Why School? Why PDS?

We are at the beginning of a period of focused strategic thinking at school and the Board of Trustees has convened a planning group to lead the process.

One of the ways I have been preparing for this has been to compile resources that I think might be helpful in framing the discussion and a shortlist of thought leaders who can help set direction and possibly provide a big picture backdrop for the work.

Screen Shot 2012-10-27 at 8.32.13 PMOne of the thinkers high on my list is Will Richardson. He was the keynote speaker at our 2011 Embracing Innovation conference.

In and through publications and social media (follow him on Twitter @WillRich45) he has shared the evolution of his thinking and understanding. He recently published Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere

It’s a short book, more of a monograph really, and it’s a quick read. It answers the question of his title and makes a case for school and schooling.

What follows is a  pretty much a partial précis of the book but I do recommend getting your own copy (it’s available as an instant download for $2.99.)  My summary misses the richness of the examples from his children and from classrooms, the depth of the reasoning and the recommendations, resources and references.

Richardson begins with the fact that our story of education has remained more or less unchanged for 150 years.

He thinks it’s time to close the book on that story. It’s not the same world that most adults grew up knowing and is so hard for us to shake off. After all – it served many of us very well.

In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like — not just with a teacher and some same-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June. More important, it happens around the things we learners choose to learn, not what someone else tells us to learn.

This new story requires us to ask the difficult yet crucial question: why school?

He’s not suggesting the end of school – not at all. But he is suggesting an end to the kind of schooling that most of us experienced and carry around as a mental model. He is suggesting we question the value of that model in a world transformed.  Knowledge is no longer confined to the single textbook, library shelf or teacher’s head. It’s everywhere and the opportunities for learning are ubiquitous, and our access to information about everything abundant.

Here’s the deal. The world has changed — and continues changing — rapidly and Lucas D. '13radically when it comes to the ways in which we can learn, and what knowledge, skills, dispositions, and forms of literacy our children will need to flourish in their futures. Plain and simple, the Web and the technologies we use to access it drive those changes. And those changes are, in a word, profound. Sooner or later, that upheaval will force us to tackle the “why school?” question head-on.

Richardson sees that we have two starkly contrasting visions of education currently in play.

Right now, we are at the precipice of two very different visions of what modern education should look like — two very different answers to the “why school” question. One bodes well for our children, and one bodes not so well.

The conversations about “reform” taking place around the world and here in the United States focus largely on how to get our students performing “better” on the tests we use when comparing one country’s education system with another’s.

But the purpose of education is not better test scores and the tests don’t come close to assessing what students need to know and be able to do. The abundance of information has changed everything.

In a nutshell, here’s what’s happened during the last 15 years with regard to information, knowledge, teachers, learning, and getting an education … we’ve moved from a world where all of these were relatively scarce to one where they’re absolutely abundant. More than two billion people are connected online, reaching five billion by 2020. There are more than 600,000 iPhone apps. A trillion webpages. Eight years’ worth of YouTube videos uploaded every day. Four million Wikipedia articles, in English alone. And so on.

Today, if we have an Internet connection, we have fingertip, on-demand access to an amazing library that holds close to the sum of human knowledge and, equally important, to more than two billion people with whom we can potentially learn.

Look outside of education, and you can see the disruption abundance is causing to just about every other institution in existence.


With this abundance of outlets and amateur journalists, the news industry has, shall we say, had to rethink a few things. What about business? What happens when the people who buy your products can now easily tell the world what they think of them? And it’s not just the reputation you build online from your customers that counts; you need to find ways to engage with those customers in whatever online space they inhabit.

The abundance of information and people connected online is changing government (Wikileaks), health care (Foldit), music (Spotify), shopping (Amazon), and just about every other aspect of our lives in one way or another. Institutional change is everywhere, and, as author Clay Shirky says, people are finding out quickly that “it’s not optional.” So why would we think the institution of school would be immune?

It’s not.

The tide of change is already lapping at the gates of higher education where tuition and student debt continue to rise in an economy that is not hiring young graduates into secure employment. And the change is gathering momentum.

First of all, accreditation is changing ….

Second, access to courses is changing. In summer 2012, a consortium of about a dozen universities — Princeton, Stanford, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Penn among them — teamed up with the online learning platform Coursera to offer “100 or more free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that are expected to draw millions of students and adult learners globally,” as the New York Times put it. … it’s easy to see that we’re on the cusp of a real shift in the way we define and acquire an “education.”

That’s not all. As globalization and connectedness ramp up, traditional definitions of employment are being rewritten. Fewer companies will be willing to offer full-time jobs with health benefits or retirement plans when they can hire short-term contractors from anywhere in the world to do much of the work they need. Based on existing trends, some now predict the year 2020 will see 65 to 70 million freelancers, consultants, and independent workers representing more than half of all U.S. employees. That’s four times the number today.

