Most of the work on educational transformation that I’ve read over the past 20 years has, normally by way of introduction, hurried to point out the fact that our schools would be one of the few places in 21st century culture that would still be recognizable by our parents and grandparents. This observation is rarely offered as a type of glorious testament to the power and value of tradition; most often, it is meant to jolt us out of our complacency and into a state of awakened action.
Notwithstanding the tremendous amount of energy that educators, policy-makers, parents and other thought-leaders are exerting to drag the modern schoolhouse into the 21st century, there are many times when the challenge seems almost Herculean! In my work here and elsewhere, I have met many, many enthusiastic, inspirational and forward-thinking groups and individuals who continue to work with dogged commitment to hold open that critical space between what is and what could be. It’s an important democratic tension to both maintain and explore.
These days, I continue to be inspired by the statement most often attributed to Marshall McLuhan, “I’m not sure who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”
Stepping outside the familiar and taking a very close look at the waters in which many of us are so immersed might allow us see that an alternative starting point for transformation may be a focus on the the assumptions of the past as opposed to the demands of the present, or the promises of the future. And although there is a real sense in which assumptions are not readily visible to the naked eye, we can rest assured that, in the case of school, they are deeply embodied in our language, our practices and, most important, in the institutional conditions that define both the boundaries and the horizons of formal education.
You’re likely very familiar with what these structural conditions are: age-based progression through the system, compartmentalized schedules and calendars, one-to-many classroom configurations, the classroom as the locus for learning, hierarchical leadership models, linear approaches to initial teacher preparation, individualized workspaces, individualized approaches to evaluation and reporting for both students and educators. There are more, but when you think about it, these are some of the most resilient conditions that surround educators, students, parents and policy-makers. These are the things that assure us that, in fact, we are in a school. In fact, try to alter even one of these conditions and you’ll most always get the response, “Hey, this doesn’t feel (look, sound, smell) like school!”
Stepping out of the water and identifying these conditions is one thing. That’s the all important what of the conversation. Even more important, however, is the why? Why do these conditions exist? In what assumptions about teaching, learning, knowing and understanding are they rooted? Do we still accept the validity of these assumptions?
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to open up a dialogue that pokes and prods some of these conditions. In doing so, it’s my hope that we might be able to loosen up the ground that holds our ways of thinking about school rather firmly in place.
If you’ve already done some writing yourself, or have encountered other reflections on any of these, feel free to share them. If you have insights on the origin, purpose or rationale for any of these conditions, you are very welcome to participate. If you’ve come across resources—books, articles, websites or videos—that might deepen our thinking, share away! And if you have any other conditions that might engage us in thinking more critically about the why of our current model of schooling, the floor is yours!
So, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, I plunge my hands into this complex and knotty place called school and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand, into that chalk-white ball of school days, both past and present, and out comes TIME.
So we’ll start next entry with a conversation about time and how it is viewed and organized in our current version of the schoolhouse. Stay tuned!