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Education: Reform or Transformation? A Report from the 2010 Aspen Institute Ideas Festival

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If there was a consistent theme reverberating through many of the sessions at the 2010 Aspen Institute Ideas Festival, it's that the educational system is out of sync with the realities and needs of today and tomorrow. Picture this: while photographs of scenes from the past would look quite old-fashioned, photographs of classrooms from the past and from today look unmistakably the same--desks all in rows, facing the teacher, or what Constance Yowell of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation calls "the sage on stage." The educational system that emerged in the factory era, New York Times' David Leonhardt says, does not work today.

The message that our educational system needs fixing is a time-honored one. I have only to think back to the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983 to recall how this drumbeat has been sounding for years. But in the 27 intervening years since this report was issued, the urgency for change has greatly intensified. For example, whereas the United States was once first in the world in college graduation rates, we are now 14th. What was surprising to me is how many well-known speakers from very diverse fields at the Aspen Institute see the need for educational change as a societal, economic and moral imperative or as Kati Haycock of The Education Trust terms it, "the civil rights movement of our times."

Sir Ken Robinson, author of The Element, outlines some of the reasons why the educational system needs altering. First, he argues, it is a lock-step, linear system. Second, the system values conformity--what Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University calls fill-in-the-bubble-on-the-test-thinking--whereas we need children with essential skills like critical thinking and creativity. Furthermore, as Yowell, points out, today's schooling focuses on providing content to the individual whereas we need children to learn to work in teams.
Perhaps most troublesome are the views of young people themselves. Yowell reports that in focus groups her team conducted with young people, not a single young person listed a public institution as relevant to their future! Likewise, I found in talking with young people for my book, Mind in the Making, there was little, if any, fire in children's eyes when they talked about school.

At Aspen, there was a consistent plea to prepare young people to thrive in a world where knowledge doubles every few years. But is the answer reform or transformation?
On the reform side, there are efforts underway to turn around the lowest performing schools, invest in teachers and principals, use data to drive change, and improve standards and assessment. These are the goals of the Obama administration and they certainly are leading to more change than we've seen for a long time.

But there are others, including Sir Ken Robinson who are calling for transformation. The Ideas Festival is a feast of good ideas, so here are some of my favorite "transformational" ideas for education:

The MC2STEM High School is a year-round, project-based high school in the Cleveland district that is physically embedded in the STEM community. For example, the 10th grade is housed at GE Lighting Nela Park. Students work on projects that they design in the STEM sciences in a real-world learning environment with the help and support of professionals. They can also obtain college credit for this work.

School of One in New York City has dropped the traditional classroom model, replacing it with an approach where each student learns in many different ways based on information about how that student learns best. Some of these learning experiences are teacher-led, while others involve tutoring, and independent learning.

YOUmedia is a project of the Chicago Public Library. It was created to connect teens, books, media, mentors and institutions throughout the city. Young people use the contents of the library to create media projects that enable them to stretch their imaginations and build critical thinking skills.

Maker Faire is beginning to spread around the country. It involves children (and adults) creating inventions that they share at Maker Faires.

And what about improving teaching practice? Much of the public discourse has been around enabling schools to remove the lowest performing teachers. Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation argues for using videos of teachers to help them learn from seeing themselves as well as from seeing tapes of excellent teaching.

These initiatives have a great deal in common. They are all focused on learning, not teaching. They all call for helping children find passion, purpose, and meaning in learning, for making their own plans and following through on these plans, for having first-hand experiences, for bringing together the worlds outside and inside the classroom through collaboration and co-location, and for using technology to foster learning.

Maybe we are on a new path toward creating learning opportunities that will help children gain the content and skills they need to thrive. We have marshaled the evidence for change. We have many transformational examples--those that I have written about and scores more. Will we heed them? Will we incorporate these examples into the system so we do more than create what Linda Darling-Hammond calls "popcorn innovation?" I certainly hope so.