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.