Designing A Physical Environment

My goodness!  A lot has happened in the almost two years (!) since I started this blog, wrote a few entries, and realized that the time wasn’t quite right for the Next Step.  But times have changed!  One big step for me was to take the HarvardX MOOC called “Leaders of Learning” in the summer of 2014.  The culminating assignment for “Leaders of Learning” is to

Briefly describe your theory of learning and then present the design of your ideal learning environment. Be sure to consider the five human factors (physical, cognitive, social, cultural, and emotional) as you develop your design.

Since I tend toward the Distributed Collective theory of learning, with just a bit of Distributed Individual thrown in, this is what I wrote … and drew … and posted to the edX platform:

People learn best when the physical and emotional environment is designed to support and challenge them, when the learning environment and activities are a good fit for their personal theories of learning and other learning preferences.  There is no such thing as “the” perfect learning environment for every single learner!  But in an era when ever fewer learners seem to fit well into the hierarchical individual framework, 20th-century-model schools are an increasingly poor fit for more and more learners.  Doing the “same old same old,” but with greater rigor and higher stakes, is unlikely to make things better and almost certain to make things worse.  Now that I have the terminology (distributed collective with a touch of distributed individual) and the framework to describe my own preferred learning environment, it is much easier for me to be specific about what an ideal learning environment looks like for me. Since schools tend to be hierarchical individual in structure and orientation, I can also see why so many school-averse learners over the years have gravitated to learning environments I have created; why students my colleagues described as “perfect little angels” tended not to want to take classes from me; and why I am an increasingly poor fit for those hierarchical individual learning environments as they grow ever more hierarchical and ever more individually focused under stress from their own external funding and regulatory hierarchies.

Several years ago, in a short article I wrote for my friends at Dream School Commons, I described the physical appearance my ideal learning environment this way:

Picture an old house, an old abandoned church, an old commercial building in a small town — something with lots of different kinds of spaces in it. If I made the choice, it would be a building from before the factory model became omnipresent, but actually an old textile mill would work well and would have the added irony of repurposing a factory for a post-factory world. In this space, there are comfortable, individual work stations for about 150 learners, as well as some conference tables or small-group meeting areas and a central area for presentations and whole-school meetings. (A larger school would be divided into “houses” or some such terminology, with no more than 150 per “house” — I take Dunbar’s number pretty seriously.) With these 150 learners, there are about 10-15 adults: a few master teachers, some apprentice teachers, and (depending on the community) a business manager, a receptionist, maybe a cook. Outside, there’s sufficient parking for everyone who drives, and there’s a community garden that’s tended by the learners, the teachers, family members, and other members of the learning community. Nearby, there are other old buildings owned by the learning community — some are already in use as housing or retail space, some are being rebuilt by community members, and a few might be awaiting their eventual rehab and repurposing.


Earlier this year, I refined that physical description and went into more detail about the process of teaching and learning in such an environment with this sample website, which I built for the “New School Creation” MOOC offered by High Tech High and the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Education in the Spring of 2014.

That’s still an attractive vision to me today, but a formal “school replacement” is not where I want to focus my attention.  Instead, I am very interested in creating a network of informal “third places” for young people in the economically deprived region along the Interstate 95 corridor on the North Carolina – South Carolina border.  For those who are still in school, the Three Column Network will be a safe, welcoming place to spend time in the afternoons and early evenings; for the many young people in the region who have dropped out of school and are unemployed, we will also provide a welcoming place to spend daytime hours and to reconnect with themselves as learners, with their own interests and passions, and with the many unmet needs of the small towns where they live.  I still want to use old houses and old commercial buildings, but I want them to feel even more like excellent locally-owned coffee shops and even less like schools than what I described years ago.  Picture that same open space, with comfortable chairs and sofas and a few tables scattered about.  Add free WiFi, some possibly old, but still usable computers and tablets, perhaps a 3-D printer, some craft supplies, a bookcase or two, and perhaps the extensive collection of Rokenbok building materials and vehicles that my children and I have accumulated over the years.  Relatively healthy food and drinks will certainly be available; I’m intrigued by the Sodastream machine, which turns juice and water into (somewhat) healthy carbonated beverages, and I envision coffee and a kitchen area where the produce from that community garden is transformed into various nutritious snacks and meals.  The illustration shows a typical first floor plan for a large early-twentieth-century house in our target area with its parlors, dining room, foyer, and first-floor bedroom repurposed into the kinds of spaces that a Three Column Network center will need.

JMS Learning Environment

Such an environment encourages a cognitive environment of distributed collective and distributed individual learning.  Some participants will “just” want to hang out with their friends, building the kinds of social ties that are impossible to build or maintain in today’s test-focused, “eyes on your own paper,” high-stakes hierarchical individual schools, especially the ones that are “under the gun” for chronically low test scores.    Others will want to work by themselves on topics of personal interest, using those old-but-serviceable computers, the 3-D printer, the craft supplies, or the contents of the bookshelves.  Still others will want to get help with homework assignments from school, and others will be available to give help … and in the course of those conversations, collaborative projects for helping others with similar issues will “just happen” to emerge as staff members “just happen” to ask a guiding question at an opportune moment.  Other collaborations will emerge as participants work together in the garden or the kitchen; as they wash the dishes or concoct a new healthy soda flavor togther; and as they work on crafts or on redesigning or “just” playing with the Rokenbok area.  As Learning Guide, I will sometimes be actively involved in these conversations; at other times, I’ll be working with online participants in some of my other distributed collective learning projects, which our face-to-face participants will be welcome to join if they wish.

