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Do We Really Want Change?

Economics and economic well-being constantly see-saw – one day you’re on the top of the world and then some bubble bursts or there’s a market ‘correction’ and suddenly, whoosh - everything begins to plunge. Technology changes so rapidly that the minute you buy the latest and greatest something, it’s out-of-date and the next, newest, best thing is already on the market. Our sense of place in the world can change rapidly, too– sometimes so suddenly that within an instant we see the sharp demarcation separating the “us” that existed before and the one that exists now.

Change in schools, on the other hand, moves at a much different pace. At a frustratingly slow pace. More an edit than a change, a bit of tweaking here, a minor improvement there. Maybe that’s reassuring. While everything around us shifts, recreates itself, or is ‘revolutionized’, we can always count on school to be familiar, just how we remembered it.

Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration – schools have and continue to modify themselves. But too much of this is merely tinkering around the edges, not change so much as enhancements and adjustments. We keep layering on new, somewhat improved, ways of doing the same old things.

It’s kind of like the evolution of an old sod shack. Starting out as the only home that someone could afford to build, each new generation added on something - another room, another floor, an extension, a fix for some problem in one corner, a different one in another. Some of these changes were fundamentally necessary (a wood roof rather than a sod one, glass windows) and clearly improved the lot of all those within. But many of the added rooms, or pipes or systems, became totally useless/out-dated, were locked off, boarded up. Patched to allow this or that new functionality to be added, too big for its original foundation, the old sod shack soon becomes both costly and ugly and less a home than a relic.

I’m not saying that school has reached this point just yet, but we need to be smart enough to know when something is worth further tweaking or if it’s time to start anew. And we don’t have to wait until the building collapses before we give up the old shack for something that will better suit our needs and expectations today and for our future.

The trouble is, when a school does try to make a change, the push back from the parents, the community, and the media can be enormous. It seems that change is constant – as long as it doesn’t enter our schools.

Take for example, the district in Oregon that has gone to a 4-day school week. (Not a massive change, more like a tweak, but it is a break from the old scheduling standards.) The students get the same number of hours in school as they did before (with the mistaken assumption that the number of hours is directly proportional to the amount and quality of learning, but that’s another discussion). The fifth day of the workweek is used for the teachers to meet and plan and work together to teach better in order to improve learning. Sounds good, right?

So why did this story make the national news? It wasn’t because the newscasters were lauding the school’s efforts – most people interviewed were concerned or upset. (“Well,” harumphed one commentator to the school principal when told the teachers would be working together on the fifth day, “school isn’t for the teachers!” “No,” the wise principal responded, “it’s for the students - we’re trying to do a better job for them.”)

No, it was because most people, complain as they may about the state of education and schools today, do not want them to change. Whether from fear, lack of knowledge, or just plain nostalgia, they constantly block new ideas and create barriers. True, there are issues to take care of and questions to answer, but change needs to start somewhere. Problems can be solved and questions answered. More importantly, we must work to overcome our wariness and avoidance of school change. We need to keep our vision and goal in mind and provide all children with the opportunities to be engaged, self-directed, and passionate learners. And we need to communicate a positive message to the media and our communities that change in the pursuit of these goals is essential.

After all, we can’t live in the sod shack forever.

The question I get asked most often when talking about re-imagining learning and schools is what schools are truly transforming the learning experience for students and exemplify the schools we imagine for the 21st century. Do you work at or know of one? If yes, please let us know about it so we can share this information with the AALF community.
April 2nd, 2013 @ 5:20PM