Why 'Educational Reform' Sends Educators Running for Cover--And How We Can Change That
When someone says "educational reform," most teachers want to duck and run for cover. No wonder. The history of education, K-12, has been regulation and regulated change: every decade or so, another politician or corporate "visionary" or educational theorist (i.e. moi) decides "everything has to change" and produces a pilot program and then the wheels grind and it becomes a "standard" and teachers around the country have to tear up the old lesson plans and do it all over again. Typically the reform comes from someone else (typically a college prof, policy maker, or someone affiliated with a for-profit or non-profit educational enterprise) outside K-12 and is delivered to K-12 teachers.
The one system that is not so regulated (or critiqued) is higher education. Yet higher education too is often criticized as being antiquated and out of touch--often by administrators, legislatures, or others who then get rid of this or that program, or cut back support, but do not actually engage with the business of learning or the importance of research (broadly defined) that is at the heart of higher education.
How can we change the model of educational reform to include educators in the redesign? That is the question I'd like to ruminate on today. I'd love your feedback and examples and models and objections or visions. The models are especially important. Who is doing this well? Who can we be learning from? As I transition into my new role founding and directing the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, I'm thinking about all of these questions and I'd love some help thinking through the implications.
Here are a few thoughts about our current model of "educational reform" that so often leaves out educators (not to mention students and community members too):
- Often when some educational theorist proposes some brilliant new program that "changes everything" they prove it works by hiring a proven brilliant teacher or cadre of teachers to make it work. Think about that set up: the non-teacher theorist criticizes teachers then hires brilliant teachers to make his or her program work, to show the standards (usually test scores) soar, and then advocates everyone change to this new model (but without benefit of having been able to hire a cadre of brilliant teachers). Bottom line: a brilliant teacher can make even the dullest of curriculums work. Brilliant, innovative teachers need to be included at the beginning of the process, not trotted out at the end to show how someone else's agenda works.
- The relationship betweeen K-12 and higher education needs to be reversed. It's presumptuous indeed for college professors to tell K-12 teachers how to change and then not to change themselves. No responsible parent will experiment with her or his child's K-12 education if it means it will hurt their child's chances of getting into college. Period. Until higher education changes itself, K-12 cannot change productively.
- Take standardized testing. Colleges and universities rail against it, say they don't count it, and then all boast SAT and GRE scores on their websites. Until college teachers have a better system, expect more not less standardized testing.
- Making teachers throw out their old lesson plans and syllabi is not such a bad thing. And that includes college teachers. But you cannot expect an enormous investment in time and energy without support, without guarantees that there won't be some new thing coming next week, or without assurances that profs aren't investing in their own demise. Such was certainly the case of MOOCs. Was the endgame better teaching and learning--or fewer teachers? It wasn't clear and the pushback was extreme. No one learns from change made under duress and where it is not clear if the "hidden" impact of that change is even greater duress.
- We need a system that will allow profs time and space to work with colleagues (not administrators, but other colleagues) to think about all the things they want to change. Experimentation needs both time and a cordoned off space where iteration, trial and error, and mistakes are not only allowed but encouraged and rewarded. This can't be solitary but a program that allows those experimenting to come back to their peers and discuss what works and doesn't work, and then try it again.
- We need to let profs working on pedagogy be engineers and artists, in other words. That also means involving students in the enterprise as participants in the experiment so they do not feel like guinea pigs but colearners who have far more to gain from this experience than from a conventional class.
I am thinking about these things because I am often asked what I am planning for the new Futures Initiative I will be founding and directing at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Guess what I'm planning? No planning. No top-down edicts on teacher reform. No regulation, standardization, enforcement. I am hoping to create a platform for the most creative kinds of exploration of what we need in higher education, the ways higher education can change in order that K-12 can change, and in order that we can all be prepared for the monumental explosion in our interactive digital technologies, that, like all tools, expands our capacities as humans, changes social relations, and alters how we communicate with one another. That is a tall order. And it can only be accomplished if each and every one of us goes deep and introspective ("unlearning" it is called) and assesses what is working for us now, what is baggage from another time, and what we need to learn how to do or do better in order to make our own worth, habits, ideas, values, convictions, and aspirations succeed in the world we live in now.
How will this work in practical terms? The first phase of the Futures Initiative is "Mapping the Futures of (Mostly) Higher Education." Since CUNY has 24 campuses and on the order 450,000 full and part-time students, I and the 15 or so graduate students at the Graduate Center will start by going to the individual campuses where they teach their classes and hold open Town Hall meetings in which we ask faculty, students, staff, and community members to begin to "map" the assets that the institution gives to its community and that the community gives to the institution. Our f2f graduate students will be developing or modding an existing mapping tool for crowdsourcing content--everything from syllabi to photographs to oral histories--in order to make a thoughtful and deep CUNY Map of New York.
Of course, the map will grow over the years--we would love every teacher and student to think about what they gain from their education, who supports that education, and what they give back. Similar to this year's #FutureEd project of "Designing Higher Education from Scratch," where students worked in project teams to imagine every aspect of a university, right down to the t-shirt design (mocked up below), the Futures Initiative Mapping Project will not have answers but, instead, will ask all of us to think about the deepest purposes of higher education: who contributes and what is contributed by society, who invests in the future of the next generation and (as with the Futures Exchange) what they get as a return from that investment? That investment is in taxpayer support and it is also in the effort each student lends to the system, and each teacher gives to that system.
So, will teachers run for cover when they see the Futures Initiative coming their way, asking them not to change everything but to think about everything? I don't know. I hope not. Some will hate this. I know that. Some will love it. Some will wait and see. That is okay. The only thing I am totally opposed to is regulating or requiring change. To my mind, there is nothing more inimical to productive, creative change than trying to enforce it. I am seeking visionaries from whom we can all learn and be inspired. I don't much care about critique. Yadayadayada, to quote a famous New Yorker of another era. I am interested in vision, possibility, excitement, expansiveness, all that lies ahead for students today. If only 1% or 5% or 10% (if I'm being very optimistic) of teachers think this is an important exercise and worth making time in what is already a crushingly busy life, I will be thrilled. If it is less than 1%, I admit I'll be sad--but I don't believe that's the case. I'm already hearing from so many people who want, joyfully, to be part of thinking ahead, expansively, and of being heard for what they contribute not (as happens when pundits often get involved) what they are doing wrong.
Here is the key thing about this exercise in creative thinking together: It is not mandatory. It is not regulatory. It is not standardized. It is not compulsory. It is not one-size-fits-all. It is about finding partners in what should be an exciting and even joyous and certainly inspiring exercise designed to engage students and teachers within an institution and within a community in thinking freely about the possibilities that lie ahead.
To do any less, anything more restrictive, is to replicate the problem of Taylorized, Industrial Age education that standardizes and dictates from the top down. The ambition of the research university of the early part of the 20th century was to create structures, standards, assessment measures, regulations, and rankings that harnessed creativity and inquiry into majors, minors, disciplines, general education courses, divisions between areas of knowledge, and on and on.
What if higher education was about learning how to learn--inquiry, problem solving, creativity, iteration, self-designed learning pathways, community-sourced problem solving, collaborative knowledge communities, and on an on? This is not to get rid of what is great about formal education. On the contrary, the whole point of Mapping the Futures of Higher Education is it is important, together, to map all the assets we have, all the assets we share, and then think about what we would like to do with those assets as we look to the future.
You need to understand where you are in order to get where you want to be. It's way too easy to be lost in the thicket of the present. So let's define our space--and then expand it. Together. Educators leading "educational reform," not being subjected to yet another re-formation that may have little to do with actual learning.