“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.

Steve Hargadon: Escaping the Education Matrix 25 February,2014Luba Vangelova

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  • Peter Gray

    Great interview! Congratulations, Luba and Steve. I couldn’t agree more with the idea that the movement has to come from ground up, beginning with deep conversations, not from top-down policy changes. The one kind of policy change we do need, however, is the removal of laws and regulations that make truly self-directed education difficult in many states and illegal in some countries.

    • Steve Hargadon


      The legal issues are intriguing to me. I agree that their removal would make a big difference, but their original legislation and continued acceptance seem to reflect cultural beliefs that I’m not sure would provide the consensus to change them. Kind of a catch-22. I keep thinking about how most significant social issues seem to spread individual to individual, and am trying to better understand how Gandhi and Martin Luther King and others were able to galvanize around injustice. Your own work so eloquently tells the story of educational injustice, but intellectual conviction seems to need a compelling and simpler narrative to gain larger energy. I have a picture on my wall of Gandhi with the spinning wheel, asking ordinary Indians to take back their economic destiny through their individual choices. AERO’s “start your own school” program reflects a similar movement, as does the homeschool movement, but I think we need something more universal–something that reflects a belief in the inherent capacity and worth of each individual child.

    • Barbara Bray

      Thank you Peter! I follow your work and definitely hope we can provide opportunities for more learners to be self-directed, autonomous learners. As Fullan mentions, the system has the wrong drivers and keeps getting in the way of the learners.

  • James Corkin

    I’m all for more choice in education and less control from “on high”, but I couldn’t help but notice the food amplify. Yes most people in modern society have a lot of choice in what they can eat… and it has led to an obese unhealthy population. Food for thought?

    • darkflame

      Indeed. Giving everyone the same medicine might be a better comparison.

      • Steve Hargadon

        Loving this thread. The difficulty for me with using medicine as the comparison is that unlike food, medicine is still largely about experts diagnosing and telling patients what they need. Which is important, but we need to decide if learning is more like medicine (someone else diagnoses and prescribes, our current paradigm) or like food (where we are responsible). Not to over-simplify, but medicine is often more about treating symptoms and food is more about building health, and perhaps that’s an appropriate distinction as well: are we trying for the sound-bite surface-level improvements that test scores refect, or do we want to encourage the kind of fundamental capacity-building that is often harder to measure but much more likely to help build individual and cultural strength?

        • darkflame

          While I agree with the second part, I dont think medicine is like how education is currently done; There’s essentially no “diagnoses” in education now – its blanket giving everyone the same “Treatment” and then giving them a”healthiness” mark at the end.
          But, yes, certainly agree with the second part.
          Its really not easy :-/ “education for the tests” is ridiculous yet often standard. But on the other hand, without test how do you measure at all? I am a great believer in evidence-based approaches to things, and I feel education is basically tradition and guesswork right now. Yet, as you say, its hard to measure things of meaning.

          • Luba V.

            Your question — “how do you measure at all?” — implies that *measurement* is always needed for making evaluations. I would argue that *assessment* is often desirable (even if it’s just self-assessment), but there are other ways besides measurement to assess quality. How do you determine whether your parents did a good job raising you: Do you measure that somehow, or do you assess it in a different (more intuitive) way? How do you determine whether someone is a good friend/chef/plumber/painter/doctor/whatever?

          • Steve Hargadon

            And the nuance deepens… darkflame, might we not consider the increasing number of “individual education programs” (IEPs) for students, and calls for “personalized learning” to be “diagnoses?” While you’re likely right that mostly we still think in terms of “blanket” policies, I think the cost of IEPs is becoming substantial for districts.

            One of the interviews I did that has really stuck with me was with John Hattie, who I think discussed that the measure of success was the students own ability to gauge their own success, which was measurable. He’s very data-oriented–I will try and follow up and make sure I have that right.

          • Barbara Bray

            When you look at Response to Intervention (RTI) using IEPs, there is a three Tier process. We wait until the child fails and then prescribe treatment. What if we turned that process around and monitored their progress all along so they didn’t get to Tier 3. Failure is no longer an option. Actually, all of us can learn from failure as we learn. We call it Response to Learning (RTL) where assessment is happening as they learn. The learner monitors their progress, invites feedback from peers and teacher. This is where learners, even very young learners, can tell you how they prefer to learn. Ask them. Has anyone ever asked you how you prefer and need to learn?

