Transformation can often feel like a conversation ripe for war- and battle-based metaphors. We have leaders on the front lines of a movement fighting for a future where every single child is known, loved, and supported in unleashing their fullest potential. We face an enemy known as the conventional education system that has an iron grip on the why, what, where, and with whom of learning that “counts.” And, as we build out our learner-centered models, we must engage in never-ending trench warfare just to hold the line or move it a few feet forward.
While it may feel like a battle because of the constant vigilance necessary for learner-centered education to exist inside the conventional system of education, it is what it takes to keep the dominant system at bay. But, is there another strategy or opportunity possible?
What if our national focus became the invention of a new system that fully embraced and enabled the full realization of the learner-centered vision? This would be a system that could sit side-by-side with the existing system—a fully learner-centered system for children and families who want it, rather than asking learner-centered to fit inside of or act as a replacement to the current, standardized system. This possibility is guided by the following quote by R. Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Transformation isn’t a battle against the current set standard. Rather, transformation is the invention of something new that can attract anyone who has looked at the unexpected anomalies of the current system (e.g. young people graduating wholly unprepared for career or post-secondary learning), noticed these anomalies are actually what the current system is built to produce, and begun looking for something new.
For most families looking for “something new,” they are presented with a false choice between public, charter, and private institutions of learning—nearly all of which are operating within the same rules and structures of the conventional system. The focus remains on grades and test scores, grouping kids into same-age cohorts, dividing learning up into subjects, only “counting” learning that happens within the four walls of a school building, and so on.
What I believe Fuller is challenging us to do is to focus all of our attention and energy on turning that false choice into a real one. Rather than a choice between governance type where the foundations for educating young people are the same foundations put forth by the Committee of Ten all the way back in 1892, the choice becomes one between conventional educational opportunities and learner-centered ones.
I believe we need to create a parallel, learner-centered system that exists right alongside the conventional system. Two systems, one focused on delivering conventional education well and more equitably and the other focused on creating the conditions for deep learning, inclusion, equity, and connectedness based on the unique interests, aspirations, and needs of the individual child.
With these two distinct options available, families will be empowered to select the system that best matches their aspirations and the needs of their children. Some will certainly choose what’s familiar—focused on selecting an environment that has proven to be incrementally better (e.g. higher graduation rates and college enrollment) than what their children have experienced thus far. And, others (what I believe would be a great majority) will choose to step into the less familiar—curious and excited by the opportunity for them and their children to have ownership over their learning journey where their community is the playground for learning.
To have two systems operating side-by-side eliminates the need to either force-fit learner-centered experiences inside the conventional system (an impossible task) or for the conventional system to be eliminated before learner-centered ecosystems can exist. Let’s keep our focus on building this new system and once it becomes a viable, accessible option to every child in our communities, I bet we’ll bear witness to the conventional system becoming obsolete.