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Breaking the Mold: How Do We Reform Schools?

| Diane Demee-Benoit

Year after year, we debate numerous reforms to improve our educational system. Yet we are continually hampered by the conventions of our thinking about -- well, everything. We fall into the same old trap of tinkering around the margins and trying to reform an education system with an ever-increasing number of policies, programs, and regulations piled on top of each other. Even the words we use to talk about improving schools -- school reform -- seem worn and out-of-date.

Last week, a friend and adviser reminded me that the words I often use -- reinventing schools -- still ties us to a system that many say is broken. But here's the real clincher: What we have is not a broken system; it's an obsolete system. When something is obsolete, you develop something new, something better. You use what you've learned from the old, but you don't allow yourself to try to piece together something shattered beyond repair.

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If we dared to change our frame of reference so that the "school" we all know and many of us work in disappeared tomorrow and we awoke to find a brand-new system of learning -- a web of integrated learning experiences -- what would that educational system look like? If we designed what the recent report "A New Day for Learning" implores that we design, would we hold to our deep-seated belief that learning takes place only when children are put in a room and learning is guided by a system that often operates in a silo?

Would we break the mold and build a robust twenty-first-century learning system, or would we continue our attempts to reform an educational system designed for a simpler age? Would we still have a school bell that signifies that learning ends at a designated hour?

What do you think?

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Chris O'Neal (not verified)

Breaking the Mold

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Great thoughts, Diane. I, too, often think about what we all really mean by reform, reinventing, etc. It reminds me of when I look into my garage - it's truly a mess overall. There are lots of good things in there, I don't want to just obliterate it and start over, but in order to really clean it up, I've got to really dig in there, get my hands dirty, admit to myself that some things need to just be thrown out to the curb, etc. It's a daunting task - my garage is a beastly combination of great tools, tried-and-true hardware, but also lots of junk that I have just kept over the years for no real reason besides the fact that it's always been in there. But, if I'm being totally honest with myself, it no longer serves its real purpose anymore either - it's cluttered, it's innefficient, it's dusty, it needs some serious help. I sometimes think some of our schools and school systems are the same - still lots of good stuff in there, but wow - we haven't cleaned the thing out in... ever?

I've read some really good books the last few years that, by the author's intent, weren't really meant as educational K-12/Higher Ed type books, but they have given lots to think about. The World is Flat, Everything Bad is Good For You, Good to Great, etc. They have made me realize that we are far too protective of our school buildings - we're making baby steps to reform, and we've got rogue initiatives that speak to redesigning schools, but I'm looking at my own daughter who is now finishing up elementary school. When she started just five years ago in kindergarten things were drastically different than they are now - technology, life, sociopolitical issues, medicalt treatments, etc. But, her schooling, as good as it is, has remained pretty much exactly the same as it was years back. I often wonder how much of that sameness really is a good thing?

I feel like we're on the cusp of some "real" reinvention talk, thoughts, etc. I love what I'm reading here at Edutopia, and the highlights from the New Day for Learning report. Now I'm ready for the action. I'd like to build a new learning environment. :) Who's with me? Meet me in my garage and we'll start from there!


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