        • mariadroujkova

          Maybe medicine is a good analogy. In a healthy society, most people know first aid and home remedies for most casual health issues, which covers most of the needs. A few special cases require temporary specialist intervention. (It’s not so now in the US – see “Medical Nemesis”.) It may take very clever people to invent wheels, and then everyone uses them. It may take clever people to invent ways for kids to study calculus, and then everybody does it – with a few special cases sometimes requiring specialist interventions for short time. If you are stuck on a topic, try home remedies, but know when to seek more help.

        • Barbara Bray

          I’d like to take a point about comparing medicine and education. Tests are very similar to giving everyone the same pill. Doctors have limited time with patients and are sold a bill of goods from the pharmaceutical companies. Teachers are told to “cover the curriculum” using a pacing guide and teach to the test that is owned by big companies. Seems to be very similar to me that corporations are making money off of patients and kids.

          Some hospitals like Kaiser are putting more emphasis on preventative strategies and even alternative methods of treatment like acupuncture and herbs instead of the same pill. Yet, the system still is building in protocols so if you have diabetes, you have to take certain pills. The other thing Kaiser has is patient advocacy program so you as the patient can fight for what you believe is right for you.

          Educational system keeps us doing the same thing because it’s easy. They framed the words “No Child Left Behind” so we bought it and more children were left behind. Just as Kaiser and other health professionals are doing, education has to look at providing all options for learners. It is about teaching learners, starting very young, how to think so they can learn, unlearn, and relearn.

    • Steve Hargadon


      I think you’re observant to bring up the obesity issue, and it’s one I’ve been thinking a lot about as well. I’m not sure it actually negates the comparison, but it does bring the conversation to another level of complexity.

      The first point is the degree to which the business of food so significantly rewards profitability rather than health. I personally don’t think it’s an exaggeration to think that we might one day look at certain kinds of food production the way that we do tobacco. If we find out that abundant use of corn sweeteners, or certain additives that we allow to food in this country that are not allowed in other countries, are the cause of some of the obesity or diabetes or ADD, and that this has been purposefully covered up by commercial companies, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised and I think we would find culpability with the vested interests who hid this from us. That is speculation, but the point for me is that I’m not sure the smoking gun with obesity is having and allowing choice, but may be the way we’ve allowed profits to be the primary drive of food production.

      On the other hand, if we allow your idea that the obesity comes from lots of choices, I have spent time thinking about how we would view that particular problem. I would guess that rather than mandate that people eat what some particular group determines they should, we would start a campaign to help people better understand their choices. Then the food comparison in the interview still would hold for me, my point being that our democratic, freedom-promoting, agency-oriented cultural ideals are somehow more mirrored in thinking about food than about education.

      But there is another reason that I have had mixed feelings about the food comparison, and that is that there are other really interesting comparisons to make with food production, and the teaser soundbite feels inadequate to me because I want to go into even greater depth!

      For example, say you live in a community that has a variety of restaurants available: Thai, Italian, Chinese, American, etc. And let’s say that’s your community’s food culture is rich and satisfying, with restaurants and markets large and small, with entrepreneurs and larger chains. But you have a friend who is mayor of a town nearby and they don’t have nearly the same good food culture. How would you recommend that they help to build their city’s food culture? I would imagine you and I would both look at creating incentives for helping good businesspeople and cooks and managers to want to come and build–to create the conditions for them to pursue their passions and interests in ways that they will feel rewarded (and not just financially). Does that help us to think about building strong education cultures? Does it come too close to the charter/choice movement and profit motive concerns to explore because of the political lines that have been drawn? Not easy questions, but I don’t think we’d consider the kind of top-down control of the food industry to build a better culture, although that is often way we see as we way to better the education of our children.