Picture a social atmosphere of safety, a comfortable place without the test-score pressure that has become so pervasive in hierarchical individual quadrant schools.  Some participants may be ready to pursue their own interests and passions right away; others may need weeks or months of “deschooling” first.  But eventually, with some gentle encouragement from the Learning Guides and fellow participants, everyone will probably feel safe and begin to be curious about a large poster or mural, one that doesn’t yet exist but will be designed, created, and maintained by community members.  It will somehow show the “three columns” that give our organization its name: the personal journey of self-discovery (Who am I as a person and a learner?), the connection of personal passions, strengths, and interests with areas of curiosity or relative weakness (What do I love? Where do I want to improve?), and the process of building something to help others (What are the possibilities disguised as problems? What can we do together?).  Surrounding it, eventually, will be pictures and artifacts that document things that we, the joyful learning community, actually built together to meet community needs … everything from that first community garden (and meals that we serve to needy or elderly community members) to social ventures developed by current or former members.

Culturally, Three Column Centers will build on the seemingly contradictory values of self-reliance and community that form the very roots of identity in small towns in the rural South across all different ethnic and socioeconomic groups.  In fact, those two seemingly contradictory values are deeply interconnected: the community itself is the soil in which the self-reliance and independence grow and flourish.  In other words, for all the talk of hierarchy and individualism, the rural South is actually a distributed individual to distributed collective environment in many important aspects.  As such, the look and feel of Three Column Network learning centers will appeal to something deep-seated and hard to verbalize in our partner communities. (This paragraph went through six or seven drafts! Even for me, after years of reflection, it was hard to verbalize the deep-seated connection between self-reliance and community.)  In towns where residential segregation is still a de facto reality, we will aim for “neutral” sites on or near the “color line” borders, giving preference to historic structures that have positive associations for all different ethnic groups involved.  Within that historic structure, the physical atmosphere described above will be very deliberately designed, and successively redesigned by the ethnically and socioeconomically diverse joyful learning communities formed in those spaces, to be appealing and welcoming to members of all different demographic groups without “belonging” exclusively to any one group.

As a result of these factors, the emotional atmosphere of a Three Column Network learning center will be safe, welcoming, and supportive for every member, but will aim to provide just a bit of challenge and constructive discomfort for everyone, too.  That is a difficult balance to achieve, and we certainly will not be able to achieve it for everyone all the time!  But with a strong culture of communication and collaboration, we will be able to work through the inevitable challenges and difficulties and emerge as a stronger, more cohesive community.  The process of building social norms for ourselves, along with the related processes and experiences of “building meaningful things together,” will make us stronger and closer in the end.

I am truly excited to think of what we will accomplish in the next few months and years!

The Solution Test, II: From Factory to Community


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In my last post here, I defined the common pain problem of 20th-century textbooks and 20th-century schools as a paradigm that no longer fits current reality.  It would be like trying to navigate a busy city, c. 2012, with a map made in 1952 or even 1972.  Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the map would still work … but in many parts of town you’d get hopelessly, helplessly lost.

Sadly, when that happens to learners in school, to readers and users of textbooks, we usually don’t blame the map.  All too often, we blame the users – the students and teachers and parents – instead of looking at the system.

The shared difficulty of 20th-century model schools and textbooks is the notion that knowledge is scarce.  If you believe that, you’ll build a system where

  • the focus is on the knowledge itself
  • the people (or resources) with the knowledge are more important than those without it
  • the core purpose is to transmit the knowledge, as is, from those who have it to those who don’t.
  • anything that gets in the way of transmitting the knowledge is seen as a problem.

Think about your favorite (or least favorite) textbook for a moment, and think about your experiences in school … and those of any children you know and care about. Especially think about the ones who’ve been labeled as gifted or exceptional, advanced or delayed.

See what I mean?

1. What does your solution do?

In a nutshell, it changes the central paradigm from transmission of scarce knowledge to curation of – and co-creation with – hyper-abundant knowledge.  It replaces those 1952 city maps and Yellow Pages ads with the up-to-date Maps app on your smartphone, with crowd-sourced recommendations of places to go and things to do. 

2. How does it work?

Check out the Tres Columnae Project website, and check out the vision statement for the Three Column Schools.  Teachers and students work together, as partners and co-learners, to “build something meaningful together.”  We acknowledge there’s more knowledge, more information, than anyone possibly use or acquire … so why not explore some of it together, make sense of it together, build things with it together?  Why not build a joyful learning community together?  Why not learn how to learn by actually learning – learn how to do by actually doing?

3. Why would someone want it?

Because an accurate map is a lot more helpful than an outdated one!  I love old maps – my favorite right now is this interactive map of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century C.E. – but when I’m at a conference in an unfamiliar city, I use Google Maps, not a printed map from 1952, 1972, or even 1992.  And when I’m working with my students, I seek to use tools and approaches they value, ones that help them make sense of the world they live in now … not the vanished ones I knew in 1992 or 1972.

