To Reimagine Education, We Must Make Ourselves the Target

05/15/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

It may seem crazy to seed an idea that is intended to put you out of business, yet that's exactly what Dayton's department stores did back in 1960 with Target. And, the more that I think about it, that's exactly what every school in America should be doing right now.

To understand why, the Target story is a helpful analogy. Over the first six decades of its existence, Dayton's had gradually grown and expanded throughout the Midwest to become a profitable player in the department store world. By 1960, that world -- and that sort of consumer behavior -- showed no signs of letting up in the short term or even the medium term. Yet somebody at Dayton's nonetheless saw an arc at the edges of the retail landscape that augured big changes ahead: mass-market discount shopping.

Consequently, in what was seen as a risky move at the time, in 1961 Dayton's announced its plan to open a very different sort of store, one that combined the best and most familiar aspects of the traditional department store experience with unprecedentedly low prices. And, not for nothing, they decided to name it Target, because, as a company spokesman put it at the time, just "as a marksman's goal is to hit the center bulls-eye, the new store would do much the same in terms of retail goods, services, commitment to the community, price, value and overall experience."

I don't need to tell you the rest of the story.

So what does this have to do with public education? More than you might think.

For our purposes, America's schools today might as well be a chain of Dayton's department stores. They've been successful for a long time, and despite changes on the horizon, a lot of them are likely to remain successful doing what they've always done for the short term and maybe even the medium term.

Once again, however, there's an arc at the edges of the landscape. In this case, it's the fundamental reordering of our relationship to content knowledge, which has always been the central currency of schooling. It's the accelerating push towards a merger of the carbon-based and silicon-based beings via wearable technology, big data, and universal access to the Internet. And it's an awareness, on the part of those who see the arc, that these early-stage pushes towards greater personalization, a more porous boundary between school life and home life, and a more urgent need to make learning more relevant, vigorous, and hands-on are all trends that will eventually become the norm and not the exception.

Just as Dayton's seeded Target as an experiment that might eventually provide the on ramp to a new sort of market reality and, in so doing, put itself out of business, so too must schools today proactively seed their own forward-looking experiments that might, eventually, overtake the more traditional approach that all of us have taught and learned in for more than a century.

Indeed, what American public education needs now is a thousand Trojan horses -- future seeds of creative destruction that can, when the time is right, assume a different form, attack our most intractable rituals and assumptions about schooling, and usher in a different way of being that is more in line with both the modern world and the modern brain.

Of course, many of these Trojan horses are already in place. Anywhere that radically new approaches to teaching and learning are taking place, whether it's a single school, a single initiative within a school, or a single state's experimental approach to evaluation, you'll find people who are betting on the theory that once others can see that a new approach yields actual success, they're more likely to consider changing their own approach.

Educators Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase write in their forthcoming book, Building School 2.0, "For most people, change is loss. Until they can see that change (and loss) as a sign of increased success, people will shy away from the prospect of the new."

This was, in effect, the bet Dayton's made with its first Target store. They realized the best way to prepare for the future was not by abruptly closing their current stores but by seeding experiments that understood where the bend in the landscape was likely to take them -- and knowing that over the long term, the exception would become the norm.

I believe this is where we are headed in public education. The days of AP classes, letter grades, and "senior year" are numbered. We don't need to get rid of them all right now; indeed, the time it will take for the larger systems and structures of K-12 and higher education to adjust to a new ecosystem almost requires schools to cling to these trappings a while longer.

But make no mistake: Much of what we have come to find most familiar about public education will, in due time, go the way of the 1960s-era department store.

The implications for today's schools are clear: If you are not proactively seeding your own experimental forays into a new way of helping kids learn, and doing so with the understanding that those experiments may one day overtake everything else that you do, then your community is likely standing flat-footed in the face of the biggest changes in education in more than a century.

Like it or not, in order to reimagine education, we may need to make ourselves the target.