the teacher ‘revealing’ information is the epitome of ‘old school’. We’ve read the research, but how to lead the revolution becomes the challenge. How do you see leading the charge in your classroom?

  2. Hi Miriam,

    I totally agree that those images of one-room school houses look eerily the same as the classrooms of today. That is why I feel it is so important that teachers are required to take relevant courses and seminars in how to improve their teaching for tomorrow, such as empowering students with technology. It is baffling that some States let teachers simply give a small fee each year to renew their contract without showing growth and improvement. Aren’t the students the ones suffering if teachers don’t change the way they teach? Isn’t this why the way students learn has not really change over the past hundred years?

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