4. If helpful, draw a picture of your solution.

Let me use the one I drew to illustrate the pain, but focus on the right side of the picture:

What do you think?  Would you rather learn “stuff” from a 20th-century textbook – or from a 21st-century learning community?  Would you rather have pre-digested knowledge transmitted – or build knowledge, skills, and understandings by participating in a joyful community?  If I’m right about the solution, I think I know how most learners, most families, most communities will answer.

The Solution Test, I


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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I apologize!  Once I had finished articulating the pain of 20th-century, factory-model learning materials and schools, I suddenly found myself in that busy time of year called October … and then, as it often happens when you’re too busy, I got sick.

But in between being sick and busy, I had bits of time to think about the solution to the core problem that schools and textbooks share.  In a nutshell, in the 400 characters or less allowed on Edstartup’s “Share the Pain” form, I realized the problem is that

Both schools and textbooks function ‘as designed,’ but the design is obsolete, and so is the underlying paradigm (knowledge is scarce and must be transmitted from expert to novice). To eliminate the pain that teachers, parents, and students feel, we must redesign learning spaces and learning materials around a paradigm of abundance and co-creation.

And I made this graphic to illustrate the pain:

21st-century learners – all of us – live and learn in the world on the right, the colorful, deeply interconnected one where everything is shared – and where almost everything is hyperlinked.  But schools and textbooks are still stuck in the world on the left, a world of disconnected individual boxes (textbooks, classrooms, desks, schools) where you’re expected to

  • sit down
  • shut up
  • do “the work” assigned by “the teacher”
  • rinse and repeat for 13 years
  • emerge, somehow, as a well-prepared citizen and worker for … the world on the right??

No wonder there’s so much pain!

But as I was reminded this summer, “the solution is inherent in the problem.”  Schools and textbooks, functioning as designed, cause pain because they’re built on an outdated paradigm.  Solution?  Build new learning spaces and learning materials around a different paradigm.  Replace the factory with a different paradigm, then redesign learning spaces and materials around that.

think the new paradigm is the joyful learning community … and the more people I talk with, the more persuaded I am.

But before I explain why, I need to define what a joyful learning community is … and do so more succinctly than I did over here in 2011.  I also need to deal with the critical “solution test” questions:

  1. What does your solution do?
  2. How does it work?
  3. Why would someone want it?
  4. If helpful, draw a picture of your solution.

So expect a series of posts about joyful learning communities as the solution for the pain of outdated factory paradigms, functioning as designed.

What do you think of the succinct pain problem statement?  And what do you think of the solution?  What am I missing here, and how should I answer those 4 important questions “in a page or less?”

The Pain Test, VI: Sharing the Pain



In the other posts in this series, I’ve applied the EdStartup 101 pain test to 20th-century textbooks (here) and to 20th-century, factory-model schools (here, here, here, and here).  I’ve also been talking to a lot of people about their pains related to textbooks and schools.  If you remember, I said

  • The core problem with textbooks is the underlying assumptions about knowledge that they embody.  Textbooks presume a world where knowledge is scarce and inaccessible and slow to change.  So you need experts to find the knowledge, put it into a form that novices can understand, and package it so the novices can digest it.
  • The core problem with schools is harder to define, but I think it’s also related to the underlying assumptions.  Factory-model schools assume a factory world – a world where large, stable organizations need a constant, large supply of relatively low-skilled workers and a constant, but much smaller supply of higher-skilled, more specialized workers and managers.  They’re built for a relatively homogeneous society, one where outlying groups (the poor, new immigrants, members of ethnic or cultural minorities) want to, need to, and ought to be assimilated into the Melting Pot.

Do you remember the Great American Melting Pot? Here are the lyrics if you’d rather read than watch.  As a child, I loved the song; as an adult, I think “Wow! How times have changed!”

It’s almost painful to watch and hear this song I loved as a child.  And that pain is related to the pain we’ve been talking about – the pain that comes when assumptions and world views clash and collide with each other.

For textbooks, the pain point is the huge gap between their underlying assumptions (scarce, inaccessible, slowly changing knowledge transmitted by experts to novices) and the 21st-century world where knowledge is hyper-abundant, universally accessible, and constantly changing.  For schools, the pain points are the gaps between their assumptions (preparation for stable, “melting pot” factory society) and the post-industrial, multi-cultural “stew” or “salad” society that’s replaced the mid-century industrial melting pot.

I’ve talked with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people involved with both schools and textbooks.  You can see some of their responses in comments on this blog, and if you’d like, you can follow the links to the Google+ discussions I’ve referred to in this “pain” series of posts.  When I talk with people face to face – students, teachers, parents, fellow teachers, principals, school administrators, grandparents, folks in the community – it seems we all agree on the fact of the pain.  “School,” people say, “is broken” – and though I disagree with one possible interpretation of that statement, I know what they mean.  School does function as it was designed to function, so it’s not “broken” if “broken” means “not working as designed.”  But it’s “broken” in that it’s not meeting people’s needs.  It’s “broken” because it hurts, the way a broken chair hurts the body or stepping on broken glass hurts the foot.  It’s “broken” because it causes pain.

Apparently I was right about the pain – and lots of people are saying I was right about the causes of the pain, and about why the common solutions really aren’t solutions.

Am I also right about the solutions I’ve proposed for the textbook problem and the school problem? And if I am, how can we turn those right ideas into functioning organizations?

