We Have the Power to Transform Education

Voices from the Field   10 August 2017
By Grant Lichtman


What surprised and excited me most is that many schools are able to transform without permission, empowerment, or additional resources from the forces that are largely responsible for the inertia in the first place.

Grant Lichtman

Education Reimagined has had the pleasure of collaborating with Grant Lichtman since 2015. His work, most prominently displayed in his book, #EdJourney, has helped bring national attention to the learner-centered movement and the viable work already underway in communities across the country. Set to release his third book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education, Grant wants to empower educators to act now in transforming their environments.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF OUR SCHOOLS from the outdated model that focuses on rote learning of content and short-term preparation for tests, to one of deeper learning that prepares students for success in a rapidly evolving future is, finally, inevitable.

A decade ago, the number of professional educators and other community stakeholders who either championed or recognized the inevitability of this evolution was relatively small. By no means has this evolution been universally accepted today, but major changes in schools across demographic, geographic, and socio-economic groups have exploded in just the last few years. In my visits and work with thousands of school community stakeholders at more than 150 schools over the last six years, I have seen a remarkable shift away from the prevailing attitude of the early 2000’s.

At a 30,000-foot level, our broad community of education stakeholders—learners, parents, practitioners, administrators, and community builders—is faced with three big questions: “Why” should schools change? “What” does that change look like? And, “how” do we make those changes?

Thankfully, we are working our way through these questions. Some schools and districts are engaged in questioning and making significant changes to their core curriculum, pedagogy, and the roles of both teachers and students. Other schools are at an earlier stage of evolution, wrestling with the question of why schools should, in fact, change. And, they are grappling with the disruption, discomfort, and even fear of the unknown that will become present to the community along the way. This type of staggered or uneven evolution is typical across many industries; one powerful tool the K-12 education has is our willingness to share with each other, which gives schools and districts that are still wondering how to proceed the opportunity to partner with others further along the trajectory of change.

Why Should Schools Change?

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, a number of authors and forward thinkers gained traction with the idea that the rate of change in the world had entered a new stage of rapid acceleration. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it was widely apparent that this rate of change had dramatically eclipsed that of any other time in human history. The other major historical revolutions had evolved over millennia (the agricultural revolution), centuries (communication and transportation), or decades (the industrial revolution). By 2010, changes in technology, communication, global markets, and geopolitics were forcing us to adapt over periods as short as months or just a few years. Yet, over this time of radically increased dynamism in the world around us, our basic system of education has stayed remarkably static.  

In just the last five years, we have seen a growing consensus amongst professional educators, students, parents, and community stakeholders—like employers and colleges—that we simply must update how our schools operate and how our students learn. I think there are four primary points of growing agreement on why education must change:

  • First, because we must. Education is meant to prepare young people for their lives, both in the moment and in their futures. The world our young people will engage with over their lifetimes is already very different from that of former generations and will become even more different as the rate of change accelerates. While there will always be a timeless set of knowledge that helps in this preparation, students need skills that help them navigate a future that is increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous).
  • Second, because we want to. I, and many others, have asked thousands of educators, parents, students, and community stakeholders what they want education to look like today and in the future, and there is tremendous agreement. We want a system that is more equally balanced between performance in academic subjects and the development of non-cognitive skills that prepare students to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives.
  • Third, because we know better. Cognitive neuroscientists, armed with brain-mapping technology, have shown us how learning takes place at its most foundational levels. Not only can we see how engagement takes place within the brain, but we can also connect that engagement to better levels of cognitive development through the processes of deeper learning.
  • Fourth, because we can. Technology is never the driver of transformation, but it is always a critical enabler. Like the rise of technologies that fueled the agrarian, industrial, and information revolutions, virtual, connective technologies are already forming the basis of a global socio-neural network with the capacity for deep, authentic, relationship-based learning that is not limited by classroom walls, campus boundaries, and subject-based classes.

What Does the Change Look Like?

There is a high degree of convergence about what education looks like in a post-traditional ecosystem. This does not mean all schools are starting to look and act the same; on the contrary, we see a dramatic differentiation of school and non-traditional learning experiences from community to community. But, as I travel the country and interact with school community stakeholders from a wide range of public, private, and charter schools, serving equally wide ranges of student populations, I find dramatically more agreement than disagreement about “what” great education looks like in our world today.

