“We tell a story about the power of learning that is very different from what we practice in traditional models of school,” says Steve Hargadon, education technology entrepreneur, event organizer, and host of the long-running Future of Education podcast series. If we really want children to grow up to become self-reliant and reach their full potential, “we would be doing something very different in schools. We live in a state of cognitive dissonance.”
His comments are informed by a recent cross-country tour facilitating community discussions on education, as well as more than 400 interviews he’s logged with a broad spectrum of education practitioners, analysts, and innovators.
“What are most kids getting out of 12 years of school?” he asks. “The honest answer is they’re learning how to follow, and that was the original intent. Public schools were based on the belief that what was needed was a small group of elites who would make the decisions for the country, and many more who would simply follow their directions” — hence a system that produces “tremendous intellectual and commercial dependency.”
And the notion that the smartest students rise to the top, regardless of family and social circumstances, “sends a message to the majority of students that they are losers,” Hargadon notes, which doesn’t square with a professed belief in the inherent value and capacity of every child.
The system’s fundamental design also leads to a host of unintended consequences, including bullying. “We’re placing kids in an artificial environment,” he says, “telling most of them they’re not good at things, and then expecting them not to explode at each other? Of course they will. The ‘mean girls’ thing is not a natural part of childhood—it’s more a reflection of how kids are being treated than a reflection of kids. It’s shocking that we put up with it.”
The reason so many adults find the situation tolerable, he says, may stem from the fact that they experience little control over their own lives. Additionally, they themselves are products of the system and, as such, find it difficult to envision an alternative. “People are almost in this Matrix-like existence,” Hargadon says. “They don’t question schooling. How do you tell a story that opens the door to rethinking what people have believed for decades? So much in their lives depends on that story being what they think it is. How do you tell a new story that involves people reclaiming their destinies, children not being defective, and learning not being owned by one organization?”
There are also vested interests in the status quo. “The people who benefit from us not being active citizens, from all buying the same things, and being willing to take jobs that demand we leave our personal values at the door—they all benefit from the current schooling system, because it produces a populace that does not feel confident in being critical,” he notes. “At an institutional or personal level, those who benefit don’t have much incentive to promote changes in education that would lead people to question their motives or challenge their practices.”
To Drive Real Change, Focus on the Human Factors
An economic crisis (perhaps the one we’re already experiencing) may provide the financial imperative to overhaul the system, Hargadon says. But something even more powerful may take precedence: He’s noticed “more and more resonance with the idea of having a moral imperative for education,” pointing to the growing backlash against high-stakes testing as one indication of a shift in thinking.
He sees a need for more people to “stand up and say: ‘This is not the right thing for children—it’s not a healthy childhood.’” But families must also reclaim ownership of learning, rather than viewing it as the responsibility of schools and government, and also resist the tendency to make decisions for others. “In some ways, traditional schools have co-opted a lot of traditional parental responsibilities,” he says. “That’s really unhealthy, and it becomes self-fulfilling. And when society says it knows better than the family, it’s a recipe for disaster. Some family circumstances are not ideal, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s about trusting and respecting the capacity of individuals to make choices.”
Technology can support a transformation, but it’s not a silver bullet. The Internet has ushered in an era of “digital democracy” and increased people’s capacity to question the status quo. Widespread access to unlimited information has also opened many doors. But “the process of becoming a self-directed, independent learner is a very human process,” Hargadon says. “Recognizing the different needs of every student, and the desire to help each one become personally competent as a learner and find productive things to do in life—that won’t happen online.”
The temptation to “solve all these problems with data” must also be tempered, he says. “Data does not define the core things in education, such as someone opening your eyes to something.” There’s a lesson to be learned from the world of business, he adds, where “the true value of the ‘total quality’ movement came not from tracking, but from involving workers themselves in using the data for self improvement.”
A Future Marked by Greater Freedom and Collaboration
For models of healthier ways to frame education, Hargadon suggests looking to food and libraries. “No one says that from age six to 17, we will give you all the same food, at the same time, regardless of your individual circumstances or needs,” he says. He envisions a world where families can similarly choose where, how, and what they learn.
What might that world look like? He considers libraries good examples of places that already facilitate such mandate-free learning. “The reason we have a hard time conceiving [an alternate reality],” he says, “is because we so strongly associate education with control. If I ask you how you choose your own food, you’d probably say that it’s just what you do: Depending on your circumstances at the time, you may go to a farmer’s market or grocery store or restaurant or grow your own food. The difficulty is dismantling something that’s taken away our conception of having that kind of agency. But when I imagine that world, it includes things like community college classes, apprenticeships at businesses, educational certification programs. You have a range of choices, depending on the child’s interests.”
Hargadon sees connecting people to each other as the most effective way to get from here to there, hence his recent tour. “The tour convinced me that policy changes are not the answer, and that change needs to come from us,” he says. “As individuals, families and communities, we need to reclaim the conversation around learning, and to do so in such a way as to recognize the inherent worth and value of every student, with the ultimate goal of helping them become self-directed and agents of their own learning.”
Hargadon thinks one way change agents get tripped up is by promoting a particular model, rather than a process by which people can develop (or adopt) models that best fit their needs. He considers deep, meaningful conversations a useful starting point for people to use to shape the future, and to that end, he’s planning to host a series of national conversations in 2014 that probe the deeper questions around education and can serve as models for conversations people initiative in their own communities.
“Living in a democracy means involving people in decision making,” Hargadon says. “You can’t just create a new system to implement top down; you have to provide the opportunity to talk about it and build it constructively.”
Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Salon.