The Pain Test, 5: Inverting the School, Part 4



This should be the last post in my series about how the EdStartup 101 “pain test” applies to 20th-century, factory-model schools.  Back in Part 1, we identified the problem: factory-model schools are still functioning as they were originally designed to function 120 years ago, but hardly anyone needs or wants the job they were designed to do.  In Part 2, we looked at the people who feel the pain and what they’re willing to do about it, and in Part 3 we classified a lot of solutions into four main categories:

  • doing the same thing (either because you don’t feel the pain, or because you don’t know what else to do);
  • reframing the problem (admitting that there is a pain problem, but looking for another cause than the system functioning as designed);
  • angrily trying to change things (admitting that the pain problem is related to schools, but blaming them for the “broken” system)
  • trying to get away (admitting that the pain problem is real and systemic, but choosing to escape rather than engage with the “broken” system)

In this post, we’ll address the remaining questions of the pain test.  I’ll keep discussing these issues here and offline, and I’ll report on my findings both here and on the official EdStartup form.

4. Why aren’t the current solutions good enough?

None of them address all aspects of the underlying pain problem: factory-model schools are functioning as designed, but their designed function isn’t what we need anymore.  Doing the same thing fails because it doesn’t even acknowledge the pain problem – and even in good and superior schools, good and superior students, teachers, parents, and administrators are starting to feel the pain.

Reframing does acknowledge that factory-model schools are designed for a purpose, but it fails to acknowledge that the design contributes to the pain problem.  Short-term success is quite likely, but long-term success is elusive even on 20th-century metrics.  No Excuses charters have high tests scores and high college admissions rates, but they’re struggling with college completion.  Schools that try to “solve poverty” with extra services find they need more and more services, more and more funding, in a time when less and less funding is available.

For most reframers, there’s a strong separation between us (the folks who operate the schools) and them (the poor, needy “clients” that we are “serving”).  Have you ever been a client getting served by someone with that attitude?  It breeds resentment, and it also can breed a culture of dependency – neither of which will contribute to long-term solutions.

Getting angry and seeking change feels really good in the short term, and it does acknowledge that there’s a systemic pain problem and that changing the system might solve the problem.  But when you’re angry, you’re really not interested in root-level changes.  You’re interested in revenge – and that’s not a great way to build a consensus around solutions.  Like reframinggetting angry leads to polarization.

As for leaving the system, it does, in fact, solve the problem … at least for the folks who leave.  But it doesn’t help the folks who don’t, or can’t, or don’t know how to leave.  And all too often, leaving the system means you claim that the system is “broken” – that it’s not functioning as it was designed to function.

5. How long has it been a problem?

In one sense, it’s “always” been a problem for the past 120 years. Factory-model schools were never designed to prepare all their students to be thoughtful, creative, innovative, independent thinkers; they were designed to train compliant factory workers who had the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to operate a factory.  But that was OK when we had a factory-based economy.  Over the last few decades, though, as manufacturing gave way to information and to whatever is happening now as the socioeconomic paradigm, factory-model schools moved from solving a problem to solving a problem that no longer exists to creating more problems than they solve.

6. How easily could something change to make the problem go away?

It wouldn’t be that hard – but it would be really difficult.  “All” we have to do is design and build schools around a new paradigm – not the factory, but the ….

You know, the ….

See why it’s really easy and really difficult? What do you think the new, post-factory model of schools should be?

The Pain Test, 4: Inverting the School, Part 3



This is the third part of “a” blog post that applies the EdStartup 101 “pain test” to 20th-century factory-model schools.  Back in Part 1, we considered the causes of the pain problem: in a nutshell, the system – functioning as it was originally designed to function – no longer meets its users’ needs.  In Part 2, we looked at people who feel the pain (students, parents, teachers, other educators, political leaders, employers, society at large) and what they’re willing to do. I found three main categories:

  • pretend it’s all OK,
  • get angry about it, or
  • try to get away from it, leaving the problem for someone else to fix.

But how do those categories translate into solutions, and why are the current solutions less than optimal?

3. What are all of the current solutions to the problem?

For a while, I thought the solutions fell into the same three categories as the responses to the pain, but my friend Debbie helped me see more clearly.  If you’re in a painful situation, she says, you really have four choices: you can change it, accept it (reframe it), leave it, or keep doing what you’ve been doing.

a) Solutions where you keep doing the same thing

What causes the pain problem, and how do you solve it?  “What problem? I don’t see any problems ….”

If you’re a good or superior student at a good or superior school – or if your child is a student at one, or if you teach at one – you may not feel a need to change.  If you’re not a great student, or if the school is OK or terrible, you may not see how to change.  So lots of people “solve” the pain by trying to ignore it.

b) Solutions where you reframe the problem

These solutions acknowledge a pain problem in schools, but they attribute the pain to something other than the factory-model structure.  Some see poverty as the root of the pain, while others put the blame on poor implementation of a basically sound  model.

At first glance, No Excuses charter-school networks and the Save Our Schools movement have nothing in common.  There’s no love lost between them, either!  But they do share one assumption: the factory-model school is basically OK, and something else is causing the pain.