Just think of the implications for education. If the wave of the future is entrepreneurship, passion-driven expertise and personal brand identity –  then what does that suggest to schools about how to develop those skills and capacities?

All of this means that the K–12 education system will have to change as well. With the options for college and work undergoing dramatic shifts, we can no longer prepare students for traditional expectations more than a century old. More and more, our children will have the chance — and, increasingly, be expected — to forge their own paths to an education and into the workplace. That’s a challenge and an opportunity. It means, as Canadian education researcher Stephen Downes says, that “we have to stop thinking of an education as something that is delivered to us and instead see it as something we create for ourselves.

Using the example of his own son’s out-of-school activity, Richardson makes the stark contrast between conventional school learning and the immersive, connected, passion-driven, peer supported, authentically assessed, knowledge-rich learning he can experience outside school with something like Minecraft.

There’s something wrong when a student who is an active, engaged learner out of school is required to ‘power-down’ all day at school.

In the just over a decade since No Child Left Behind was enacted we have become increasingly test-obsessed. The proportion of time in school spent on testing and test preparation has been rising steadily. The curriculum has narrowed as a result.

There’s a growing consensus around what – for the sake of shorthand – have become known as 21st century skills.  Test taking does not make the list.

And the crucial question is: Are theses tests measuring what it will take for our children to be successful?

For Richardson – who sees a testing system out of sync with reality – the answer is a resounding, “No”.

The important irony is that test scores tell us little, if anything, about our children’s preparedness for future success in a fast-changing world. A recent IBM survey of CEOs asked them to name the most crucial factor for future success, and their answers had nothing to do with state assessments, SAT scores, or even Advanced Placement tests. Instead, they cited creativity and “managing the growing complexity of the world.” I can’t find one state or local test currently in use that captures our kids’ mastery in those two areas.

So much has changed in the last decade or so. And the pace of change is picking up.  Richardson understands and names the downsides of living and learning in such an era but he also clearly sees the incredible upside for learning if we have access to it, if we know how to use it and if we can put it use with a purpose.

We have an amazing array of tools we can use to create and share beautiful, meaningful, important works with global audiences. We have vast opportunities to connect and learn from and with authors, scientists, journalists, explorers, artists, athletes and many others. We have immense storehouses of primary-source information that we can literally carry in our pockets. This new landscape transforms our ability to work together to change the world for the better. And don’t forget that all of this has happened in a little over a decade.

But Richardson says, there’s a hitch in this golden narrative. And this is where schools and teachers come in.

Access doesn’t automatically come with an ability to use the Web well. We aren’t suddenly self-directed, organized, and literate enough to make sense of all the people and information online — or savvy enough to connect and build relationships with others in safe, ethical, and effective ways. Access doesn’t grant the ability to stay on task when we need to get something done. No matter how often we dub our kids “digital natives,” the fact is they can still use our help to do those things and more if they are to thrive in the abundance of their times.

We need teachers and schools to prepare students not for the world we have known but for the world they are currently in and that means accessing, assessing, sifting, sorting and analyzing abundant information, connecting with others close by and far afield, creating content and sharing widely.  Check the book for a handy and doable list for how to get started with this new learning role for educators. And plenty more.

Our schools, classrooms, assessments, and the policymakers and businessmen at the forefront of education reform have not fully come to grips with this reality. They’re operating from a worldview that says our connected kids still have to come to school to learn algebra or Shakespeare or the (fill in the blank) War well enough to pass the test — that we absolutely know what every child needs to learn, when they need to learn it, and how they’ll learn it. That’s the way we think when information and teachers are scarce, and it’s dangerous.

If the primary goal for school remains educating our children well enough to “pass the test,” getting them all to consume the “right” content and store the “right” answers, there will soon be better ways to do that than by sending our kids to school. Smart, dedicated, caring teachers can’t personalize and deliver a curriculum “carved out” for each student as well as data-driven technologies already can. If it’s just about tests to graduate, grades to get into college, and scores for international comparisons — which, in large part, it is right now — school is about to be disrupted big time.

But Richardson does not see testing achievement as the purpose of education and sees great value in school as places where children go to learn with others, in real time, face- to-face with teachers to inspire them by being learners themselves. In this model, school becomes the place of shared experience with a common narrative where students come to school to “sing in the choir” and “play on the team” i.e. interact with each other and their teachers to find purpose and develop mastery and expertise.

Stay tuned for more on the ways in which k-12 schooling is changing and on how PDS is adapting, or not, to disruptions of an education landscape transformed.

And answers to the second part of that title question: Why PDS?

Meanwhile join the conversation.  Is Richardson right?  What is your take? What has changed in your area of expertise in the last decade? What must change? What should remain the same?

10.40 pm POST SCRIPT – I left the post to check Facebook. And there it was – the perfect example.

Student one is studying chemistry at home alone. Sends out a question. Another student offers help. And a third person – not a student or a teacher at PDS – provides a resource that would be helpful to anyone studying chemistry.



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