Authority and Initiative, II

My goodness! When I sat down to write my first draft of yesterday’s post on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, and even when I published the final version yesterday morning, I really wasn’t sure what issues of authority and initiative would arise during the teacher-training sessions that consumed my face-to-face day on Monday.  I had a suspicion that the small-group session (just me leading my fellow Latin teachers) would go pretty well, but that things might deteriorate a bit when we moved to a whole-group activity (all the World Languages teachers in the district) in late morning, and I honestly wasn’t sure about the afternoon (back to school for a school-based training session on a new formative-assessment tool, a new tool to track struggling students, and some important district policies).

Let’s just say it was a day when the 20th-century model (school as factory, teachers as compliant assembly-line workers) and the 21st-century model (school as workshop for creative thinkers, teachers as … whatever teachers’ roles are becoming) collided. Over and over again.  If there was a consistent message, it was “Be innovative and use these cool new tools … because I said so.”

Of course, that’s an internally inconsistent message, but it pretty well summed up the day.  And I don’t think the irony was lost on anyone – even those folks (like me) who were delivering the message some of the time and receiving it at other times.

I bet you thought “The system is broken and needs to be repaired” when you read that last paragraph!

Lots of people think that.  I keep reading blog posts and Tweets about how “schools are broken” or “society is broken” or “everything is broken.”  But I really don’t think that’s the case.  Maybe it’s a definitional issue: to me, broken  means something like “no longer functioning in the way it’s designed to function – or the way it evolved and developed to function.”  But 20th-century-style schools are actually functioning exactly as they were designed to function and exactly as they’ve evolved to function.  As Seth Godin reminds us, they were built to sort and select students into the categories needed for a 20th-century factory-based economy.  They still do that, and the cultural products, practices, and perspectives of 20th-century-style schools perfectly embody that core function.

So schools aren’t exactly broken.  As Tony Wagner points out,  it’s just that their core function of sorting and selecting 20th-century factory workers is no longer needed.  And maybe that’s why the lines of authority and initiative are so blurry all of a sudden.  Most people would agree that schools need to do something other than sort and select 20th-century factory workers – but what?  And how?  And what needs to change for schools to carry out this new mission … whatever it is?  No one is sure, and I think that lack of clarity has a lot to do with the blurry lines of authority and initiative.

What do you think?  Are schools broken, or are they functioning as designed, but obsolete?  Or is something else going on?  And to what extent do you notice lines of authority and initiative blurring in schools and other institutions in your world?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

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Published in: on September 18, 2012 at 9:43 am  Comments (5)  

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  1. I am not sure they are even functioning as designed anymore; with grad rates so low and so many kids needing remedial classes in college (40%, according to a couple articles I read), and with 17% of 16-24-years-olds neither in school nor at work, the system seems to be well and truly broken.

    I think schools will have a very hard time changing in any real way; the entire structure is authoritarian, top heavy in both the boardroom and the classroom, and students are being asked to take less and less initiative as standards tell them EXACTLY the limits of what they need to know.

    Good blog.

    • @Suzannah, I agree that the statistics seem dismaying. But in the “golden age” of Industrial America (say, 1950 through the mid 1960’s), the graduation rates were as low – or possibly lower – because the system was functioning as designed: to sort out those who were “capable” of graduating (and getting white-collar or skilled blue-collar jobs) from those who were not so “capable” (and were destined for unskilled jobs). That’s what the industrial-model education system was designed to do.

      And it’s still doing that – but the problem is that we don’t want it to do that anymore. Now we want a whole lot more people to be highly skilled, and we want a whole lot more of them to go to college and excel there. But neither schools nor colleges are designed for that!

      I agree: the structure of schools makes change very difficult. That’s why I think, in the end, the industrial-model school will give way to something else, just as one-room agrarian schools gave way to the needs of an industrial economy.

      Glad you liked the post!

  2. You know I think that the current school design is obsolete. I think that the original purpose has gotten lost and the struggles we’re currently having in helping students find success in our schools is partly due to the administrators and faculty themselves being unclear as to why schools MUST be a certain way. If we can’t explain why it’s useful, how can we help students find value? Students on a whole naturally value knowledge, just not the current delivery system, which doesn’t meet their needs or learning styles. They can find information easily–our process of simply offering them information to ingest and regurgitate is not of any use to them. Students need to learn what to do with knowledge and schools are not currently designed to teach that. Nor is our national educational policy formed around teaching knowledge use–it’s designed around fact regurgitation and multiple-choice tests.

    That’s the disconnect, and that’s the break. The system is broken, because no one with power analyzes what we really need and then turns to apply it to the schools, or even offers teachers the freedom to do that themselves. Instead they keep trying to reach a goal that has no point in a competition with other countries that offers us no intrinsic rewards if we win. It’s all pointless, and ultimately, our children can feel that. No wonder they resist school and resent our vague replies to “why can’t we do this another way?”

    • @Rachel, great point! The system is definitely broken if you define broken as “not meeting the current needs of most people involved in it.” I was defining broken as “not functioning as originally designed” – and that’s the problem. Schools are functioning as originally designed, but that doesn’t meet the needs of most students, teachers, parents, administrators, or society as a whole. And maybe that’s why there’s so much resistance, so much anger, and so much blame of the folks who work within the system … and who are, ironically enough, mostly not to blame because we didn’t actually design the system, we just inherited it and kept operating it the way it’s “always” operated.

      So – key question: is it possible to reform such a complex system (that is, to keep it in place but make major changes to its core paradigm) or is it necessary to replace the current system with something that fits the needs of today’s learners, teachers, etc.?

  3. […] seems that yesterday’s post – and the Google+ thread where we discussed it in some detail – sparked a lot of interest and […]


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