What causes the pain problem?  If you ask the folks at KIPP and Green Dot and YES, the school day is too short, discipline isn’t enforced, students don’t learn how to show that they’re paying attention, expectations are too low … in short, schooling is poorly implemented, but the model of school is just fine. Properly implemented, it should work even where schools have been “failing” (by 20th-century metrics) for decades.  No Excuses schools still look and feel like schools; in fact, they look and feel like strict, well-run schools from 50 years ago.  That’s one reason for their popularity, and it’s also a reason for the angry criticism they receive. Doing things better can work pretty well, especially if you measure success by standardized test scores, college placement rates, and other 20th-century metrics.

What causes the pain problem?  If you ask folks in the Save Our Schools movement,  they’d also argue that the model of schools is just fine.  But children oppressed by multi-generation poverty need extra help.  Poor urban and rural schools and districts would be just fine if they only had more money, longer days, more support services, smaller classes, vision screening, arts programs, less testing, more staff, medical care for children and families, and other things poor families need but can’t afford.  “Controlled for poverty,” they argue, “our schools and test scores are still the best in the world.”  And when those services are provided, schools do improve – especially when you look at 20th-century metrics like test scores and college placement rates.

c) Solutions where you angrily try to change things

What causes the pain problem?  They do.  Schools are broken, and they are to blame! So we need to punish them until they stop it and see things our way! Then the problem – and the pain – will magically disappear, right?? (There’s some overlap between reframers and angry changers, of course.)

Sometimes they are politicians who impose testing requirements or cut school budgets; sometimes they are “spoiled, lazy, entitled” teachers and teachers’ unions; sometimes they are “bad, lazy” students who don’t work hard enough; sometimes they are “bad, lazy, entitled” parents who won’t make their children conform to the school’s requirements.  The Chicago teachers’ strike and the efforts to limit collective bargaining by teachers are two sides of the same anger-based coin, and angry implementation of parent trigger laws and proposals to grade parents fall into this category as well.

d) Solutions based on leaving and getting away

What causes the pain problem?  Schools are broken, and it really doesn’t matter why; I just want something better for my child.  One early idea about charter schools was that they’d function as laboratories for innovation: they’d develop innovative practices, refine them, and share them with more traditional schools.  Some charters do that – but others, along with many private and parochial schools, are really about getting away and saving yourself (and your children) from a chaotic, confusing, dysfunctional school system.  Homeschooling and unschooling have grown exponentially over the past few decades; the causes are complex, but for some families, escape from a “broken” system is a powerful motivator.

What’s wrong with each of these solutions?  And why do I think I’ve found a better one?  I’ll have some answers in another post, but what do you think?

The Pain Test, 3: Inverting the School, Part 2



This is Part 2 of a series of posts applying the EdStartup 101 pain test to the 20th-century factory-model school.  Here is Part 1, which deals with the causes of the problem, and here is my post about applying the “pain test” to 20th-century-style textbooks.  I’ve also written a series of posts about the connections between pain and punishment and anger in factory-model schools which you can find here if you’re interested.

There’s a lot to say about pain in schools today. And that’s because there’s a lot of pain to be found.  Factory-model schools still function as designed, but that design doesn’t fit the needs of today’s students, parents, teachers, school administrators, political leaders, employers, society – and that lack of fit is painful.

Hardly anyone alive remembers a time before the factory-model school, though, so it’s hard to imagine a world after the factory model.  And that contributes to the pain.

2. Think about the people with the problem. What are they currently doing, or willing to do, to solve it?

As Robert Fried pointed out in his brilliant book The Game of Schoolstudents quickly realize that factory-model school is its own special world, with different rules and expectations from the real world where they spend their real lives.  The transition between worlds is painful. And students deal with their pain in various ways:

  • A few, like my own “school proof” children, “play the game” but don’t take it seriously.  They do well academically on the school’s terms, but they find other ways, in extracurricular organizations or non-school activities, to learn deeply and meaningfully.  It’s a great strategy, but you can’t learn it in school!
  • A number (fewer now than, say, 20 years ago) “play the game” and get caught up in all of its extrinsic rewards.  They really value – or try to value – the trappings of school success.  They “want a good grade” and know how to play the game to get one.  Their current pain is minimal, but when they leave school, that can be really painful.
  • A larger number (but still fewer than, say, 20 years ago), desire the rewards but don’t exactly know how to get them.  They want the grades, but something keeps them from getting what they want.  They’re frustrated, but quiet about it.  Their pain is hidden, but festering.
  • Some (more, I think, than 20 years ago) think the whole game is ridiculous.  They come to school to see friends and have fun.  Sometimes a particular class or teacher intrigues them, and when that happens, they surprise themselves with how much they enjoy learning about that.  But mainly school is for hanging out and maybe bothering Ms. X to see if she’ll get mad.  Their pain is simmering, just under the surface, about to erupt.
  • A few (more, again, than 20 years ago) think the whole game is appalling and refuse to play it.  Their goal is to get in enough trouble to get kicked out.  Ironically, if they “get kicked out” and end up in a real alternative program, they’ll probably excel … because real alternative programs are nothing like the “game of school” in the factory model.  But until then, their pain is boiling over.

Parents have a different, but equally complex set of responses.