      Or as another example, and one that might allow us to talk about how we handle the profit motive and activities that we believe are crucial to our health and the health of our children: fast food. I have friends who own a Mexican-food restaurant. It’s a constant struggle to create and cook good, healthy food; to advertise and retain customers; and to make a living for their family doing so. The Taco Bell down the block from them makes much more money than they do from standardization, mass marketing, and arguably less-healthy food. Choosing to eat at the family-run restaurant is at some level cultural choice by the patrons, and if we value locally-based, individualized restaurants, then we’ll have them; if we don’t, we’ll end up with Taco Bells (nothing personal, Taco Bell). I feel like we have at some level made the same choice with education–it’s easier to pretend that standardization and mass-testing are going to get us good learning, and so rather than investing in individual teachers and children and the time/money/love involved, we take a superficial route.

      I’ve been wanting to make a snarky verbal point that reflects this difference between fast/easy/superficial solution with schools versus the real work. One-to-one laptop programs are appealing “solutions” to school improvement, but the real “1 to 1” takes place between a caring adult and a child.

      I’m interested in the degree to which we don’t seem to be willing to devote ourselves to the kinds of generational building that communities have to do to perpetuate their core and caring values. Perhaps it’s because corporations now are typically global, and so there isn’t the focus on building long-term community potential the way that there was when most enterprises were local or just national. Or perhaps it’s the way in which the last thirty years have been about personal financial fulfillment–material accumulation–rather than the kind of generation-building that immigrant cultures often sacrifice to help build a broader base of opportunity. But whatever it is, somehow the moral imperative that is lacking has to also extend beyond just what benefits my children to what benefits all the children and families in my community. I’m not sure how we are going to get there with lives that are so insular we may not even know our neighbors at all.

      James–this was way more of a response than you probably bargained for, but I’m really glad you brought this up and it’s giving me a chance to think “out loud” about it. There are probably other good questions to ask as well: Do our current food subsidy policies have more to do with certain foodstuffs (corn?) becoming ubiquitous? Are we too lax in allowing food companies to do their own short-term testing, and where and what kind of better oversight might we want? And how is oversight and regulation of food/education production different from actually running the factories/schools?

      Thanks again.

      • EW Osborne

        I found this just as fascinating as the original article. The food analogy jumped out at me too, but it’s effective in it’s complexity. Thank you for taking it this much further.

        • Steve Hargadon

          EW, you made my day. Without the great writing skills of Luba V., I was afraid my going deeper would just muddle things…

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  • Daven

    What would you suggest to a newly qualified teacher who is disillusioned with mainstream schools?

    I qualified an am still passionate about alternative education but find working in mainstream schools in the UK entirely depressing. There are very few schools in the UK with the ethos describe, so whilst I want to do my bit to help change things I’m not sure how I can go about it.

    • mariadroujkova

      Try leading community groups where you live, and working with homeschoolers, museums, libraries, or other places that offer choices.

  • silke

    for that reason, we developed a training for people working in education, focussed on personal and institutional change to be a learning-culture-ambassador


    I also recommend http://www.life-learners.eu, to read and tell new stories of learning.

    take responsibility and be the change you want to see!

  • Foreverlearner

    In the same way today evaluation is in a matrix. But not everybody has same skills and everything else about knowledge, so we need to have personalized evaluation and grading.

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  • alidaxla627

    my Aunty Grace got a nearly new blue Kia by
    working part time from the internet. look at this now B­i­g­2­9­.­ℂ­o­m

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  • tsuria

    The school system is like living in a closed system – within a bell jar. To use Sylvia Plath’s analogy, rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion – avoiding reality and warding off challenges to its validity. School has become so unquestioned and accepted for most that we now must dare to or even learn how to do the ‘unnatural’ – seeking to transcend and transform the current state.

    • Steve Hargadon

      There is surely truth to this, although I think Leigh (above) would rightly argue that we have to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush because of all the good people and good work that take place within the system, sometimes because of systemic support and sometimes despite it. Institutions of all kinds face this same challenge and have to figure out how to create dynamic countering methods. Ivan Illich spoke cogently to the institutional danger. The US Constitution can be seen as an attempt to create an institution that always allows for renewal.

