Why the politics we’ve got won’t produce the schools we need

March 10, 2011

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Why, one might ask, should California, the headwaters of the digital revolution, be stuck in the eddies of an early 20th Century school design?

The answer lies partly in culture and partly in politics. Almost all the politics of education concerns rearranging adult power and privilege. Relatively little political energy is spent consciously designing a contemporary system of public education that addresses the needs of today’s students. That should change.

Schooling faces a major redesign problem. Learning 1.0 is a century old. Now we have the opportunity to redesign education, creating Learning 2.0, a more flexible, personalized, and experiential form of learning. The capacity to do this comes partly from the Internet’s network technology but mainly from changing how people think about learning. More than their schools, it is people’s heads that will need rewiring.

To get to Learning 2.0, California badly needs an agenda change from regulation and contention to capacity building. First, the state needs to create and use the capacity to design learning using 21st Century information tools. Rather than designing “one best system” as the developers of the early 20th Century learning model sought to do, we must adopt the notion of continuous improvement and redesign, what Google calls “permanent Beta testing.”

Second, we need to carefully deregulate. In many ways, charter school law discriminates against existing school districts, making it easy for charters to be innovative while failing to scrape four decades of regulatory barnacles from the hull of district-run schools. Gov. Jerry Brown promised deregulation in his education platform. In addition to fiscal flexibility, he and the state school board should foster the ability to blend education technology into district-run schools.

Third, California needs to invest in a learning infrastructure for students. Think of it as a combination of Facebook for school, the best computer game you ever saw, and a smart app for your mind. By thinking of the student as the end-user rather than designing educational products that will be attractive to a textbook adoption committee, the state can vastly open up learning to new participants, approaches, and ideas.

Over the last year, I have visited schools where people think outside the conventions of the acquisition and storage model, and where learning is organized in engaging ways. Synthesizing these experiences and the rapidly growing research literature on learning, technology, and open education, it is possible to sketch the design of Learning 2.0. Over the next few months, I will be coloring in some of the elements of a modern learning system and the ways we might get there. The first of these postings can be found at Conditions of Education in California, and at www.mindworkers.com.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

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