The endurance of our school/class model is evidence of it’s strength, not it’s stagnation

Often, in educational circles, I hear the statement/complain that schools and classrooms look the same as they did a 100 years ago with the implication that this is harmful to student learning.  I feel this is a ridiculous statement; it is either untrue or at best, irrelevant.

I think the first way to respond can be found in this article: Dear Hollywood: “School Doesn’t Look Like This”

http://plpnetwork.com/2012/06/15/dear-hollywood-school-doesnt-look-like-this/  In this article, some of the differences between today’s classrooms and those of the past are presented.  Focusing on, teaching style, digital tech integration, desk or table arrangement, etc.  Of course this is not an exhaustive list, and anyone familiar with today’s classrooms should be able to expand it.  The troubling implication here is that so many in the education field don’t.  There are so many other differences in content and pedagogy to point out.  I once got a tweet from a digital art teacher who wondered if we were teaching the same as in the past; this from a digital art instructor!  He later revealed he was refering to the fact that we still teach them in batches based on age.  I have addressed that here: http://tuckerteacher.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/organizing-schools-by-ability-instead-of-age-is-harmful-to-children/   Even if you don’t agree with me, we can’t perseverate on this one similarity…it doesn’t alone justify the hyperbolic claim of “sameness.”  Some similarities or consistencies will always be there (eg. schools will be to educate people).

Is your classroom just the walls and desks?  Surely you don’t teach the same as 100 years ago?  How many of us are teaching Latin or Classic civilizations (well grade 5’s are)?  Are your students in single rows?  Are you in a one room school house?  In Ontario, at least, aren’t you using a curriculum radically different from the one used in the 1990′s (which was of course different from the one used 100 years ago)?

In our board, we go to the Heritage School House or Pioneer Village to experience the differences and to learn about how different schooling was 100 years ago.  Sure I recognise the building, sure I recognise the front desk as the teacher’s…but there’s a world of difference between same and similar.  Writing the word “once” is a similar act to writing a novel that starts with “Once upon a time…”   I also recognise cars, houses, churches (even of different traditions and even 1000 of years old), boats, and all manner of other things.  Being recognizable is part of it’s essence or even Platonic quality; chair appearance hasn’t changed to the point that its unrecognizable, but the tech to build one and the ergonomics have certainly improved.  Do we need a new chair design to the point where it isn’t recognisable to prove to overly concrete and limited thinkers that it has changed?  How about schools, just because they don’t look like an airport or submarine doesn’t mean they are the same as 100 years ago.

Being old is not the same as being obsolete or irrelevant.  Anyone over 20 should intuitively agree.  Would the people who suggest that schools are obsolete because of consistent design be willing to make a similar aguement with religious people.  Would they be willing to say, “Your moral code is from the Bronze Age; you need to replace it!” to Christians and Jews.  Should old people be considered obsolete as well?

My students can instantly recognise hotels, planes, cars, hospitals and banks no matter how old they are.  Lots of things look the same but still work differently.  Schools continuously change…often teachers grumble about that.  We have a board plan for continuous improvement (change), and a school plan for continuous improvement (change)…never mind the dozens of changes implemented by Ministry and Board employees each year.  Never mind the changes that I implement each year.  You can go to school online now—can you travel online or go to a hospital online?

To reiterate: old does not mean obsolete.  That is an epistemology that has developed over the last generation or so in the Western World.  It is created largely by the market place; a market place of innovation sure, but also one of planned obsolescence, disposal-ability, and replace-ability.  A market place that sold new things by creating false needs, or by creating the desire for newer products as a value.  We used to repair now we replace and recycle.  We used to value tradition over transience.  Sometimes, things/ideas/building have staying power because they elegantly solve a problem, or because they so successfully create positive utility.

The better something is designed, the longer it lasts.  Perhaps the persistence of the classroom model should be celebrated!  It has lasted a very long time; where’s the evidence that your innovative model (or vague concept) will be better?  Where’s the staying power of your innovation?  Have you analyzed the unforeseen consequences?  Do you have enough evidence to argue it is better and therefore classrooms need to change even more than they already do?

The endurance of our school/class model is evidence of it’s strength, not it’s stagnation.

1 Comment

  1. Patrick,

    You make many valid points to our changes within our schools. I agree that it doesn’t look the same as 100 years ago, most definitely. We as a society have been working hard to change rote learning to more constructive learning experiences (i.e Pioneer Village). Although our currciulum has changed, it is still oddly similar in the way we split up our subjects instead of blending them. Publishers of textbooks will be the first to admit that they take the old and refashion the new. Taking pieces from our curriculum to make connections, but for me, I find them to be a “last resource”. It is true, we have digital aids and other resources in our class to now supplement the learning, but if we look closely into our school system we’ll see that computers are down with little help from IT to get things up and running again. Our technology is dated and slow and the programs that are coming up today rarely work on 3/4 of the computers we have in our lab. Don’t bother asking for computers in your class, there’s just not enough to go around. As for my science experiments I need to scrounge at home to find what I need or ask students to bring things in, other then textbooks, I have little to work with. My library in my room is mostly funded by me and students are only allowed to get 1 book a week. Although we have great ideas of what education can be, is it really the way we imagine it? I look into classrooms and still see rows and children who are expected to learn quietly if not silently. Some classes are switching over to the new model but in my mind, we are still progressing and far from the place we should be at.

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