Tuesday, January 4, 2011

We can fix public education

What is the "Industrial Model of Education?"
There are two reasons why the term Industrial Model of Education aptly describes what goes on in most American public schools. First, it implies that schools are factories, providing students with approved knowledge, during programmed time-periods, tested in standard ways. This regurgitation of knowledge will receive a grade, which will measure, individually and collectively, the factory's performance.

The second reason the expression works is that this model of education that so dominates our schools was created during a time when our society needed a broad base of people to do manual, blue-collar work, a smaller group for administrative work, and a tiny group that will run the world for us: the doctors, the lawyers, the business executives. In this model, those who could learn and succeed at verbal/logical/ mathematical areas rose to the top and went to college and beyond. Those who did not succeed in these areas — those whose strengths lay in other areas of human endeavor — learned what they could and got those blue-collar jobs, which were both plentiful and reasonably well-paid.

Our culture has idealized this system, especially for that small group at the top. We have come to think of their high-quality schooling as the "right" model for education. But, did it ever work for the majority of students? No. But, they graduated, found jobs, raised families. There was no strong social pressure to change the model, so it continued, and is now as firmly in place as if it was cast in stone.

If that idealized system ever did work, it does no longer. The world looks different. The future is uncertain. The jobs have disappeared. Survival after graduation (or after dropping out) is a huge question mark in the minds of today's students. They can no longer survive with an inadequate education.

Why does the industrial model produce so many kids who can barely read or do simple math, are unaware of history or geography and scientifically illiterate?

From deficits to strengths
I believe that in the industrial model, children are seen as little walking deficits. Needing what the schools have, they open their little baby bird mouths and teachers push knowledge in.

Except that unlike the little birds, children soon stop clamoring for it. They often become jaded about education. Their failure to succeed either becomes internalized in self-blame, or directed outward in hostility — emotions that are quietly felt as much as they are noisily expressed.

What would happen if we regarded children as little walking strengths, and our job as adults, teachers, friends of children, was to focus on the child and find out what his or her strengths are? What would public education look like, if that was where it began?

As long as we ignore the strengths, the desires, the wishes and the needs of children; as long as we regard children as incomplete people who can only be made complete by the pouring in of information, children will — to greater or lesser degree — give up on school. Why not? School gave up on them.

To all of us who grew up in the world of school defined by the industrial model, it might seem impossible that we could ever so radically change the focus of schools. In a class of 25 children, who has the time? How could we hire that many people? How could we satisfy the testing and other requirements that the school district has to fulfill? It sounds like pandemonium.

But the fact is that it can be done — and need not be nearly as expensive or difficult as most people think. The hard part is to shift the driving force of education from the adults to the children. The methods exist. The ways and means are being improved on, and tailored to individual schools, as we speak. All we have to do is make that change in our schools.

Motivation is critical.
Adults believe they know what children need to do, to learn, and to understand. Kids will readily admit that their teachers are more mature, and know more things. But do they believe those things are worth learning?

Students simply don't trust that they need the "stuff" that we tell them they should know (and often they are right — how often to we really question the curriculum?). This is where the institutional lack of regard for children's wishes and needs acts as a crowbar stuck in the gears. Find what children want to learn and they are all over it. They'll be guided by us when going in the direction they want to go; on the way, they'll be much more willing to take on what we need them to learn, and they will learn it well. To get respect, you have to give respect.

That means giving over of control of education from adults to children themselves. It requires us to take a leap of faith. If we set up a system of educational choices, respect the needs of kids to learn, to play, to experience, to work on what is most meaningful to them, they will ultimately learn the lessons we adults believe are important. At first glance this seems to be a frightfully big leap of faith, but it really isn't; it is the distance between the welding rod and the metal: set it up right and the arc will strike.

All children have an equal ability to grow intelligence.

With very few exceptions, we are all born with the same equipment for growing intelligence: a working brain. We hear this statement made a lot. Do we really believe it? If so, then our education system has to be grounded in the fact that all children are gifted, all have strengths, passions and deep abiding interests.

If we begin with the basic assumption that all children are gifted, then the mission of school is to find those gifts in all children, and do what needs to be done to develop it.

Celebrate the learning process.

Research tells us that the attainment of understanding and mastery comes in part from the struggle against the edges of our ability. This is when the brain works hardest to rewire the circuits that govern new skills and new understandings; it is why students sometimes learn faster in a class full of more advanced students. A spark of motivation, expert teaching and deliberate practice are the necessary components in the building of neural circuitry.

