By Charles M. Reigeluth, Ph.D.
Think of our schools as a horse and buggy – it worked well in a different time, but times have changed. Educational needs have changed as much as transportation needs. Retrofitting a horse and buggy will not give us an airplane, and yet we seem to expect that reforms to our schools will meet our new educational needs. And why shouldn’t we?
We’ve never experienced a paradigm change in American education. All we know is piecemeal reforms. But there has been a paradigm change. In the mid 1800s, as our communities transformed from agrarian to industrial societies, the one-room schoolhouse no longer met our educational needs and was gradually replaced by the current, factory model of schools. This was a paradigm change because the fundamental structure of the one-room schoolhouse was different – it had no grade levels, no courses, no standardized norm-referenced tests.
Could it be that once again our educational needs have changed so dramatically that only paradigm change will be effective? To answer this question, we should first determine whether our current educational systems are meeting our needs. Consider the following:
• More than half of America’s high school seniors are not proficient in reading, and 75 percent can’t do math, according to the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress.
• The PISA test administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2012 found that the United States ranked 17th in reading, 27th in math, and 20th in science among the 34 OECD countries (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf).
• The hidden curriculum – compliance and tolerance for boring, repetitive tasks – was very important for manual labor during the Industrial Age but is counterproductive for the initiative and problem-solving skills needed for knowledge work in the Information Age.
• Our communities are increasingly segregated by socio-economic status, resulting in greater disadvantages for many students.
Clearly, our schools are not performing as well as we would like and need them to in an increasingly competitive global economy.
This poor performance is not due to lack of effort. Since “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1987, billions of dollars have been spent on educational reforms. So why have they failed, and why are they destined to continue to fail no matter how much money we spend on them?
The primary reasons have to do with fundamental changes in society – its educational needs and tools. To understand this, it is helpful to consider a truth about learning: Students learn at different rates. Yet our current paradigm of education tries to teach a fixed amount of content in a fixed amount of time. So the current structure, by basing student progress on time rather than learning,
• forces slower students to move on before they have mastered the material (thus accumulating gaps in knowledge that make future learning of related material more difficult and virtually condemn those students to flunking out), and
• holds back faster learners, demotivating them and squandering their sorely needed talents.
As described in my recent book, Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold (http://www.reinventingschools.net), a system designed to not leave children behind would have each student move on only when s/he has learned the current material, and as soon as s/he has learned the current material. Until schools make this fundamental structural change, they will continue to leave children behind, no matter what educational reforms we make – be it more high-stakes testing, more teacher professional development, smaller class sizes, more focus on basic skills, longer school day or year, or whatever the latest fad.
So what does this have to do with changes in society? Alvin Toffler has convincingly described how societies undergo massive waves of change, from the Hunting-and-Gathering Age, to the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age. Each wave has brought about paradigm change in all of society’s systems:
• the family (extended family in the Agrarian Age, followed by the nuclear family, and now the working-parent family – dual-income and single-parent);
• transportation (horse and sailboat in the Agrarian Age, followed by a combination of the railroad and steamboat, and now the automobile and airplane);
• lighting systems (flame, incandescent bulb, LED);
• health-care systems;
• legal systems;
• communication systems;
• and, of course, education systems.
The one-room schoolhouse was the predominant paradigm of education in the Agrarian Age, the current factory model of schools in the Industrial Age, and the learner-centered paradigm (which exists only in about 1 percent of U.S. schools so far) in the Information Age.
The reason for these paradigm changes is that each wave of change creates different ends and means – different purposes for education and different tools for education. Regarding purposes, during the Industrial Age, manual labor was the predominant form of work. We did not need to educate many people to high levels; rather we needed to separate the future laborers from the future managers and professionals by flunking them out. We needed a system that could sort the students – that would leave the slower students behind. So we invented time-based student progress, norm-referenced testing, and letter (or number) grades.
But in the Information Age, knowledge work is becoming predominant. We need a system that is focused on maximizing every student's learning, which is evidenced by our talk about “no child left behind.” This requires a system in which student progress is based on learning, not time. Furthermore, the hidden curriculum in the Industrial Age paradigm was training students to be compliant and tolerant of boring tasks, important preparation for the assembly line. That curriculum is counter-productive for knowledge work. Now we need a hidden curriculum of initiative, problem-solving, collaboration, and lifelong learning, which can perhaps best be achieved through self-directed, project-based learning.
As for education tools, information technologies make it much easier and less expensive to customize student progress and other aspects of instruction, enhance intrinsic motivation, integrate criterion-referenced testing with teaching (as is done in the Khan Academy – http://www.khanacademy.org/about), and keep track of what each individual student has learned.
There are many schools in which paradigm change has already been happening – more than 140 are listed in Reinventing Schools. But in contrast to piecemeal reforms, paradigm change entails fundamental changes throughout the entire system:
• the instructional subsystem (from teacher-centered to learner-centered and self-directed, from standardized to customized, from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation),
• the assessment subsystem (from norm-referenced to criterion-referenced, from separate from instruction to integrated with instruction, from artificial to performance-based),
• the record-keeping subsystem (from comparative grades to an inventory of attainments),
• the roles of teachers (from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”),
• the roles of students (from passive, teacher-directed to active, self-directed),
• the roles of parents (from cookie bakers to partners in their children’s learning),
• the roles of technology (from tool for the teacher to tool for the learner),
• and much more.
Where piecemeal educational reforms are destined to fail, paradigm change will eventually succeed. This is a point that policy-makers fatally overlook, with devastating consequences for our children and consequently our communities and economy.
The recognition that students learn at different rates also requires rethinking the definition of “achievement gap.” It is traditionally defined as the gap in achievement between groups of students of the same age – typically by racial or socioeconomic groups. This definition arose out of Industrial Age thinking, expecting all students to be the same, and results in a misplaced emphasis for improving education.
The achievement gap that we should be most concerned about is the gap between what an individual student has learned and what that student could have learned. The goal should be for all children to reach their potential, not for all to have learned the same things by the same age. The only way for all to learn the same things by the same age would be to hold back the faster learners.
The United States espouses the goal of leaving no child behind, but it is clear that our Industrial Age system with time-based student progress is designed to leave children behind, and no educational reforms within that paradigm can change that dismal fact.
Toffler’s insights show us why paradigm change is needed at this point in history – indeed, why it is inevitable, just as the transformation from the one-room schoolhouse to the factory model was inevitable. The major concern is how long this paradigm change will take, and how much damage will be done to our children, their communities, and our economy before it happens.
Toffler’s insights also help us to see what the new paradigm should be like and how it will greatly improve student learning, equity and cost-effectiveness while simultaneously professionalizing the teaching occupation. The book Reinventing Schools elaborates on that vision, describes three school systems that fit the new paradigm, along with evidence of their effectiveness, and offers guidance for what school systems and policymakers can do to engage in this transformation.
Until educators, policymakers, and the public understand that the paradigm must change from one in which student progress is based on time to one in which it is based on learning, we will continue to leave children behind, regardless of what piecemeal reforms we make.
About Charles M. Reigeluth
Charles M. Reigeluth, www.reigeluth.net, has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Instructional Psychology from Brigham Young University. He taught high school science for three years, was a professor at Indiana University for 25 years, including department chairman for three years. His research, conducted in schools, focuses on paradigm change in educational systems, the design of high-quality instruction, and the design of technology systems for the learner-centered paradigm of education. He is the author of Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold (http://www.reinventingschools.net).