Renovating Education from the Grassroots

In their excellent 2009 book, “Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology”, Collins and Halverson argued for a collaborative, gradualist approach to reform, encouraging schools to be more flexible in adopting new learner-centered models, exhorting technology leaders to persevere in pressing for progress, and urging for continued government oversight to ensure equal opportunity across the socioeconomic spectrum. I applaud Collins and Halverson for advocating a range of technology-based solutions, including game-based learning, and being considerate of the many stakeholders in the picture. However, they also admit that the schooling establishment is extremely conservative, which is not surprising: schooling systems and technologies became optimized for the behaviorist, authoritarian, industrial-era model of education, and they are well-entrenched. The educational-industrial complex is like a battleship, in which even attempts to repaint some decks in brighter colors is treated as sabotage. Witness the formidable opposition to voucher programs, the regulatory efforts to constrain and hamstring charter schools, the burdens faced by homeschoolers, etc. So I’m very skeptical that a top-down gradualist approach would work to accomplish substantive change: school leaders have no incentive to undermine their own authority, tech business leaders don’t see an advantage to their bottom line, and government officials want to get reelected by an adult citizenry that (mostly) was raised to respect authority. At best, we’ll see change at the rate of continental drift.

At the other extreme are some radical cultural leaders, in both likely and unlikely places. For instance, in June 2012 I attended a symposium on digital games in education, at which one of the panelists, the president of a college in Massachusetts, advocated for tearing down the current K-12 education system and replacing it wholesale. However, revolutionary change of this sort is impossible at the moment: millions of decent, law-abiding, tax-paying people are dependent for their livelihood and identity on the current schooling system, and they empower the system to fight for its survival. There is no unified opposition. Most of the potential beneficiaries of the sunset of traditional schooling (kids and their families) don’t see a better alternative. So a high-profile revolution, led from the top, is highly unlikely within our lifetimes.

What approach, then, has a chance of succeeding within a decade or two? Our best bet is a grassroots movement, a velvet evolution, quietly civil disobedience, a leaderless campaign to win hearts and minds. I don’t have a recipe (and frankly would be skeptical of anyone who claims to have the “perfect solution”), but here are some possible elements:

  • promote public awareness and appreciation for modern neuropsych research supporting learner-centered, game-based learning (“it’s good for you!”)
  • promote alternative competency credentialing (e.g. badges, certificates) for entry to meaningful employment
  • develop low-cost, scaleable, learner-centered epistemic game systems and demonstrate their efficacy
  • promote the proliferation of semi-formal learning contexts using game-based learning, like after-school programs (but all-day!), some private, others government-funded
  • provide a migration path for educators to escape the classroom: encourage those willing to grow into new roles (facilitator, mentor …); give early retirement to those who aren’t willing
  • demonstrate the cost-savings of the last two elements to government entities; start with cities that are already bankrupt (or on the verge)

I think this sort of approach might best be described as renovation, not the more commonly-used reform. Reform connotes an attempt to change bad behavior (as in “if you don’t shape up, you’ll be sent to reform school”), and that subliminal image tends to antagonize the stakeholders in the current educational system. Renovation (“making new again”) has a much more positive connotation of taking something worn-out, or dilapidated (furniture, buildings) and transforming it so it is once again useful and desirable.

So let’s stop “waiting for Superman” to reform education with another centralized, one-size-fits-all solution. Let’s instead band together, quietly but purposefully, to renovate education and make it serve the needs of people today.

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