That means that struggle — and the attendant frustration — is a vital part of learning. Struggle is the essential component of smart; without it, smart cannot grow. However, frustration is very hard to manage in traditional classrooms, so the industrial model avoids it. A struggling student might be referred for tutoring, given more homework, become a discipline problem, or receive a failing grade -- when all that child was doing was learning. Children often simply do not believe that they are all equal in their ability to grow skills and talent! How many students feel frustration and conclude that they are not smart enough for the task at hand?

Struggle should not be equated with failure. Every person of awe-inspiring talent tells the same story of the thousands of hours spent working on their skills, often in the deliberate practice that builds both frustration and mastery. Children can come to understand what the brain does, how it works, and how the frustration can be managed. They can remind themselves of what they are able to do now that they weren't before, and can work to impress even themselves with their own abilities.

We need change our conception of school from a place where we demand right answers to a place where we learn to ask questions and take risks as we move toward discovery. This requires a shift in focus from the product of student work to the process undergone to produce it.

How do we do it?
In Sao Paulo, Brazil there is a small school where they engage in a model of teaching and learning called Lifelike Pedagogy. The basis for Lifelike Pedagogy is a respect for the wishes and needs of children that equals the respect that we, as adults, insist upon. The teachers there ask that we...

think as a child. What are your interests? The child needs to laugh, to dream, to fool around, to test the adults, to construct, to deconstruct, to investigate… The child needs all this and also the respect from parents and teachers for his feelings and actions.

Through a democratic process, children in this school pick a topic, a theme to be explored. They figure out how to go about exploring it. They investigate, and pull together ideas for an activity that will build their understanding of the topic. Then they go about doing what needs to be done to accomplish the activity. If funds need to be raised for a field trip or a play, for example, they figure out a way to raise the funds. All the obstacles that exist in the world when trying to accomplish something become evident to the students, who do what they can to solve them
In order to make the field trip the best possible experience, they learn all they can about it before they embark -- read, research, work on skills, or share information. The teachers act as guides and facilitators, but the work itself is entirely done by children. The big day arrives and the excitement of the children to see the object of their hard work and study knows no bounds!

This is not a new method of teaching, and it isn’t unique. What’s striking about this model is the dedication with which it holds children’s needs and passions at its center. It could never be lost in the shuffle of day-to-day school administration because it is the foundation of the school’s work.

We know of this method by various names: project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, the Project Approach, the Reggio Emilia approach. Here in Maine, the King Middle School in Portland is an Expeditionary Learning school, another variation of project-based learning. The method centers on a real-life concept, situation, circumstance and the development of an essential question that the students will seek to answer over the course of the project. The work often results in a culminating event that involves the public. In all these methods, student choice of the topic of study and even their role in participating, is central.

In pursuing an investigation and encountering real-life problems to solve along the way, children are engaged in what they want most: study that has meaning to their lives. The breadth and depth of areas of information and problem-solving covered in the model depend on each project. Those of us raised in the industrial model might worry that critical areas of information are not “covered” in this model, but remember, real-life circumstances require that we read, write, do math, interpret, analyze, research, and propose solutions. The difference is that these areas of endeavor are connected to something that has meaning to the students.

When doing projects, children encounter areas where their skills are inadequate to grasp concepts or perform certain tasks. In the industrial model, this is when they would flunk, act out, or go to summer school. But now, their own interest in what they're trying to do makes skill-building worthwhile for them. In one new model, called Rocketship Education, there are blocks of time dedicated to Science/Math and Language Arts/Social Studies, where students are engaged in ongoing projects. Then there is a period of every day, 100 minutes long, called Learning Lab. This is where each child works on those skills needed in order to participate in projects. Online learning, independent reading, math skills, writing, and so on, are practiced in Learning Lab, with each child working on those activities he or she needs most.

The standards-based system.
Project-based learning is not the only key to improving schools. For it to work, we need to incorporate a flexibility in the classroom that cannot be done in a system that moves batches of 20 kids through the same information at the same time.

Curriculum standards are a system of concepts, facts or skills, organized so that the achievement of one standard leads to the next, more advanced standard. When a class works on a project together, they each take on the most challenging task for them (hence, a class full of kids working to the edges of their abilities.)

