Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." - W. Edwards Deming

Often, when I'm having a conversation about the expanded ways in which the Internet has provided new and exciting options for learning, the person I'm talking to will argue: if schools don't change dramatically, they will be left behind and become irrelevant. The market will force schools to change.

I myself have drunk the Kool-Aid, to be sure, but I now see this as wishful thinking.

The "schools will have to change" argument presumes, first, that most parents think about learning rationally and make choices about their children's schooling based substantively on the specific learning philosophy of their children's school, teachers, and administrators. For most parents, if there is even a conversation about the learning philosophy, it usually comes well-after the very practical realities of location, convenience, timing, child-care, children's friends, and which teachers are "good" or "bad."

Second, it's not as if most schools have, or feel the need to have, a consistently articulated learning culture, one that is clearly developed and crafted together by all constituent groups, that drives decision-making, and that is compelling and recognizable to the students, teachers, staff, and parents. Perhaps think of it this way: the companies most-desirable to work for have clearly articulated ways in which they care for their customers, employees, and stakeholders. Wouldn't we like to have our children attend a school that is similarly forthright in how it operates for the benefit of all? I'm sorry to say that both in the business and education worlds, measures of cultural value have become increasingly less relevant to the push for "performance"--hollow numbers that hide the loss of core commitments.

As a quick aside, the lack of defined learning cultures in our schools is pervasive. The current demand for "quality teachers" leads me to believe that we seem to not realize that the culture of an institution has much more to do with how the teachers perform collectively than their rightly-appreciated individual talents. Instead of recognizing the power that an aligned vision has for bringing out the best in (and, of course, addressing problems with) teachers, we fantasize that schools will become great learning centers if we just could somehow just bring the best teachers together. This is related to the same tired argument that promotes bringing together subject-matter recordings of the "best teachers" to build great online learning experiences. What's missing from that vision is the influence of caring individuals who help to change the learning lives of students. It's really, really hard for teachers to be caring individuals when they don't work for an organization that has a clear vision of how and why learning takes place, and cares for the teachers in this same way as well.

Back to our conversation about why significant change is unlikely to be required.

The final reason, the reason that parents and students aren't going to just stand up and demand that their schools go though dramatic changes to reflect the shifts in learning potential provided by modern technologies, is: schools are actually changing and will continue to do so, but they only change just enough to survive.

Survival is what institutions are good at. Institutions consistently make just enough changes to stay relevant, which makes sense because any more is risky. And survive they must, since so very many people depend on schools in very practical ways, from large supplier contracts to the individual paychecks that allow those who work at schools to support themselves and their families. Schools will make just enough changes based on just enough demands on them by parents and students in order to continue to be the place that we send children during the day. Individual schools, and even some districts, will push the envelope and reshape what they are doing, but perhaps this explains why their influence on others schools is often so limited.

The idea that in five or ten years, because of modern learning affordances and the demands they create for authentic learning, schools in general will look much different than they do now as a result of needing to survive is not, I believe, likely. So, for those of us who care about dramatically reshaping the learning experiences of children, what do we do? That is the million-dollar question.

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