By Francis M. Duffy
Here we go again! One more time politicians and pundits are calling out school systems for failing to provide America’s children with the education they need and then offering their worn, tired, and failed recommendations for change: A longer school year. Fire incompetent teachers. Create charter schools. Dump more money into failing schools. Practice continuous improvement. Reform! Reform! Reform!
None of these “fixes” can do what needs to be done to provide America’s children with the education they need to succeed in our 21st Century knowledge economy. We need to transform our school systems, not reform them.
Education reform is a failed strategy because it focuses on fixing the broken parts of school systems (which is pejoratively referred to as piecemeal change) while sustaining the underlying paradigm that drives teaching and learning in those systems. Fixing the broken parts of any school system is a failed change strategy when the underlying paradigm has outlived its usefulness.
A paradigm is a set of theories, models, beliefs, and so on that influence the performance of an entire field. The dominant paradigm influencing the performance of school systems is one that emerged at the beginning of the Industrial Age in the late 1700s-early 1800s. This Industrial Age paradigm created a factory model for educating groups of students by requiring them to learn a fixed amount of knowledge in a fixed amount of time. There is no place in that paradigm for providing each child with an educational experience that is tailored to his or her needs, interests, and abilities. There is no place in that paradigm for providing children with a personalized educational experience. This paradigm always has and always will leave children behind. Leaving children behind is an unavoidable consequence of the Industrial Age design of America’s school systems.
Providing America’s children with an education that satisfies the requirements of our 21st Century knowledge society requires a paradigm-shifting revolution that drives out four old inter-connected Industrial Age paradigms that influence the design and performance of America’s school systems. The four paradigm shifts are:
Paradigm 1: the way teachers teach and how children learn (shift from group-based, teacher-centered instruction to personalized learner-centered instruction;
Paradigm 2: the design of the internal social infrastructure of school systems (shift from an mechanistic, bureaucratic organization design to an organic, participative design; and, transform organization culture, the reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new core and support work processes;
Paradigm 3: the way school systems interact with external stakeholders (move from a crisis-oriented, reactive approach to an opportunity-seeking, proactive approach); and,
Paradigm 4: the way in which educators’ create change (shift from piecemeal change strategies to whole-system change strategies).
A revolution to transform America’s school systems requires political advocacy, courage, passion and vision. Although a revolution to drive out the old paradigms requires muscular political advocacy, when educators in school systems and politicians interested in education step forward to lead or join this revolution on the front lines of change they will require much more than political advocacy. Fighting this revolution requires significant courage, passion, and vision. They must have courage to stand and fight for that in which they believe. They need passion to give them the emotional energy and resilience they need to persevere. And, they must have a vision to serve as their North Star to keep them moving in the right direction.
Further, these three traits—courage, passion, and vision—must be simultaneously present in each change leader. A change leader can have courage, but lack passion and vision. A change leader can have a powerful vision, but lack the courage to fight for it. A change leader can have courage and a vision, but lack the passion to pursue the vision relentlessly. All three traits must be present all at once in each man and woman who steps forward to lead this revolution.
Our society cannot afford to carry its old education paradigms forward. It does no good to dream of an idealized future for education if that future is just a projection and continuation of the past. Instead, change-minded revolutionaries should imagine that the four paradigms controlling the design and performance of school systems were destroyed last night and now they must invent four new paradigms. What would be the main features of those new paradigms? How could educators change the mental models supporting the old paradigms? And, importantly, how can they design new school systems driven by the four new paradigms and the new mental models required by the paradigms?
The time is now. The need is great. The past before us is not the future. We need to create a brand new future for America’s school systems—a future created through transformation not reformation.
Francis M. Duffy, Ph.D. is the author of Dream! Create! Sustain!: Mastering the Art & Science of Transforming School Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.