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To Reimagine School, What Must We Hold On To -- and What Must We Let Go Of?

02/06/2015 08:55 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

Think about all the ways in which our brains are already hard-wired to think about "school."

Desks. Chairs. Tests. Lectures. Lunchrooms. Hall passes. Freshman (or sophomore or junior) year. AP (or geometry or Spanish) classes. The list is endless.

All of these things came about in the creation of a model of education that was designed for the industrial age, when we were trying to answer a different set of questions: How can we batch and queue unprecedented numbers of young people through a system and into an economy that will be largely fixed and known? How can we acculturate waves of immigrant children into the core values of American society? And how can we do all of this in the most efficient, orderly manner?

Say what you will -- but at the time when they were being asked, those were probably the right questions to organize a system of schools around. And clearly, they are no longer the right questions today.

Not all of the symbols and structures of our industrial-era model of schooling need to be jettisoned. The question is: Which ones are no longer serving their purpose?

We now live at a moment in history in which the world young people will be entering is both fluid and unknown, when the time between asking a question and finding the answer is almost instantaneous, and when the mark of a successful school is less about the knowledge you put into your students and more about the wisdom you are able to pull out.

What would it need to look like if a system of schools were truly aligned around a different set of organizing questions -- where the goal is not to standardize but to individualize, where the objective is not uniformity but uniqueness, and where the feelings "school" arouses in the majority of us are not endless shades of grey but wild and inspiring spectrums of color?

If these were our objectives, how would the structures and aims of our schools need to shift? And once they shifted, what would we need to hold on to from our past ideas about school, and what would we need to let go of -- so something new and improved could have the space to come into being?

The first step towards that sort of paradigm shift is simply to think about the current symbols and structures of schooling -- and to decide if it's something we will need to hold on to and carry forward or let go of and redesign.

For example, age-based cohorts: hold on to or let go of?

Hall passes and cultures of permission between adults and young people: hold on to or let go of?

Grading, subjects, seat time, summers off: hold on to or let go of?

The act of choosing is its own form of clarity.

What, then, would you choose?