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Those Amazing, Groundbreaking Schools of the Future!

Entrepreneurial types who amassed at the SXSW-Edu conference want to share some innovative ideas with us, all about re-shaping education. Their four unique visions for Schools of the Future. Ah, yes. Those amazing Schools of the Future, where disruption reigns--busting open the cages in which traditional public schools and ordinary teachers dwell.

The surprising thing about the four ideas was how uninspiring they were.

  • There was the private school where they do coding in every class--students coding animations of MacBeth in English, and images of Colonial America in History. No more "mundane" textbooks--it was all coding, class after class.
  • There was also a presentation by Quest to Learn, a public school in New York that "uses its own selection criteria to enroll students we believe will be the best fit for success with our hands-on, game-based curriculum." Imagine if all schools could be game-based! Imagine, as the SXSW panelist said, ""Learning happens by doing. Learning feels like play. Everything is interconnected. Everyone is a participant." Everyone who fits the selection criteria, that is.
  • An online blended and flipped school. Which sounds--like a mouthful of 2009 edu-jargon.
  • And a self-driving bus with a tutor aboard, which students who had trouble getting to school could order, on demand, as a rolling classroom, employing "blended learning." The suggested launch city for this bus without a driver? Detroit.


When I was in the 7th grade, a friend and I partnered up for the annual Science Fair. Our project, we decided, would be a "House of the Future." We spent countless hours outfitting our cardboard house with walls, rugs, appliances and tiny curtains on tiny windows. When it came to evidence of the future, however, we couldn't come up with anything more sophisticated than what we saw on The Jetsons, which was new on TV at the time: The chute where the food pills were dispensed. A robot to clean. A place for the man of the house to store his jet pack. And so on.

We couldn't imagine anything about the future that wasn't an amazing Technology to Make Life Easier. We didn't consider social changes that might send women to work, a global energy crisis, a return to locally grown food--or how the scientific and technological choices we were making in 1963 might impact life in 2015.

When we got the project back, the teacher (very generously) gave us a B, with the comment: "Lots of effort--not much science." Exactly right.

The comment I would make on the four ground-breaking education models? Lots of showy effort, not much content. And zero context.

You can't make a functioning, fully public "school of the future" around a single, attractive idea (like coding, gaming and flipping instruction) without running up against some logistical and technical challenges: Kids need personal connections, role models and the experience of working with diverse people, face to face. In most schools, we don't screen out children who don't "fit." Perhaps there is a richer way to teach Shakespeare than coding his majestic characters into cartoons, a great example of forced curricular "connections." 

As for the on-demand classroom bus, I am thinking about it cruising on Detroit's potholed roads, in neighborhoods where its prospective students don't have computers or even, sometimes, water or electricity.  There are plenty of reasons to offer students in Detroit many more chances to enrich their education, but riding around on a bus loaded with content-delivering technologies isn't a model that strikes me as caring or an opportunity for personalized growth.

There are major things about effective schooling that never go away: getting kids motivated, finding good materials, building a sense of community or relationships, nurturing persistence, quality staffing and how to cope with abundant mandated testing, state regulations, and the management of finite resources. Did I mention testing and subsequent uses of the data it generates? Oh yeah. The main reason that innovative, cage-busting ideas go bust. That and money.

Those who suggest teachers are stuck in instructional cages of their own making, unable to imagine a very different conception of schooling, might want to consider the huge assemblage of barriers faced by educators who do want to innovate. They begin with time, resources, and endless regulation around accountability.

Still, most of the things I see touted as innovative (coding, game-based learning, blended content delivery, for starters) are things I first learned about when a colleague said "Hey--look what I'm trying in my classroom."  There are, indeed, public school educators who have broken the mold, without skimming off only the top students. But the current policy environment makes it tough.

So what would my school of the future look like?

Not concerned with technological bells and whistles, for sure--the same old ideas in jazzed-up modes. I'd like to see: All-day/same-age cohort instruction broken up into flexible groupings. An emphasis on students' own identified interests and passions that increases as students age, so curriculum could be custom-tailored. A low-risk instructional atmosphere without academic punishment. The flexibility to place older students in long-term internships, and more field experiences. Enriched recreation after school for kids who aren't getting any. Making performance assessment the accepted norm in evaluating students' work and teachers' effectiveness, rather than computer-delivered standardized tests. 

But these are all boring, incremental ideas. Certainly not as sexy as a driverless bus. 

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