  • Some of us just close our eyes and wish really hard that everything was still OK.  And if our kids fall into one of the top two groups in the list of students, we can almost succeed.  Again, the short-term pain is minimal, but what about the long-term prospects?
  • Some of us get angry and confront the “bad” teachers and administrators.  That’s an increasingly popular option, especially in places where teachers are seen as spoiled or entitled.  The pain and anger are open, which is healthy, but uncontrolled, which is, well, unhealthy.
  • Some try to get away by homeschooling, or by searching for a private school that’s different or “better.”  If you have the time and resources, that can be a pretty good solution.  It eliminates the pain for you, but it doesn’t do anything about the systemic pain.

Teachers and administrators have a complex set of challenges.

  • Many of us, like many parents, close our eyes extra tight and wish really, really hard that everything was still OK.  But that’s difficult because, if we have any self-awareness, we know that things never were OK … at least as we’d like to define OK in late 2012.  The pain is right under the surface, and it could erupt at any moment.
  • Some of us get angry and blame parents, or politicians, or poverty, or students, or charter-school operators, or test publishers, or … anybody but ourselves, because it isn’t our fault and we’re doing the best we can and why doesn’t anybody appreciate us?  The pain and anger are erupting, and eruptions are dangerous for everyone.
  • A few get away by leaving the field of education entirely, or by trying to build an alternative to the factory system.  But that’s hard to do if you’re depending on the paycheck from the factory.  If you can, though, you’ve eliminated your own pain, but the systemic pain is still going strong.

Politicians and employers and society at large react in many different ways.  But you can categorize most of them as

  • pretend things are OK – or at least that they’ll be OK again if we just have more testing, or less testing, or stronger unions, or weaker unions, or more detailed standards, or less detailed standards, or a longer school day, or uniforms, or … something, right, because there’s got to be something?  Pain right there under the surface.
  • get angry and come up with punishments or sanctions for those bad, lazy teachers, or students, or parents, or … whoever’s to blame, because somebody must be to blame, right?  Pain erupting, with all the consequences of eruptions.
  • get away by funding charter schools or scholarships to private schools or something … but those schools tend to follow the same factory model.  So how different are things really going to be?  Pain eliminated for you, but still there for others – and that can be dangerous if those others realize what’s going on.

You may be thinking the situation sounds hopeless – but I doubt that.  After all, if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably an EdStartup 101 participant or someone else with an interest in changing the system for the better.

What do you think of my analysis of the causes of the problem in my last post?  How about my schema of responses here?  And what kinds of solutions – or attempts at solutions – seem promising or even possible?

We’ll talk about current solutions next time, and we’ll get to my proposed solution after that.

The Pain Test 2: Inverting the School, Part 1



In my first “pain” post, I started out talking about the pain that 20th-century textbooks cause 21st-century teachers and learners and parents.  But if you’ve read that post, you probably noticed it’s hard to separate textbook issues from the overall design of schools.  So this series of posts, which will start out talking about the pain that school users feel, will probably have things to say about textbooks, too.  I’d been trying to keep my textbook idea and school idea separated, but I’m realizing that may not be possible.  There’s so much to say that I’m afraid it will take at least two posts to say it.

1. What causes the problem?

As Ira Socol points out in a recent blog post, factory-model schools were designed to “succeed” with about 20% of their student population;  schools today are actually “succeeding” (on that metric) with 30-40% of their students.  But across the political spectrum, and across stakeholder groups from teachers to parents to administrators to politicians to business leaders to students themselves, there’s a constant refrain that “schools are broken.”

Why #1: Why do 20th-century style schools feel less effective today than they did 25 years ago, even though (if you use 20th-century metrics) they’re actually “doing better” today?

Because the world has changed and the 20th-century success metric isn’t relevant anymore.  To succeed as a nation and an economy, we don’t need 20% or even 40% of our population trained for managerial and technical roles.  Instead, we need 100% of our population to be self-starting, creative problem-solvers who don’t wait until told, but seek out problems and develop new solutions.

Why #2: Why are our needs so different now?

Because the world has changed, and everyone feels it.  As I mentioned in my “textbook pain” post, we no longer live in the world of slow-changing, expert-generated knowledge and information that I grew up in – the world (to use just one illustration) of three TV channels, all of which featured a middle-aged white guy reading the news at 6:00 on weekdays.  My children and my students can’t even imagine such a world.  But schools still look and feel the way they did in the three-channel world. To quote Ira Socol again, the user experience and user interface of schools haven’t changed even though the society around schools has changed radically.

Why #3: Why haven’t schools changed?

There are so many reasons!  One key, I think, is that the lines of ownership and control are so unclear.  Who owns your local public school?  In mid-nineteenth century rural communities, the answer was clear: the school belonged to the local community, who had found the land, built the building, voted to tax themselves to support a school, and appointed or elected trustees to watch over the building and the money.  The consolidation of schools in the 20th century brought many benefits, but one unforeseen disadvantage was that the lines of ownership and control became unclear.  Who owns schools today?  And who controls them?  It’s often hard to say.

Why #4: Why is ownership an issue?

When the lines of ownership are blurred, so are the lines of authority and control.  Parents want schools to respond to their children’s “special” needs – because, after all, surely the school exists to serve children and parents.  Students complain that they’re ignored, marginalized, and mistreated even though there would be no school without them.  Principals frequently refer to “my” school because, after all, their names are on the letterhead.  Teachers want students to “work for” them because, after all, “I’m the teacher and you’re the student.”  Political figures complain that schools need to be “accountable” for getting “results” from the money which, after all, is provided to schools by federal, state, and local governments.  And business leaders want schools to “do better” because, after all, a major purpose of schools is to provide an educated workforce.  (OK, everybody should know that they all really work for the secretary, but they may not want to admit it.)