  • Danny Fain

    I suggest “clothing” is another apt analogy for choice in education, and it avoids the unfortunate issue of obesity (I agree with Steve’s points about that in the comments, but it still tends to cloud the food analogy). With clothing, everyone understands that it’s a familial choice, usually a negotiation between the child and her parents (it can be a contentious negotiation at times! :), modulated by authentic social and environmental constraints (e.g. beach-wear vs. banquet-wear).

    • Steve Hargadon

      I like this Danny, but I wonder if clothing choice carries the same sense of core human need as learning and food do?

      • Danny Fain

        For people who live in the tropics, clothing may not be a core need, but I think it is for those of us who live in less halcyon climates (especially within reach of the Polar Vortex! :). While there are occasional news stories of neglected kids who don’t have adequate clothing for their circumstances, I haven’t heard people clamoring for the government to provide standard-issue clothing to everyone; it seems the Salvation Army (and many other private charities) are doing a good-enough job of providing a reasonable assortment of clothes to those in need.

        • Steve Hargadon


  • MikeSadofsky

    This essay looks a lot like what we’ve been doing at Sudbury Valley School (www.sudval.org) since 1968! Check it out.

    • Steve Hargadon

      Thanks, Mike. I’ve tried in vain for some time to get an interview with Daniel or someone there, and was refused a visit. I did order the complete set of materials when it was on sale, and would love more contact.

      • MikeSadofsky

        As you can well imagine, a place like Sudbury Valley that is essentially self funded and operates with only the staff level required to support the student body has limited resources for outreach and PR functions. In a similar vein, visits and interviews are difficult; the students don’t appreciate being observed as “fish in an aquarium.” And the School is really theirs; it is their community. They hold this precept very dear. And I, NOT being part of the School Meeting (the decision making body) have only limited influence at the School. Nonetheless, I will lobby on your behalf.

        • Steve Hargadon

          I understand.

  • jg114

    I’ve been advocating an analogy between education and transportation. We travel about 80 times more via personalized vehicles (going where we want, when we want) than we do via public transit (which only goes on certain routes at certain times). Schools are like trains. Learning could be like driving a car. Why can’t we build a learning system that permits an order of magnitude more personally directed on-demand mobile learning? Perhaps we just need some good knowledge maps and places for learners to “refuel”.

    • Steve Hargadon

      I like this and have used it myself, but the foundation of a good public transit system can allow/facilitate a lot of individual routes without requiring everyone to buy a car.

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  • Kathryn Meyer

    Sounds about right to me. Reminds me of when I was the contact person for our
    homeschooling support group, and I would get calls from parents planning
    to start home education, who wanted me to tell them everything they
    needed to do to make it a success — which curriculum to buy (“school in
    a box”), when, and how to do everything. When I would tell them the
    choice was up to them, I could feel their stares of incomprehension
    right through the phone line.

    • Steve Hargadon

      Kathryn: I hear this often, as it’s the basic argument unschoolers give about homeschooling. My only addition is that it’s important to allow for both differences in how people are comfortable doing things and in their individual thought progression as it relates to learning philosophies.

      • Kathryn Meyer

        Right, Steve, and our own philosophy changed as we went along, to a much lesser dependence on the “nanny state” for everything, or at least a greater awareness of how dependent we were.

  • Leigh Lace

    While I agree with many of the points–high stakes testing is not good for kids (but do we really think it’s about testing the kids or is about vilifying the teachers?)–I’m tired of hearing about public schools as those we’re all devoted to creating quiet, compliant automatons. Maybe that is true. But I’ve taught in several states and from elementary to high school (currently in middle school) and everywhere I’ve taught kids are being encouraged to think and to question and to challenge ideas and facts and presumptions. True, not in every class and not by every teacher, but by far more teachers than parents and community volunteers who I see interacting with kids in other situations. There’s a lot of truth in the idea that teaching is a subversive activity. Kids who can think and ask questions can make many people uncomfortable. And I would be willing to guess that many teachers who are teaching strictly to the test would much rather be teaching kids to question and think and act but can’t for fear of losing their jobs (which most of us need to pay the mortgage and feed our own kids, so no judgement there). Articles like these don’t really help us get rid of the aspects of public schools we all hate–the testing and canned curriculum and the drill and kill–it’s just more fodder for those who want to further devalue the schools and educators we have and replace them with private or pseudo-public schools. Problems with current policies do need to be called out, but focus on the actual problems, don’t just condemn the entire system.

