There’s a revealing little clip in ‘Waiting for Superman’—the feel-bad documentary that was designed to damn public education before revealing and promoting its amazing new successor, charter schools. WFS was loaded with such cartoon animations, weak analogies and essentially irrelevant video captures from TV shows and industrial films from the bad old days (meaning always) when public education utterly failed students. This particular clip shows groups of students on conveyer belts being transported to their destinies as either well-educated ‘leaders’ or, alas, farms and factories, based on the schools they attend.
The belabored point being: a better education (now available by lottery!) would save kids—just like Superman does— from what, generations ago, were considered the natural outcomes of their station in life. Education—not parent income—as magic carpet to a materially good life.
I am heartily sick of reading about the also-inherited, traditional ‘failings’ of public education. I don’t want to read another column about the Committee of Ten and how, 125 years ago, they got it all wrong and now we’re stuck with a useless curriculum and ineffective instruction techniques. I don’t want to hear about the factory model of schooling and how clueless, timid, non-disruptive folk are running public schools like egg crates, isolating teachers and students in age-related cohorts, unwilling to innovate.
Ten to one, the proposed solution involves a whole lot of expensive technology, to ‘individualize’ or ‘personalize’ education for each and every child. But this isn’t a blog about kids and endless screens and profit-making and using unfair metrics to compare students’ memorization skills.
It’s about the concept that much of what happens in school, right now, with students in batches and the same curriculum and instruction being delivered to all 4th graders, factory-like, rather than custom-tailored is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, those old habits work pretty well. A great teacher can build a fine learning community (a phrase I don’t always trust) and teach the kids’ socks off. It happens every day.
And furthermore, people already doing the actual work—teachers—are a lot more amenable to carefully thought-out change, when you don’t refer to their current practice as an ‘assembly line.’
Hanging out on Twitter, I caught this comment from Dr. Tony Wagner, well-known author, presenter and expert on disruption and 21st Century education.
Yes. Our assembly line education system was designed to both sort kids and also to batch process large numbers of immigrants & kids from farms to teach basic literacy & numeracy for the industrial era. Think of it as the “Model T” of education. Now we need “Tesla” schools.
Bearing in mind that he’s Dr. Tony Wagner (author of six books, as he points out during some contentious discussion following the next tweet), and I am just a small-potatoes teacher blogger, I nevertheless was irritated enough to respond:
If you really want to transform public education, please stop using dismissive language like ‘batch process’ and ‘sort kids’ and ‘factory model.’ Your zingy ‘Tesla’ comment overlooks the millions in R&D spent on cars, but not on kids.
Dr. Tony Wagner Replying to @nancyflanagan
.@nancyflanagan My comments describe a system’s intent & is historically accurate. It is not a criticism of teachers who do their best in spite of a bad system design. I was one. And I agree that we need more $ for education. Tesla is an analogy for system redesign & edu R&D.
‘Assembly line,’ etc. *may* be historically derived, but are still a rank insult to the creative, humane work of modern educators, who don’t see kids as widgets. If you want genuine change, begin w/ those already leading it, not slam-tweets damning the ‘system.’
Because that’s the thing. All folks who are serious about dramatically changing an outmoded educational system feel they have to start by verbally tearing down time-honored practices first. It’s not a quid pro quo—supporting and strengthening what’s good in our community schools does not necessitate name-calling or castigating everything that we’ve been doing for years. Things like circle time, class discussion, reading silently or out loud, Q &A, on-demand writing, group work and games have not outlived their purpose and efficacy. Working with others doesn’t get old.
There are plenty of successful nations who are ‘batch processing’ children in same-age cohorts and getting good outcomes. Here are 12 recommendations from Finland via the Hechinger Institute (sorry—I know—Finland again) on how to improve American public schools and not one of them suggests that we further ‘individualize’ education, using fine-tuned technologies. Instead, the focus is on community, trust and the well-being of children.
And please—can we stop saying that while a physician from 1918 would not recognize a surgical theatre from 2018, but classrooms today look pretty much the same? In addition to being false—there have been sweeping changes in purposes, practices and technologies at every level—it also overlooks the fact that most of our old-fashioned classrooms look that way because they’ve been seriously neglected for decades.
I do need to note that Dr. Wagner did not shy away from conversation on the Twitter exchange, even when challenged by more sharply articulate tweets than mine. But he has great influence in Ed World. He and other big-name commenters should not be recycling disrespectful ‘factory school’ language. It’s harmful, not helpful.