What Do We Want from Our Schools?

There are some small satisfactions in life. I returned from a 2,800-mile motorcycle work/pleasure trip a few days ago, and the Monday morning newspaper headline (in huge type, below the banner) was: “AYP Draws Flawed Picture of Progress.” The accompanying story about the latest figures from the standardized state assessment system showed 3 of 30 Santa Fe schools made “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) as measured by the No Child Left Behind-driven state achievement goals for the year.

Readers who have browsed the blog archives here have already encountered my contention that NCLB (the abbreviation for the education act that created this system) is a strategy devised by anti-government, education privatization proponents. The goal is to make public education look not only broken, but un-fixable. The constantly rising, moving targets mandated by the law make long-term, sustained, and steady progress impossible. Those who refused to admit this truth when the law was first written and passed are beginning to squirm as they realize the emperor never was wearing a stitch.

Meanwhile, on my journey aboard two wheels, I had occasion to pass by numerous schools and a fair number of incarceration centers (a.k.a. prisons), and the architectural convergence is stunning.

High schools look like prisons

Prisons look like high schools

The first time I encountered this figure / ground moment was in the Denver, Colorado area a few years ago. I came in from the southwest, on a route I hadn’t traveled in a while, and there was this brand-new-looking high school campus. But it was surrounded by razor wire and fencing. It was a “medium-security facility.” And some of the new prisons near the SuperMax in Florence, Colorado, look even more like modern schools.

Meanwhile, schools increasingly are designed around security concerns. Fencing, vehicle barriers, metal detectors, narrow windows, and many other visual design cues present in newer school buildings are taken directly from prison design. What is the message we (and our children) take away from this?

Think back to the beginnings of the current “factory education” system. The industrial revolution required large numbers of workers, who needed more and different training than the manual laborers who had formed the bulk of the world’s work force before the rise of the machines. Schools were designed to mimic factories, creating institutions where students and workers performed solitary tasks in relative silence, day in and day out. As factories cranked out products, schools cranked out workers; the form of the school mimicked the life children would undertake after matriculation.

Early 20th century classroom

Consider how classrooms in schools looked around the time I was born, in the middle of the last century. Compare with the factory environment children were often headed for after their school years.

And of course, when the computer revolution began, schools could still operate the same way, because the result was not that different. Instead of factories turning out machines by using other machines run by workers, now there grew up floor after floor in building after building, covered with “cube farms” of workers now doing their isolated, repetitive tasks using computers, printers, and file cabinets.

Scott Adams makes lots of money drawing comics about cube farms

But all these jobs, manufacturing, customer service, phone sales, polling, and the like can be done cheaper and faster overseas, using workers thrilled with the prospect of making one-fifth of an American’s wages.

Where do the children who have been carefully prepared for jobs that do not exist end up? Some of them manage to make it to the military, where they may actually learn life skills, even as they develop traumatic stress. Others go straight to the streets, engage in short-term lucrative activities that place them afoul of the law, and sooner or later, into a prison.

"Modern" school classroom

Fortunately, we have already trained the products of our public education system for the life they will encounter in the Army or in jail. (Could you guess the locations without the captions?)

Military mess hall

Yet the modern

Prison cafeteria line

Modern school cafeteria

corporation doesn’t look like any of these settings. What “21st Century” employers are looking for is creativity, self-confidence, the ability to communicate, and skill in collaboration, teamwork, and problem-solving. The office may look almost like an upscale pre-school, with big open spaces, little conference areas, shared conveniences such as desks and computers, and elegant design touches.

Modern office design principles at work

The question is, do we want our public schools to continue to churn out “widgets,” or do we want to prepare children for the world in new and appropriate ways? If we choose the latter, we are going to have to do better than the current, feeble efforts at school “reform.” We are going to have to transform education, in fundamental ways.

This in turn means we have to take education out of the political arena and look at how we teach and learn in new ways. Or, rather, to look at what we have always known about how humans learn. Now we are using the lens of medicine and technology to rediscover the truths that we learn best by doing, in real-world contexts, and by using a variety of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pathways. Piaget and Dewey had it right when they proposed that we learn by constructing our knowledge and skills from within, not by having them imposed from without.

Despite overwhelming evidence, mounting daily, that our factory education system does not work, we have stubbornly clung to “traditional” ways as somehow “best.” But these “traditions” came very late in the human game, and they can dissolve as quickly as we invented them. We just have to wake up, open our eyes, and no longer stand for schools that are best suited to train soldiers and prisoners.

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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14 Responses to What Do We Want from Our Schools?

  1. Pingback: Environments Matter | Classroom Choreography

  2. Darrel says:

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    I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had issues with
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    • rbdancer says:

      Sorry if WordPress has been unsatisfactory for you. I’m a rank amateur at blogging. I tried one other platform years ago (can’t recall it) but it was clunky and ugly compared to WP. I haven’t shopped around enough to advise you. Good luck!

  3. Great blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
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    • rbdancer says:

      Thanks! This is actually a theme that’s been available from WordPress for a while now. They have some great choices, so if you haven’t looked through the gallery, you might find one you like even better. Bon chance!

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  6. Pingback: A Relentless Defense of Ignorance | Classroom Choreography

  7. Suzy says:

    I’m the principal of a high school in Honolulu, and I was wondering if I could use the picture you have above of the early 20th century classroom in a presentation/workshop I’m conducting about 21st century learning. Or, do you have the source of the photo so I can ask the appropriate person for copy write permission

    • rbdancer says:

      When I dug up the photos for this post, I had not yet started tracking the sites from which I got them. I apologize, both to you and to the photo owner. I could not find the exact picture on a Google search, but I did find a bunch of other similar shots which you can track to their owners.

      If you would like to use this picture, please do within the usual confines of “fair use” and I think all will be well.

      Note to all readers: I am now keeping a record of the source of my pictures. For info on a particular shot, please email me: rbdancer@plateautel.net

      Thank you!

  8. Pingback: Poorly Educated – And Now We Pay « Classroom Choreography

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