Moving Beyond the Industrial Classroom
The TIE Technology and Innovation in Education, organization that I now work for is a cooperative that provides services: professional development, curriculum directors, special ed teachers, psychologists, reading coaches, etc. to school districts that cannot afford to hire a whole staff member(s). It has been in business for 25 years and in the last 15 years, have created partnerships with the Department of Education to build statewide trainings. Partnerships in the last 5 years or so have also grown beyond just South Dakota; we are now doing trainings in Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota, and at national conferences. The latest partnership has sprung into a new vision for the organization; moving education entities beyond the industrial classroom. This work has taken our director to 12 different states.
Why are schools stuck in a system built in the late 1800's? To change the system, it helpful to understand why the system came to be; Peter Senge (2012) explains the rationale to use the machine-age system for schools in his book A Fifth Discipline Resource: Schools that Learn "It is little surprise that educators of the mid-nineteenth explicitly borrowed their new designs from the factory-builders they admired. The result was an industrial-age school system fashioned in the image of the assembly line, the icon of the booming industrial age" (p. 30). Senge (2012) continues explaining "The industrial model of schools didn't just change how students learned: it also changed what was taught" (p. 31). Senge (2012) quickly moves from history to exploiting the problem with this structure still in use today; it creates a system that seems almost impossible to change (p. 31). Bell schedules, GPA's, labels for "smart" and "dumb" students, 9 month schools, and a system that advocates for one size fits all. Senge shares business people's view that educational systems fail to change because there is a lack of competition; Senge (2012) explains their thought: "Feeling pressed themselves to innate or die, they see a sense of urgency missing in education" (p. 33). While Senge (2012) feels this is a part of the issue, it seems too simple. The system itself, designed for the industrial age embeds structure that is so difficult to break. Until schools and communities face the structure and try to figure out what are the Great Wall components, schools will fail to change (p. 33).
TIE is helping schools rethink the current system and discuss what can be done to make change happen. Working with Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwan (2010), authors of Invititable: mass customized learning, TIE wrote a fieldbook to guide key players: teachers, administrators, community members, school board, etc. and wrote chapters specific to the audience on how to start asking questions, analyzing what is working and what is not, looking at the global perspective. From book studies to pilot schools, this partnership has created a new vision for our organization, one that promotes customization for students and plays on strengths to attend to 21st century needs. This perspective fits Senge's (2012) discussion throughout the Orientation chapter, explaining the beliefs of the industrial-age school. One example is "Knowledge is inherently fragmented"separately classes by subjects. Students do not mix math with literature or science with history. They sit separate and lack cohesion. Tim Lucas (as quoted in Senge's Fifth Discpline (2012)) states "The fragmentation of knowledge is the saddest irony of our business. Here we have all of this incredible life-nourishing material--literature, mathematics, and on and on. It's unending. Kids recognize its vitality when they start out, and yet, somewhere along the line, it becomes dead for so many of them. And the institutions are often dead too. There may be little spots of light, but it is so sad, because what could be more exciting than the knowledge of civilization?" (p. 46). What is challenging for TIE is true for educators stuck in the industrial age. For many students, they learn the game and succeed. Why should be completely change? TIE gets money from the schools it supports and thus, if a school is working within the industrial age system, we do not buck their system, but fulfill their needs elsewhere.
Senge (2012) helps the educational "players" understand how systems work as he wrote his first book researching and noting business systems that were successful. He applied the same principles to education and found a huge need for the understanding and discussion. Breaking the disciplines out and identifying how they work, why they work (or don't), and how to truly understand the forces in play in order to change is key to making a systematic change. System-wide thinking is one of the disciplines discussed, "efforts to enact change throughout an organization (like a school system) instead of in one narrow domain" (Senge, 2012, p. 79), provides a challenge for an organization like TIE. It is run by soft money, money generated from year to year, simply driven by the changing needs of schools. There are only a few large grant projects, but most of the 35-trainer projects are driven by schools' needs. TIE can suggest and infuse paradigm-changing discussions into the work, but the way the leadership makes decisions, TIE must meet their models and not its own systems-wide thinking regarding customizing learning.
TIE's strength that meets Senge's (2012) discussion of Systems Thinking is providing opportunities for simulations, modeling, project-based learning, all while helping teachers think about meeting the students' individual needs. In allowing students these opportunities, as well as teachers becoming facilitators and less lecturers, Senge (2012) argues that "system dynamics gives students a more effective way of interpreting the complexities of the world around them" (p. 233). The challenge for an organization like TIE will be to offer more and more of these opportunities and to customize the training and coaching in an industrial-age school to show how educational systems can change and meet learners' needs better by personalizing.
Finding ways to personalize, differentiate, so our learners play on their strengths instead of trying to fit into an old system seems daunting for a whole staff. Senge (2000) explains "So our goal is now to connect, to close the gap. Change doesn’t start in the majority. Find the passionate few and work with them, and the rest will come". This is highly positive for me and something that is easy to promote to other teachers. If we realize that change can start with a few change agents, the passion will be contagious. I worked in a high school in Littleton, CO, Arapahoe High School, 2200 students, high-achieving students, educated parents and we had about 20 of us teachers (out of 150) that decided to study different components of 21st century learning needs---changing grades, constructivism, etc. Karl Fisch was a key proponent of making a systematic change and the discussions and paradigm shifts that occurred were so fruitful. It was amazing how our studies, changes, etc. did in fact become contagious. We quickly went from a small group making changes just in our own classrooms to a whole school sharing ideas, strengths, etc. to make school current, personal, and global. It's exciting and difficult work, but so worth it!
Senge, P., McCabe, N. C., Lucas, T., Kleiner, A., Dutton, J., & Smith, B. (2012). Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Revised Ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group.