25 April 2013

The system design is not our fault. Its perpetuation is our problem.

I often tell American educators that if we are succeeding with a third to a half of our students, it is only because our educators are trying so hard. The system, after all, was designed and built with the intent to fail 80% of students before 8th grade ended, so we are far exceeding our "design capability."

I've written lots on this... the most accessible versions here as a One, Two, Three, Four, Five part series on the history of our system. It's an ugly story of a system designed to fail most our children, designed to create compliant factory workers and miners, designed to limit the opportunities for the poor to move between socio-economic classes, and designed to ensure an unchallenged power structure. And for 180 years it has done those things with intentionality, whether the hands on the wheels were Henry Barnard and Ellwood Cubberley, or Bill Gates and Salman Khan.

From age-based grades and grade-level-expectations, to textbooks, Carnegie Units, chairs and desks, the teaching wall, and the shape of our classrooms, we were handed a set of horrible paradigms - a virtual war against childhood - and asked to somehow lead our nation into a future...

That's the basic truth, it isn't our fault that our schools are literally built from the ground up to work against us. But, if we are not fighting to change that system every day, from whatever position we hold in education, that is our fault. If we are educators, we begin that profession with a commitment to children, and that is a sacred trust.

The change needed is radical. It is essential that we redefine almost everything about our schools, which is a very difficult task to undertake, but we have a system that is somewhere between 50 and 120 years behind the curve, and that should promote some urgency.

Misunderstanding Cognition

By the time our educational system, whether in the US or the British Empire, was codified and permanized between 1890 and 1910, it was already deeply behind, locked in the Second Industrial Revolution in the United States - the arrival of the railroad, steamboat, telegraph, and mass produced print media - and in the "Second British Empire" in Englland-dominated lands - a place of simply processing the spoils of the colonies. Of course both were already history, as the Boer War had proved to the United Kingdom and the arrival of airplane, cinema, telephone, and phonograph were proving in both environments.

Whether colonial resentments and migration, or the new cognitive authority of the motion picture, the "sit and git," "same for all," step-by-step filtering system of the educational design was already failing these nations, no matter what racist apologists for the past like Woodrow Wilson might say.

We know the failure because of the willingness of all these nations to rush into war with no critical thinking from 1898 to 1914 (including the ease of media manipulation). We know the failure because it remained the "non graduates" - from Henry Ford to Frank Lloyd Wright to the Wright Brothers - who dominated the new economy of the time.

Almost 50 years ago, Polaroid introduces the Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat era.
Notice that photography is no longer about memory, but is instead an
instantaneous social connectivity tool. Kids passed dirty pictures too...

Since 1910 the divide between reality and education has grown exponentially, rushing at breakneck speed over the past fifty years. Schools missed the critical changes even in print literature - from John Dos Passos USA Trilogyin the 1930s to the Beatsin the 1950s to Tom Wolfein the 1960s - and so - contemporary language continues to elude most teachers of the English language. Schools missed the impact of film literature on culture, the impact of visual media in general. Mass media, always minimally and poorly taught, has failed us from Orson Welles' War of the Worlds (really? can't tell news from drama on the radio?) to the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Schools missed the revolution in interpersonal communications which was created by the telephone, the automobile, the urbanization of the world, and eventually the contemporary technologies of chat, mobile devices, email, Twitter, et al...

This still horrifying bit of 8mm movie film (not even yet "Super 8") represents a
key moment in the citizen journalism we all know today. 50 years ago in November...

Each of these changes, despite what many in education will tell you, alters cognition because it alters cognitive authority - that which allows someone to believe something. We know how quickly this happens too. During the Spanish American War American filmmakers understood the need for people to see "moving images" so clearly that they faked them. Thirty years earlier a "cyclorama" might have been clear truth, now, something else was essential.
Scholarly material: The Gettysburg Cyclorama seemed
definitive until film appeared.

What is truth now? We were all reminded last week that if truth once came from organizations like NBC News and CNN, that's no longer true at all. So how do our students decide if they can trust us?

If your answer remains, "because I (or the book) told them," it may be time to go, because few will believe you, even if some pretend to for grading purposes. They know that educators lie - they make up silly simplifications because they think kids are stupid. They teach stuff even a casual Google search proves untrue, whether in math or social studies. They make up rules which lack any logic. They divide up subjects and time with no regard to how humans learn. They test in ways which measure nothing important. And thus, in the cognitive authority structure of this century - our students' century - educators, "we," have proven wholly unreliable. And no amalgam of initials after your name or collected diplomas on your wall will change that.

So we need to doubt everything. Question everything. Engage in "Zero-Based Design" thinking, which imagines that we can start from the ground up, instead of inheriting a dysfunctional structure. And we need to act. As an Iowa superintendent said on Monday, "This is urgent, we can't keep doing this to kids."

The system is not our fault, but every day we continue to tolerate it is. We need a sense of urgency. For our kids' sake.

- Ira Socol