The most common theme is the major shift from “doing learning to learners” to “learning by and with the learner.” Over the last several years, it seems we are increasingly coalescing around the term “deeper learning” to describe this change. I passively mentioned this phrase at the outset, but let’s come full circle on it. In 2013, the Hewlett Foundation defined deeper learning as “an umbrella term for the skills and knowledge that students must possess to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life. At its heart, it is a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job.” Hewlett lists these competencies as follows:

  • Mastering core academic content
  • Thinking critically and solving complex problems
  • Working collaboratively
  • Communicating effectively
  • Learning how to learn
  • Developing academic mindsets

Educators, schools and districts, and their community partners add meat to these bones in many different ways, and those who subscribe to the overall thesis generally agree there is no single path to get there (a more detailed articulation of how these six overarching elements are most frequently manifested in the classroom can be found in the free download Introduction of my new book, Moving the Rock, and on a “Deeper Learning Cheat Sheet,” which you can find on the Resources page of my website). With multiple paths to choose from, how can a community approach these changes in ways that are most beneficial to their learners?

How Schools are Making the Change

In my last book, #EdJourney, I reported on my visits with more than 60 individual schools around the country, on how some schools are overcoming the inevitable obstacles to change and successfully transforming when others are not. For my new book, Moving the Rock, I asked a more global question: How can we transform the system of education at scale, and, more specifically, get beyond the finger pointing and pendulum swings that have created the massive inertia that has plagued our school systems for decades?

It turns out “the answer” shows up in a number of ways depending on the community exploring the question. What surprised and excited me most is that many schools are able to transform without permission, empowerment, or additional resources from the forces that are largely responsible for the inertia in the first place. Instead, these successful schools and districts identified the freedom and resources already available to them and used them in brand new ways. In the words of Kaleb Rashad, principal of High Tech High in San Diego, “The revolution will not be authorized!”

The seven primary chapters of Moving the Rock address each of these big “levers” that are successfully changing the school system in typical schools and districts across the country. While I did not do research overseas for the book, I imagine many of these same levers will apply in a range of other national school systems, and they are all within reach of school community stakeholders who want to transform our schools.

Borrowing from the introduction to the book, these seven “levers” are:

  • Creating Demand: Unlike a decade ago, education is now subject to the market forces of supply and demand. All over the country, parents and families are voting with their feet and money. They are demanding a different approach to learning and seeking out non-traditional learning opportunities that meet those demands.
  • School-Community Learning Laboratories: Traditional schools are disconnected from their own communities and the powerful learning resources those communities can provide. We need to massively reconnect “school” and “world” in ways that deepen learning, better prepare students for life after school in the real world, and get broader community skin in the game.
  • Free, Universal Access to Knowledge and Curriculum: The rapid growth in the quality and availability of free, fully vetted curriculum, learning materials, and remarkable web-based knowledge sources is leading to the demise of expensive textbooks and other canned, outdated content delivery mechanisms.
  • Measuring Success and Re-tooling College Admissions: Schools are afraid to adopt changes that might jeopardize their students’ chances at college admissions. This fear amongst parents and students is one of the most powerful obstructions to school change. We are starting to see major cracks in this dam as both colleges (“Turning the Tide”) and high schools (Mastery Transcript Consortium) have begun to re-think what they value most and how to measure those values in individual students.
  • Teacher Training for Deeper Learning: Most post-secondary education schools are still preparing young teachers for an Industrial age learning model that is on the wane, not the rise. We need a rapid, widespread, collaborative national overhaul of the teacher education program, led by courageous future-focused educators from research universities, teaching colleges, and the practitioners in K-12 schools.
  • Connectivity: Learning beyond the classroom has held promise for a decade. But, online courses have a core weakness: they have not been able to replicate or replace the critical strengths and relationships of a face-to-face classroom. Booming investment and dramatic advances in virtual reality will revolutionize how people all over the world connect, communicate, create, share, and learn together.
  • Distributed Leadership and Training: Few educators have ever received training in the skills of management and organizational leadership that promote dynamic innovation in many of our leading companies but is nearly absent in schools. Teachers and administrators need universal access to modern leadership skills that embrace, rather than stymie, change and innovation.

We also see a convergence of tactical processes in individual schools and districts that accelerate transformation. Schools that intentionally embark on this process, and stay the course past inevitable hurdles like leadership changes and interest-group intransigence, can make significant changes to the traditional school operating system in a matter of just a few years. The following is my sequence of common tactics, influenced by and overlapping with those outlined by Kotter (2012) in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Create a sense of urgency around a big opportunity
  • Involve the community through radical inclusiveness and transparency
  • Unwrap and articulate a shared North Star
  • Grow a volunteer army of eager change agents
  • Accelerate movement by removing barriers
  • Design and test with rigid devotion to logic model progressions
  • Visibly celebrate significant early wins
  • Institutionalize changes in culture

It is not enough to talk about why education must change. And, if we stop worrying too much about the details of “what,” there is enough agreement to move forward with courage and speed. People across our communities who care about good education have proven strategies that don’t require large additional resources or permission to transform many, if not most, of our schools. There is no one left to point fingers at, to blame for a system that has failed to evolve substantively in more than 100 years. It is up to us; we just have to do it. If we fail, it is on us.

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