Occasionally a group at the same level might work together regardless of age; when doing a different task, the group might look entirely different. Great opportunities for students open up when introducing this level of flexibility. Kids can have the chance to work with more advanced kids; he or she can also have the opportunity to be the one at a more advanced level, able to help teach.

When a child runs into difficulties with a concept or skill, the class doesn’t move on, leaving him behind. In a skill-building block such as the Learning Lab described above, or with a group of kids at a similar level, a child can have the time needed to struggle through the process of learning. Success is built upon success. The level at which he or she learns is respected.

In a world where the teacher no longer holds a monopoly on information, we need to teach kids to cast a critical eye on what they see, hear or read. With this system, students learn both a broad spectrum of concepts, skills or information in a variety of disciplines, and a depth of understanding in the things that interest them most. We we can produce kids who are able to sort through and distinguish between truth and fiction, sense and nonsense.

The time is now.

We are far from that idealized world where schools seemed to give us all we needed to succeed in life. Our children will face more difficulties than we can readily identify. Whether they leave our schools to change the world, or simply to raise a family and be good community members, they need to have a entrepreneurial spirit: an ability to look about them and find, from whatever opportunities they see or can create for themselves, a way to survive, or even thrive.

The failure of the industrial model of education is painfully obvious. While the system itself is no longer useful, that is not true of those individuals who work with our students. Those who devote their time, their skills and their caring to the education of our children deserve a system that allows them to succeed. Our communities are full of people who are dedicated and energetic. Let us use the resources we have to create schools that are cared for by our communities and loved by every one of our children.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Lisa thank you for thoughtfully making the well-written case to transform education.

  3. Wow! Love when I find someone who can put on paper (or on a blog in this case) the thoughts that are in my head and so hard to put on paper. Thank you and good luck on your journey to transform education.

  4. "The hard part is to shift the driving force of education from the adults to the children." Oh yes indeed. That's changing culture - that is very difficult.

    I have just begun my third three year term as a school board trustee in Alberta, Canada; here's what we've been working on. http://www.crps.ab.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=26&Itemid=288 You are right, it goes beyond the school walls out to the community, includes more than K-12. Our board will continue to work on many fronts. I applaud your call to action and wish you all success.

  5. I love that a parent and school board member in Maine is thinking this hard and well about what's good for kids -- and even better, taking this time and effort to spread her views! This is a rich conversation in which I have been taking part for 25 years and without people like you, it will be pushed aside in today's top-down-change educational culture. Cheers!

  6. Lisa,
    Your thoughts are shared by many many people across this country, but unfortunately, are often drowned out by people who can afford to have their voices broadcast widely. The real heroes are people like you, who walk the talk of making schools better by actually being in schools, working on local boards and working to make real change happen in real schools.

    Having billions of dollars doesn't make you an expert in education, especially when those billions are used to spread false information and stir up antagonism against teachers and kids.

    The ridiculous concept that computers or scripted lesson plans for teachers can push kids through pre-set lists of content is a managerial fantasy. Kids aren't widgets, and using fancy new technology to hide a factory model is just dishonest. The only ones who win here are the big companies who make money from schools desperately trying to buy something that can't be bought off the shelf - teacher competence and student engagement.

    But things that take time and human effort aren't good "products". They have a low profit margin and require expertise, training, and constant tinkering to find what works.

    It's difficult to fly in the face of "experts" (meaning rich people who are used to getting what they want without actually working at it or understanding it), but it's imperative that people who actually live with and work with schools, teachers, and kids are in charge of education policy.

    Keep on fighting the good fight!

  7. Sylvia, thank you so much for your thoughts. Your third paragraph is inspirational! The process of reaching out to the larger world of education change has been great for me. I need to hear that what I'm doing and saying to folks around here has the backing of other teachers and thinkers.

  8. Kathleen, instead of reading your book from the beginning, I tend to pick it up and read wherever it opens, and every time I do that I read something that resonates with my own development and with what I'm trying to do. The lessons of the Talent Code have meant a lot to me, and Fires in the Mind has shown me what I really needed to know: that what Coyle calls "deep practice" CAN and SHOULD take place in the classroom.

    I've been playing the violin since I was eight, and at age 48 I picked it up after a 30-year hiatus from practice. I'm now a Suzuki violin teacher, so reading about how kids pursue mastery has meaning for me in that sphere of my life as well. I remember working on a small, difficult passage and working out a way to practice it, proving to myself that I could do something difficult. It worked like a dream. Kids need to have that experience: impressing themselves with what they can do.