    • Daven

      I agree with this. I’m a qualified teacher and there are definitely teachers that want nothing more than to encourage children to question and think about things for their own sake. I think what he’s saying though is precisely that doing this is often going against the system.

      It didn’t read to me as though he was putting down teachers at all, just the system they’re a part of.

    • mariadroujkova

      “Not in every class and not by every teacher” – but mostly, not to a deep enough degree. EVERY kid I know questioned why they are forced to learn their school’s math curriculum. What comes of that questioning?

      When my kid or my Math Circle students question whether to study a math topic, we discuss it. Just like that – we talk about it, and make our own decisions.

      Sometimes we decide the topic makes sense in a different form, for example, as a programming project, or a part of a physics experiment. Sometimes we decide another math topic is more meaningful just now. Sometimes we decide to go eat a snack, or play tag. Any educational system I would even start to consider must provide at least that level of curricular freedom.

    • Steve Hargadon

      Leigh, I think your points are really important, and that we (I) don’t presume to believe that there aren’t really good things being done by people who really care. Interestingly, teaching as a subversive activity presumes subverting something, and I’m guessing that something is not dissimilar to the larger systemic view of learning embodied by mass teaching and high stakes testing. I do take issue with the idea that trying to recognize the unhealthiness of the current story of schooling doesn’t help and possibly hurts. We have to be able to talk about this, in the same way that I hope we’ll start talking about the difference in higher ed between becoming an educated person and paying inordinately for preference in the job market.

      Thanks for challenging the thinking!

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  • Cy

    My favourite line in this article is “families must also reclaim ownership of learning, rather than viewing it as the responsibility of schools and government”. I remember THE MOMENT I decided to home school my child, I claimed back my responsibility and it was this huge emotional shift and how I related to my kid totally changed. I no longer had “someone else” to push the hard, complex questions of how to ensure my child learned to. What was most shocking though (and I thought I was a fairly dedicated parent at the time) was the realisation that I HAD given up my responsibility in the first place. It was overwhelming to take it all back at once, but I have no doubt the responsibility now lies in the correct place.

    • Steve Hargadon

      Cy, you’ve captured something fascinating, and perhaps it’s why MindShift used the matrix comment for the title. We all use stories in some form to make sense of our lives and the story of schooling as something done by others to our children, and as a means of controlling society, have become somewhat invisible by virtue of their pervasiveness–and perhaps their value to those who benefit from it. Seeing schooling as a story rather than the establish truth we thought it was can be a shock, and one we might prefer to avoid.

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  • Bruce Smith

    @steve_hargadon:disqus, I want to echo what Mike Sadofsky said: what’s expressed here is strikingly similar to what Sudbury schools put into practice. I’ve been on staff at Alpine Valley School (http://alpinevalleyschool.com) since 1998, and I’ve long thought of it as “agenda-free” (echoing “mandate-free”) education. We are 100 percent based on and structured around “trusting and respective the capacity of individuals to make choices.”

    I especially appreciate your analysis of the cognitive dissonance and disempowered thinking among adults that perpetuates the status quo. And so I’d encourage you, and everyone reading this, to keep looking into a model that truly helps “children…grow up to become self-reliant and reach their full potential.”

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  • Great article Steve! I thoroughly enjoyed and connected with the insights you shared here. I am very interested in contributing to the conversation regarding the future of education. We need to EMPOWER students not spoon feed them.

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  • Barbara Bray

    Steve – we talked about this at Hacked at ISTE 2014. What you are talking about is the idea of personalizing learning so learning starts with the learner. Sudbury Valley is a great model because not only do learners drive their learning, they have a voice in the governance of the school.

