Want to Save Civilization? Then Reinvent Education
“And a little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6
The future of our country (and, really, the world) depends on future generations solving problems created over centuries by previous generations. The only hope of that happening is an education model that unleashes children’s potential rather than one that stunts their growth, as the current one does. The process of creating such a model could have other incredible benefits.
Between the Bible quote above and the George Benson/Whitney Houston hit “Greatest Love of All” (“I believe the children are our future…”), I figured I would find a great subtitle, but I found way more than expected.
I was familiar with the Bible quote but not the specific book or context, so of course I Googled it. The second result was an enlightening blog post by Pastor Tim Farley providing both source and context along with some truly enlightening and prophetic insights.
Pastor Tim explains the quote this way:
“This passage is a discussion of the Day of the Lord. This is the day that Christians look forward to when Jesus Christ will remove the curse of sin from our world and restore peace to all of creation. As a result of this peace, wolf, lion, lamb, cobra, calf, bear, and children will all live in harmony. A child will be able to lead a lion (or a wolf, etc.) around without fear of harm.”
At the risk of sounding too Kumbaya or Hari Krishna, I believe a world of people living in harmony sounds pretty good. Harmony means we retain our individuality — our uniqueness — while creating that which cannot exist by either individuals or by homogeneous collectives.
And while Pastor Tim was frustrated because people incorrectly use the Isaiah passage to allude to a child actually leading adults, it is in the process of reinventing education for the sake or our children that we can concurrently bring harmony to our society. In that sense, the children will lead us.
Reinvented education models can unleash every child’s potential as the models are developed and implemented over the next few years. Equally important is surviving our current challenges and crises to reach that future, and the school reinvention process itself can be the source of and catalyst for that survival.
All this is premised on an actual need to reinvent school and education — which I address in this other article and in great detail in my book — but there seems little disagreement about that need.
In every conversation, presentation, consultation, and all I’ve written about reinventing education (hundreds of instances with thousands of people), not a single person has pushed back. No one has said they think the current model of education is fine or just needs to be tweaked.
In fact, nearly everyone indicates some level of agreement and often enthusiastic agreement. It’s as if I’m stating some universally understood truth, “Gravity sure is working well today.” “It sure is! My feet are firmly planted on the ground.”
Of course, acknowledging this truth and expecting anything to be done about it are two very different things. Which brings us to saving civilization through the reinvention of school.
Reinventing education is typically seen as impossible because it is viewed as outrageously complex and expensive. It’s like believing the only way to lose weight is to reduce gravity — by moving to a smaller planet or inventing an anti-gravity machine, both being outrageously complex and expensive — so there’s no point in trying to lose weight. Of course, there are many ways to lose weight and most are not complex or expensive. Of course, they’re also not easy, which keeps many people from pursuing them.
Reinventing education is actually way better than losing weight. While still not easy, it’s also not complex or expensive, and the process itself can be exceptionally rewarding, which is not always true about diet and exercise.
All that being said, there are two primary reasons we must begin reinventing education and developing new models of schools now. The first is, we have already lost the potential of multiple generations of children. Our current school model is so ineffective it cannot help any individual child achieve their potential let alone all children.
That’s not new. It was true when I was growing up in the Seventies. It just wasn’t clear back then. However, it still robbed us of the individual and collective potential of the students of that era and every era since. And now we’re starting to see evidence of the horrid fallout.
Climate change, social discord, unending racism, violence, war, poverty, opportunity gaps, divisive government, and more, are all happening despite our scientific and technological advancements.
It’s not that our educational system caused all these things, but it did prevent all children from pursuing their potential and, subsequently, any generation from pursuing its collective potential. This, then, has robbed us of possible solutions to societal problems and allowed other problems to fester.
Unfortunately, the current model has directly contributed to some of the problems themselves, and I dive into that topic in this other essay rather than head down that rabbit hole in this essay.
The second reason we must begin now to reinvent education is the process itself can begin to heal many of the wounds caused or worsened by the current school model.
Those who would not pursue wholesale reinvention (just about everyone) assume it will take action at the federal or state government level or through the influence and resources of large organizations. They don’t think a small group of people in a community would be able to make any meaningful change.
In fact, a small group of people in a community is the only way this change will occur. And that’s why this effort is needed right now — in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest around racism and racial justice like nothing seen since the Sixties.
The shortcomings of our current education model are a direct result of the success of that model when first implemented in the late 19th Century. It’s time for an abbreviated history lesson.
Our current education model (12 years of formal schooling, age cohorts, segregated subjects, the “factory model”) was formed based on the work of The Committee of Ten in 1894. The actual implementation distorted the committee’s work, but that really was necessary to achieve the laudable goal of offering every child in America the same education.
While that “same education” intent was not equitably implemented, it did elevate the basic level of education for nearly all children and added a measure of equity that was previously absent. Unfortunately, to achieve the goal, efficiencies were needed leading to the factory model of school.
Not surprisingly, children didn’t find this school model very compelling. Numerous steps were taken to ensure student compliance to continue the efficient delivery of instruction. It turned out these measures also prepared workers for jobs that were not very compelling, as well as citizens who would obey laws and generally not question authorities or those with power and influence.
Consequently, the factory model was fully institutionalized. The model seems efficient because we’re able to deliver the curriculum to all students over the course of 12 years.
However, we now realize that delivering curriculum does not equate to students actually learning, let alone pursuing their potential. In addition, delivering curriculum does not develop the attributes and skills needed to work collaboratively in a diverse society.
This summary doesn’t reflect the incredible job today’s teachers do in striving to prepare their students for the future. Given the factory model is so obsolete and they are dealing with students who are aware their schools are not meeting their needs, teachers are truly working miracles. But that is not enough.
Unfortunately, in addition to the model itself, we have institutionalized the idea that all the schools have to look generally alike and that all students need the same general experience. In other words, the factory model is the only model.
Consequently, we’re in collective denial that reinventing the school model is fully possible and has to begin within a community, not with the federal or state government or some large outside organization.
There are many people now recognizing the need for open, honest dialogues in their communities. They see these as essential to breaking down barriers based on cultures, ideologies, politics, appearance, identity, preferences, and more.
Such dialogues require respect, trust, and vulnerability, which are hard to conjure among a diverse group. They are even harder when the discussion topics involve many of those same sources of diversity.
However, when a diverse group gathers to address a commonly recognized challenge or crisis — one negatively affecting everyone in some way — communities regularly set aside their differences and work together on solutions. We see this all the time following large-scale disasters in a community such as tornadoes, floods, and fires.
A community coming together to develop plans for a better future for every child in that community has exactly what they need to begin replacing barriers with bridges. If that group follows a process specifically designed to focus on the children and their future, and if they each commit to that purpose, they have the ideal vehicle for building respect, trust, and harmony in that community.
Once a group establishes respect and trust — and the subsequent ability to be vulnerable with one another — they can work on addressing numerous challenges. While the initial purpose is reinventing the school model to unleash the potential of all the community’s children, a secondary benefit will be a community capable of solving any problem as well as leveraging awesome new opportunities that will begin to emerge.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.