Why #5: Why is this a problem?

Because a system without clear lines of authority and control is usually a system without a clear purpose.  And if there’s no clear purpose, how can you be “accountable” to anyone?  How can you “meet your goals” when no one knows what those goals actually are?  Dysfunctional companies without a clear sense of purpose focus obsessively on what they can measure (quarterly profits and return to investors), and dysfunctional schools focus obsessively on the one thing they can measure: students’ test scores.  They may not be a good measure or even an accurate measure, but test scores give an appearance of accuracy, precision, and rigor.  No wonder they’ve become such a popular measure!

So, from my perspective, the problem with 20th-century, factory-style schools is that they don’t have a clear purpose … and one reason they don’t have a clear purpose is because there aren’t clear lines of ownership or control.  The 20th-century, factory-style school is a huge, complicated machine – but what exactly is it building, and how can we know if it’s operating properly?

Nobody seems to know.

But I’m pretty sure any solution to the problem of schools will fail unless it addresses these issues of purpose and ownership.  And in my next post, I’ll look at the rest of the “pain test” questions through the lens of establishing purpose and ownership.

What do you think?

The Pain Test 1: Inverting the Textbook



What causes the problem? (To answer this question well, channel your inner four-year-old and ask a 5-question “why” chain: “Why is there a problem?” “Why is that the cause?” “Why is that the cause of the cause?” and so on.)

Why #1? Why are textbooks a problem? As I said in my “textbook idea” post, there’s a problem because 20th-century style textbooks are a poor fit for 21st-century learners.  Textbooks presuppose a world of slowly-changing knowledge that’s pre-digested by experts and passively consumed by novices.  But the hyper-abundant knowledge environment of the 21st century doesn’t work that way, and that affects the whole structure of schools.  But I want to save school design for another post.

Why #2?  Why did the 20th-century paradigm presuppose slowly-changing knowledge and content-area experts? Because that’s howthings worked in the 20th century: knowledge changed slowly and was generated by subject-matter experts.  Naturally, they decided what knowledge needed to be shared with a wider audience, and they wrote textbooks (and books about discoveries, and film and TV documentaries, etc.) because those were efficient ways to spread the knowledge they’d discovered or created.  Most people didn’t need to know everything about everything; they needed to know a bit about some things, and the textbook, documentary film, and popularized book were great ways to convey that limited information.

Why #3? Why doesn’t that system work anymore?  Because the 21st-century knowledge world is totally different.  There’s so much information available that even experts can’t keep up – and it changes so rapidly that by the time you’ve written the book, recorded and edited the show, or distributed the documentary, much of the “vital” information is obsolete.

What to do then?  You can’t re-edit the book or the film!  And that’s why young learners, who grew up in this rapidly changing world and know that obsolete information is being “delivered” to them, are highly skeptical of slick, pre-packaged information.  The more pre-packaged it feels – and the more “flat and dead” it seems to the learner – the less willing they are to entertain it.  “Good” students will go ahead and “memorize for the test,” “bad” students will openly defy or refuse, but neither group is willing – or able – to be influenced by slickly presented, outdated information.

Why #4? Why are young learners this way? Because they’ve grown up in a hyper-connected world where authority (if there is any) rests in the network rather than in the product.  And because so many people have access to the tools that can generate a nice-looking product.  Anyone can make a textbook (a really pretty one, too) with iBooks Author or other software; anyone can publish an informational book with Lulu or an e-book with Amazon or dozens of other places; and anyone can make a short or long documentary film, edit it with software that’s superior to what Hollywood studios used a few years ago, and distribute it on YouTube or Vimeo or dozens of other sites for free.  Slick production no longer guarantees accuracy and credentials don’t guarantee an audience.

Why #5? Why is that important?  Because it’s so painfully hard to move out of the old paradigm if you grew up in it.  So publishers, schools, and teachers try to do the Same Old Thing, but “better” (on its own terms) and “more rigorously.”  We add extra levels of authority; we increase the size of textbooks; we increase the amount of supplementary materials (New! Now online too!!); and we produce even more slickly-produced videos.  And then we wonder why our learners keep tuning out, “forgetting” their textbooks, and “doing poorly” on the professionally-developed, machine-graded tests.

Think about the people with the problem. What are they currently doing, or willing to do, to solve it?

Education is a complex, people-intensive field, so there are different problems for different groups.

For schools and teachers, the problem is that the old system isn’t working, but no one knows how to change it.  The standard responses are (1) to do more of the same and (2) to blame the students, but those clearly don’t work.  If you are an educator, it can be really hard to step out of the educator bubble and engage with non-educators … but when you do, you hear a great deal of anger and disgust with both the same old and the blame.  When you talk to individual teachers and administrators, it’s pretty easy to reach a consensus about the problem, but hard to imagine a solution.

For students, the problem is at least twofold.  The old system isn’t meeting their needs, and it doesn’t even give them a voice to articulate their needs.  Results are predictable: “good” students grin and bear it, “average” students get yelled at for not “doing better,” and “bad” students retreat or rebel.  Most would be glad to do something, but they’re not sure what they can do.

