Why So Many Schools Remain Penitentiaries of Boredom

Lauren Williams's picture
Monday, January 7, 2013

"It's harder to change a school than it is to move a graveyard." Or, as it's also been said, "It's harder to change a history course than it is to change history." I think we can all agree that our schools should be among our most dynamic and innovative institutions; but despite the endless talk about school reform, they remain among our most ossified.

Take a look at the typical American classroom, public or independent, urban or suburban, and what you will see looks very much like the classrooms of the 19th century. Yes, slates have been replaced (in most places) with digital tools, but the structure signals the musty past: teacher as authoritative source of knowledge, student as tabula rasa. Or take the structure of the school day itself, typically divided into seven 45 minute classes. Believe it or not, that schedule derives from Victorian factories where industrialist Frederick Taylor concluded that workers were most productive when they changed stations every 45 minutes.

And it's not just the structure of schools that is chained to the past. It's the very content we teach and our purpose for teaching it. This has been true for at least a century, but the technological revolution has brought our schools to the precipice; the mandate could not be more obvious: evolve or suffer extinction. We are seeing more clearly than ever that school as we know it is becoming irrelevant to an entire generation. Drop out rates remain high, especially here in L.A., and far too many college students, who are ostensibly prepared, give up before the end of their freshman year. Why? Because they're disengaged. Even among our most educationally privileged, students arrive at college already burned out and cynical about the journey ahead. If college means another four years of primarily sitting and listening to someone else lecture, we've lost them already.

Authentic learning at its core is about doing, creating, constructing. Ask yourself, "What do I remember as the most rewarding and inspiring experience in school?" and the answer invariably involves something you created -- poetry you wrote, a computer program you designed, an art portfolio you assembled, biology research you conducted. We learn by doing. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier for a teacher to deliver information than it is to design a lesson that deeply engages the learner and asks the student to transfer and apply the skills and concepts of the course rather than simply memorizing them.

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