    When you try to apply these concepts to public school, the system gets in the way. Teachers and administrators, especially in large urban districts, are caught in the system and trapped to keep the status quo going. It’s all about test scores and teaching to the test. The “one size fits all” mantra that doesn’t work when you focus on each learner. Please check out our website” http://www.personalizelearning.com

    We are working with small and large school districts around the country who are beating the odds. They are taking risks and turning the learning over to their learners. What they found is that if you let go and encourage learner voice and choice, they want to take responsibility for their learning. At first, they are reluctant, until they see that the teacher has created a flexible learning environment around how they learn best. We use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles as our framework for all learners to understand how they learn best and their interests, talents, aspirations, passions, and hopes and dreams. All of this can help them discover their purpose. They become more engaged in learning and motivated to want to learn. I can go on but we are talking the same talk. We would like to invite you to write a guest post for our site. Thank you Steve, for all you do for education and kids!

  • Jay Simmons

    This essay is really powerful and also factors in many reason why an educational “achievement gap,” continue to plague our country. In order to escape the educational matrix, I’m a firm believer that changes needs to happen from within because often time in k-12 education we have people entering this field with a “save” the child mentality whether than helping prepare the student to become a 21st century leader.
    I ditto that we need more people to stand up and say “this is not right for children,” but as leaders how can we make sure that all educators feel as if they have a voice at the table with such a top down approach coming from educational leaders?

  • Pingback: Repost from Mind/Shift: “Escaping the Education Matrix” by Steve Hargadon | Navigating Your Kids()

  • Ted Fujimoto

    This is why we need deeper learning schools! http://www.americandreamschools.org

  • Peg

    I agree with what Steve says, especially that we all need to own the change. Transformation to student and teacher empowered learning environments is happening in Napa County!! With support from NapaLearns, a locally funded non-profit, all school districts and the County Office of Education are retraining and coaching teachers to implement deeper learning through inquiry-based and project-based learning, infused with technology. The 47 schools in 5 districts (21,800 kids) are implementing a variety of effective models. Experienced teachers find changing their practice is hard work but really worth it as the kids are coming alive (and primary school kids are loving learning the way they did before coming to school at 5). For every teacher and every student this is working! Thanks to our community, parents, and school leaders for creating this vision. Come visit us, Steve – and anyone else who wants to learn how to transform existing public schools!

  • Leslie McColgin

    Steve, you are saying the things that John Holt, Grace Lewellyn, and J. T. Gatto have said many moons ago. Including the food and library analogies. And Holt longed for the day when mainstream educators would start really really thinking about how to move these ideas into traditional schools. He hoped that schools would look at what unschoolers have done in their little laboratories of freedom and see what might have applicability to mainstream education.

  • Leslie McColgin

    Personally, I like to also think of things like Scouting where you earn badges as a viable system that could be adapted to schools. I was also involved in U. S. Pony Club where there was a very standardized curriculum of knowledge and skills and authentic assessments to move up through 8 levels from “D” to “A”. Members chose when and whether to take a “ratings test” and could decide not to take the ratings at all and still participate. Kids of different ages could all be working at the same level. Lots of kids quit before reaching even the D level. The choice was theirs.

  • Ann S

    I struggle with these questions every day. My child is in first grade in public school. He is a bright, curious, and enthusiastic child, but I have see his love of learning dwindle to an attitude of hating school. He loves music, art, science, engineering and languages. NONE of these subjects are giving substantial time and they focus on Math and Reading for testing. They do not even introduce science until 3rd or 4th grade. There are no options in our community for an alternative school experience. What is a parent to do??

  • Wendy Rairdan

    My children go to an amazing school. Its outdoor, all day, everyday and is driven by experiential, hands-on, place based learning. For four years I have been talking to people about this school and here are a few things I have learned

