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you’ve written the book, recorded and edited the show, or distributed the documentary, much of the “vital” information is obsolete.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students will openly defy or refuse, but neither group is willing – or able – to be influenced by slickly presented, outdated information.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?