For the original customers of public education, 20th-century factories and factory-like institutions, the problem is that, well, they’re abandoned or obsolete or dying.  Our societies and economies need new structures, but that’s hard when schools are still focused on producing a workforce for the old ones.  And surviving factory systems are in too much pain to focus on anything outside of that.  Are they actually a factor in this conversation?

For families and communities, the problem is basic: their children’s needs aren’t being met, and neither are their own!  Some communities try to take over their schools and “make” them get better; some families pay for private schools or homeschool; some move in desperate search of “better” schools; and some try to provide non-school experiences that will make things better for their children.  Time and money are the constraining factors for families – and, of course, imagining an alternative when the factory-model school is all you’ve ever known.

What are all of the current solutions to the problem?

I think I’ve already listed most of them, but let’s see if we can categorize them:

  1. Do more of the Old Way and hope for better or different results.  The Common Core State Standards fall into this category, and so do No Excuses charter schools and efforts to extend the school day or school year.  They all lead to “better or different” results in the short term, but their long-term prospects are poor.  Cries to “fix education by fixing poverty” can also translate into programs with short-term results.
  2. Struggle more or less blindly toward a new way.  Small-scale successes (alternative schools, curricular innovations, the Maker Movement in education, professional learning networks) fall here.  And they do tend to have – and celebrate – successes.  But even a successful blind struggle is hard to analyze and even harder to replicate.

Why aren’t the current solutions good enough?

I hope that’s clear from what I’ve already said.

How long has it been a problem?

Certainly since the advent of a generation who expect hyper-abundant information about everything on demand.  That’s when it became acute.  But it’s been chronic for a few decades.

How easily could something change to make the problem go away?

It’s like any other complex system: changing one piece can lead to wide-ranging effects. But complex systems resist change.  Build a community, build a parallel but better system, and the problem will be solved as people migrate from the old system to the new one.

Let’s see what happens as I share this post – and the ideas in it – with my network of friends, with some educator colleagues, with students and parents, and with other folks I know who are committed to making change.  I’ll keep you all posted.

But what do you think?

My EdStartup Idea 3: Inverting the School



1. The Idea

Once you start messing around with the paradigm of the textbook, as I did in my other post for this week, you quickly realize that different learning materials require different teaching and learning practices.  And those practices require different kinds of spaces and roles and responsibilities and expectations.  When you change one part of a complex system, that small change can cause huge ripples.  So, if you’re really committed to new kinds of learning materials, you quickly discover that you may have to create a whole new kind of learning environment to go with them.

2. The Problem

In my last post, I talked a lot about the problems with textbooks and with the teaching and learning practices that textbooks promote.  But if you move away from that factory-model paradigm of teaching and learning, you also need to move away from the factory-style approach to space and time that’s built into 20th-century style schools.  You also need to redefine the customer.  Of course, lots of schools don’t think they have any customers at all, and others are really confused about who their customers are.  But factory-model schools did, originally, have customers, as Seth Godin has compellingly pointed out.  They were designed to serve the factory system that needed a lot of well-trained, compliant workers; a few better-trained, competent managers; and a small number of visionaries who would come up with ideas for next-generation factories and products.

No factory system, no customers for the existing product.  But it’s really hard to rebuild a complex system to produce different results or to serve different customers.

I’ve tried to do that in my own classroom, and I’ve had some positive results … but I’ve also realized how hard it is to make fundamental change to a complex system.  If you work from below (which I’ve tried to do), the changes get swallowed up by the larger system.  But if you try to work from above, you quickly discover how little your positional influence and power really matter.  Systems, once built, tend to keep operating the way they operate.  If you want different results – disruptively different results – it’s a lot easier to get them by building a new system than by trying (and probably failing) to rebuild an old one.

3. How does our idea address the problem?

Three Column Schools will redefine the school as a joyful learning community instead of a factory, and we redefine our customers as learners and their families rather than the factory system.  That changes everything.

  • Instead of consuming pre-digested knowledge, student-learners work together to help each other learn.
  • Instead of presenting pre-digested knowledge, teacher-learners work together (with each other and with student-learners) to build an environment where active learning can happen.
  • Yes, there are skills that everybody should develop, and knowledge that everyone needs.  But the community addresses these requirements openly, together.  Structures beyond the school level can reclaim their proper role of assisting and supporting the school community, not imposing mandates or exerting authority.
  • Instead of passively complying with, or actively resisting, mandates from “them,” parents and community members are part of “us,” as actively involved as they want to be in building the learning environment and the learning itself.
  • The space and time are flexible because communities are flexible, not fixed because factory shifts are fixed.
  • Learners own the learning process; they’re building something for themselves and each other, not something designed by a far-away boss they’ll never see.
  • There’s a lot less need for “classroom management” (Wow! That really is a 20th-century term, isn’t it?) and a lot more need for leadership of learning.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this in future posts!

4. Why?

People are always saying that “schools are broken” – but that’s really not true.  Schools, and other 20th-century systems from healthcare to finance to brick-and-mortar retail, sometimes feel broken, but that’s usually because they’re doing the job they were designed to do – it’s just not the job that we want done anymore.   I want to move away from complaining about that, or from trying in vain to rebuild the plane in flight (that’s important, valuable work, but it’s not my skill set or my passion).  Instead, I want to help build the communities that will build the structures that will do the new jobs that we need now.

Does anybody want to join a community like that?