Why It Is Time to Re-Imagine Our Education System

Why It Is Time to Re-Imagine Our Education System
Brenda Ahearn/The Daily Inter Lake via AP

Over a century ago, our education leaders strove to determine how the American school system could support the needs of the industrial economy. The resulting classroom model—defined by an emphasis on core concepts in English, mathematics, and science, teacher-driven lessons, and traditional assessments, largely met that goal.

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Today, our education leaders are once again tasked with shaping the American school system so it can support the needs of a dynamic, networked society and global economy. Young people must develop critical thinking, logical reasoning, creativity, and collaboration skills—a set of 21st century competencies and dispositions that are wildly different than those demanded by the industrial age.

Serving all children this way requires a system that reaches beyond the conventional one we’re used to. Rather than improving our schools through innovation of, and incremental changes to, a system from a bygone era, we must focus on creating the space needed to invent a new, transformed, learner-centered system.

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. America’s educational ecosystem has, for decades, included learner-centered examples within models and learning networks such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Expeditionary Learning, and Big Picture Learning. These provide insight into what a transformed education system could offer. Each of these models, although unique in their implementation, operates under a shared, and distinct, view of the purpose of education. Rather than aiming to standardize the outputs of education, these models aim for each child to discover their unique gifts and potential and be equipped with the skills and dispositions to be lifelong learners and to contribute their gifts and talents meaningfully to their families, communities, and society. 

Learner-centered models empower young people to acquire the skills and dispositions needed to achieve their goals in a rapidly changing world. They are designed in ways that reflect what research tells us about human development and the science of learning. They provide young people with a constellation of experiences that allow them to develop a sense of agency, identity, and purpose; to be socially-embedded within their broader communities; and to learn—inside and outside the walls of a school—in ways that are personalized, relevant, and contextualized to their interests and aspirations. With the learner-centered models that currently exist, we have an opportunity to use these examples as inspiration to reimagine the entire education system.

Early childhood and elementary-aged learners in Montessori environments, for example, are given ample time to develop the fine and gross motor, social, emotional, executive functioning, and practical life skills they are primed to learn during this sensitive period of their development. Kurt Hahn’s Expeditionary Learning model honors the unique developmental profile of middle school students, providing them with opportunities to understand the relevance of their academic pursuits, as they also engage in controlled risk-taking through outdoor adventure programming. And, Big Picture Learning Schools invite high school students to join small learning communities that are led by a dedicated advisor, who then remains with students over multiple years. That adult mentor not only helps each learner identify their professional aspirations, but also ensures they shape a unique learning pathway. Each pathway can include a mix of authentic, applied, and community-based experiences that culminates in the realization of those goals. 

To date, these models and those like them have only reached small pockets of young people in America, flourishing mainly within the private, independent, and alternative public education sectors that are largely free from the pressures of standardization and test-based accountability that have come to dominate the public education sector. Limited numbers of learner-centered examples exist within mainstream public education. They require special circumstances and extraordinary leadership to survive, often closing once circumstances or leadership change. And, due to the pressures of standardization and testing, they are always constrained in their ability to serve young people with fidelity to their model.

With only a small subset of schools embracing this radically different approach, this has meant families with resources are more likely to encounter, and choose, learner-centered schools that exist outside the domain of the public education system. These schools have remained largely inaccessible to the masses of young people served by the public school system, leaving these learners without access to the types of personalized, experiential, and relevant learning experiences that will best prepare them for life. Once again, those who are traditionally ill-served by our education system are at risk of being left behind.

The time has come to develop policies, systems, and structures that reflect learner-centered education and its unique attributes. While, for the most part, these new systems, structures, and policies have yet to be invented, we know their existence will hinge on the ability to transcend the constraints of the existing system.

We can start laying the groundwork for this new system by creating a research and development space for learner-centered leaders inside the public education sphere. Private industry and research labs provide the freedom and space professionals need to investigate the potential of new ideas, even as they continue to focus on improving existing products or systems. The same approach is needed within education.

Learner-centered leaders and practitioners should be able to leverage a thoughtfully designed set of flexibilities and freedoms to invent solutions to complex professional challenges. Even as we must continue improving the existing education system as much as possible for our young people, these leaders can investigate important challenges, such as how to credential learning that happens outside the walls of a school or how to fairly assess learning through means other than standardized, written tests.

To expand access to models like Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Expeditionary Learning, Big Picture Learning, and the hundreds of community-created single models that can transform how all children learn, we must showcase the potential of these promising practices to communities across the country. At the same time, we must also lay the groundwork for policies that promote flexibility in how learning happens, in how we assess what young people know and can do, and in what it means to be an educator. And, we must ensure public and private funding streams can also support these new approaches to learning.

If our education leaders take these steps, our public education system will be well-positioned to serve all students for the next century and beyond. It is time to step up to do what it will take to invent this transformed system. What can you do to advance this work?

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