Public Education Needs a Revolution

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What Can Teachers Do to Make the System Work for All Students?

It’s time for our public education system to be reinvented. We currently have alarming rates of non-graduation from schools and colleges, and the levels of stress and depression among students and their teachers have skyrocketed. University degrees are falling in value, yet the costs of getting one are increasing. And the levels of unemployment among graduates and non-graduates are escalating, as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting all public schools are terrible, or that our entire system is a mess (although it does sometimes feel that way). Public education has benefited millions of people—including me. My education has afforded me amazing opportunities to thrive, to make a good living, and to provide for my family. But for countless others, public education has not worked for them, and some of our students are paying the price of failure

Why?

Most developed countries did not have systems of public education before the middle of the nineteenth century. Public education systems were built to meet the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution, which means they were organized on the principles of mass production. Massive factories and efficient assembly lines powered the economy, the chief traits of their workers being physical strength and personal fortitude.

My own grandmother worked at General Electric for 29 years. This was considered a good job for the time and area, and she needed only to be able to perform the exact same task repetitively and efficiently. If she could do that, she could make a decent living—and she did!

The problem now, however, is that we’ve moved out of the Industrial Revolution and into the Information Age—a time of technological progress resulting in the automation of several kinds of white collar work, and globalization resulting in jobs moving outside the country. In fact, we are actually in the process of leaving the Information Age and are headed toward what business writer Daniel Pink calls “The Conceptual Age.” He defines this time as one whose main characters are the creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.

Yet, our public school system is still based largely on concepts that were needed in the Industrial Age. And when you run a school system based on standardization and conformity only, you quash individuality, imagination, and creativity—all skills needed for the 21st-century learner.

Now, here’s the good news: I absolutely believe we have some control over this situation as teachers. But we have to realize that our revolution can’t wait for legislation. It won’t happen in the committee rooms of our legislature, nor should we depend on it to. It emerges from what we do as educators at the ground level. It’s what happens between learners and teachers in actual schools.

Education expert Sir Ken Robinson says it best: “If you’re a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you’re a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you’re a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system.”

YOU have to BE the change. But how? Robinson offers the following options for those involved in education:

  1. Make changes within the system
  2. Press for changes to the system
  3. Take courageous initiatives outside of the system

Personally, I’m all about number 3! This is why I’m sooooo passionate about teaching Genius Hour—it provides opportunities for ALL students in our schools to thrive and exemplify their skill sets. (If you’re ready to start reinventing your classroom with Genius Hour, register for my Fall workshop!)

There are all kinds of ways to make a difference—you just have to find the one that works for you, for your students, and for your school.

Never forget that together we are stronger. And knowing we have at least some power over what we do with and for our students, and how we choose to educate them, gives me hope.  

So, tell me: What innovations are you currently pushing for in your school? And how do you work to effect changes inside—and outside—the system?  

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