Schools Need Redemption, Not Innovation

Schools Need Redemption, Not Innovation

Jordan Shapiro at Forbes explores the mindsets associated with how schools should serve their students in the 21st century. His arguments do not mean to condemn schools, but to shine a light on them and determine if they are constructed to prepare students for the future, not our past.

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Are our school systems really in need of innovation? The reformers say so. This is the story told by the media and at education conferences. The most common narrative argues that schools are stuck in an outdated paradigm–the ‘factory model’ of education may have been useful in the 20th Century, but not so much as we settle into the 21st.

There are many familiar responses to this problem. Some are technological innovations. Others involve new teaching methods. You’ve probably read articles about blended learning, flipped classrooms, game-based learning, makerspaces, inquiry- and project-based learning. The list goes on and on. Many of these pedagogical strategies are fantastic. They reframe familiar school patterns so as to breathe new dynamic life into structures that have become tragically stale.

These trendy teaching methods, which mostly prioritize discovery learning (hands-on exploration) over direct learning (lecture, demonstration), should certainly be widely adopted. They can provide a much needed jolt of vibrancy to the hum drum of an ailing school system. But don’t believe the hype. They are not innovative. And that’s okay, because we don’t need innovation. Instead, schools need redemption.  They need a change that sets teachers and students free from the fetters of industrial and economic ways of thinking about the world.

Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric around education is not calling for change at all. Instead, it uses words like “progress” and “disruption” to argue for more of the same. Like a bad science fiction movie–or The Jetsons–the majority of education pundits seem to be imagining solutions for a future world that looks about the same, but with cooler gadgets. They are not looking toward a different future, but rather offering a futuristic version of the present. Such stylized thinking doesn’t offer real solutions, but rather a continuation of the current problem.

Consider, for example, all the talk about 21st Century skills. At first glance, this line of thought makes sense. It tries to imagine, in a general way, particular aptitudes that will hold premium value in tomorrow’s marketplace. It looks at today’s workforce and projects a long term trajectory. It assumes the future world will maintain its fondness for coding, entrepreneurship, and collaborating across networks. This very well might be the case. But the premise is all wrong. The idea that education is about vocation–jobs, labor markets, and workplace skills–runs in direct contradiction to the very notion that we need to innovate for a new 21st Century paradigm.

After all, the concept of “the workplace” is unique to the Industrial Age. It is not only part of the factory mindset, it may be one of the defining characteristics. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “workplace” doesn’t appear until the 18th Century. And it doesn’t come to be associated with companies, businesses, offices, and particular buildings, until the early 20th Century. There is no such thing as “workplace skills” outside an Industrial Age conception of society.

In Witold Rybcynski’s exceptional book, Home: A Short History of an Idea, the author explains how it is not until the late 19th Century that the home-work divide becomes solidified. Describing the homelife of English bourgeois around 1880s he writes, “no longer a place of work as it had been in the Middle Ages, the home became a place of leisure.” This divide between home and workplaces had wide reaching ramifications on the way we think about individualism and, therefore, the way we think about preparing individuals–through education–to participate in a modern civilization.

Just think about it. Around the same time that the home became a place of relaxation, private life, and comfort, the workplace became the exclusive location of production, industry, and public identity. The better one’s work-life, therefore, the more home-life she can afford. And when personal identity becomes most uninhibitedly reflected in the home-leisure non-professional identity, individuality is rendered a consumable commodity.

The marketing platitudes do everything they can to reinforce this construction: “Home is where the heart is.” And Dorothy, at the conclusion of the The Wizard Of Oz, tells us that home should be the ultimate source of personal fulfillment: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” But the Industrial Age home is no longer the shelter you construct with your bare hands, nor something that emerges organically, but rather real estate that you buy with a mortgage and furnish with mass-produced goods made in someone else’s workplace.

With such a convoluted construction of what it means to be a unique self at home and at work, it is no wonder we’re confused. In a scarcity driven marketplace, having a unique identity becomes a premium upsell now correlative to one’s labor efficacy. The worst part, however, is that we now mistakenly believe that in order to educate democratic citizens–empowered individuals who think for themselves–we need to teach them to be high-earners. After all, high income equals high individuality. So we focus on workplace skills, using buzz words like “innovation” and “disruption” to maintain the Industrial Age status quo.

In bell hooks’ words, “democratic education is being undermined as the interests of big business and corporate capitalism encourage students to see education solely as a means to achieve material success. Such thinking makes acquiring information more important than gaining knowledge or learning how to think critically.”

Globally, our school systems need redemption, not innovation. There’s an ideological battle going on. Like all the mythological and historical tyrants of the past, the curmudgeonly old oligarchy defends its kingdom with the promise of “progress,” but offers only more of the same.  Like heroes, prophets, and foot soldiers, we need to free our students from a Industrial mindset. We need to free our teachers from the futuristic assessments that only hold them accountable for maintaining the same thought paradigms. And we need to educate our children for a future world that’s better than the one we live in today.

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