    1. If they can’t measure it, it has no value. The school systems like the idea but they want to measure it, quantify it as to make sure the kids are learning. How do you grade it? How do you know if the students understand? How do you evaluate it? (Heres a thought – Talk to the kids and ask what they are learning.) 2. There is a constant fear that we are not preparing them for secondary education. (I tell them that conventional school isn’t preparing them for secondary school or life and yet nobody is questioning that fact. We all know we have raised an entire generation of children who are unable to problem solve or think creatively yet nobody wants to talk about that? At this very moment I’m sitting at a pool watching my 10 year old swim. He couldn’t find any toys so he came to the table, took the plastic lid from my coffee cup, his water bottle, a pair of sunglasses and a couple of rocks and made himself a boat that floats and has a leaf sail. I believe this is from years of looking around his surroundings, not in a book, for answers.) 3. Kids will not learn on their own. (Complete myth. Kids can’t help but learn when you get them going in a direction. From the pool I just heard “Mom! my boat holds three rocks but four makes it sink! Next year during home school we will talk about water displacement or weight and will have this experience to refer back to. We have been trained to believe that they won’t do it without us and now WE are part of the education paradigm problem.) 4. The more I talk about the shift we need in education the more I realize that people DO, in fact, get it. They know we should be questioning the conventional school systems but their hesitancy and fear comes in because they don’t know how they fit into it. They don’t know how to be a teacher in this type of learning environment or they don’t know how they would fill out report cards and are bound by stupid things like “PLOs” (Prescribed Learning Outcomes). I feel like we have to make this shift WITH teachers for the future of education. We need them to be on board, jump in, get messy and hopefully remember what made them go into teaching to being with. They need our support. I can also tell you the change in education WILL NOT come unless the parents push for it. The biggest excuse I hear now from educators who don’t want to change the system is “Our parents wouldn’t like this.” And, I know that they are right. The parents have to make the push for anything to change. Here’s hoping.

  • Gary Gruber

    With a great escape it’s good to know where you’re going. Incremental change is insufficient. Until or unless there is systemic change and the paradigm shifts, a la Ken Robinson, we’re still putting new wine into old wine skins. It just doesn’t work. We need a new vessel for delivery of a better product.

  • fahrender

    This is all well and good for people who have a certain economic status and can devote enough time to be involved in their school communities to insure good outcomes. But there are millions of families wherein this is simply not the case and there is little realistic hope that the circumstances can significantly change in the next decade or even much longer. The assault on public school education has gone on far too long and has had horrific consequences. Generations of teachers have become demoralized and left the profession. Education bureaucracies have become more and more bloated, draining scarce and diminishing funds. We are at the mercy of cynical political battles that totally ignore the needs of children. I just left the profession at age 78 having taught far longer than I ever expected to. My own view is that America needs to eliminate this magnet school/Teach for America/punishment of “under-performing school”/ ridiculous obsession with testing mania. We also need to start paying teachers well and not expect a 10 or more hour workday from them. And, by the way, although I know next to nothing about Sudbury Valley School it sounds in some ways like A.S. Neil’s Summerhill School which opened it’s doors in England in 1921.

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  • Kyle Pate

    I’d like to highlight the irony of your last paragraph…

    “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.”

    So what the heck happened with the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum? The research that supports it as a successful curriculum is virtually non-existent. To top that off, it was a private venture, developed out of the public’s eyes. Then the government bought it hook line and sinker… What kind of “conversation with the public” is that? Where’s the democratic process? To make things worse the common core method is vastly different from the style of learning we learned. What effect does that have? Well, for starters, it removes me from my child’s education because I don’t understand what the homework is trying to get at. Basic concepts are made immensely confusing for some reason. Why would someone do this???? This is one reason, among many, that I have decided to homeschool my children from now on. I’m taking the bull by the horns. I know my wife and I can teach our children better that the system. I feel like the veiled meaning of this article is to encourage parents to take more responsibility for their children”s learning. I for one have been thinking this way for a while now.

    Good, thought provoking article. Thanks 🙂

  • Bob Wolf

    The author writes so well that one is tempted to fall into the very trap he accuses public schools of setting for our kids. That is to accept his underlying premises without requiring support.

    Schools are bad because they are a tool of those who want/need mindless automatons. Really? Can you give any evidence to support this conspiracy theory?

    Schools take away freedom and this is bad. Really? I thought that was how communities, even as small as 2-3 people, work: identify the greater good, invest in working together using give and take, and accomplish that good. To supplant the current system would require just such an effort.

    Kids need choice; they need to be democratic participants in their own education. Sounds great in theory, but don’t we pay experts who have been educated in how the brain functions and put them in the room for a reason.
    When students ask, “why do I have to learn this?” it is important to have an answer, but it is often not very satisfying because students don’t understand scaffolding and neural pathways. Students live in the now, they only know themselves as they are, while good teachers live in the future inhabited with who the students cam become.


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is www.LubaVangelova.com. She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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