Patrick Atwater

Patrick Atwater

California has embarked on a bold experiment in education. Policy shifts like the new Common Core State Standards and the governor’s Local Control Funding Formula make local school districts dramatically more autonomous.

Such changes provide a golden opportunity to transform education’s much derided one-size-fits-all factory model into something, frankly, more human. So how might your local school district take advantage of that flexibility to embody the principles of creativity and adaptability brilliantly articulated by renowned education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson? Stag Hunt Enterprises is sponsoring a contest with a $1,000 award for the best action plan to change education paradigms in a local school district.

Imagine you are writing for a superintendent or other education leader who is interested in Sir Ken’s ideas but is unsure how to implement them. Submissions are due November 5th and will be judged by a panel of experienced local education practitioners. The goal of the contest is to turn insights into actions that go beyond the current tired education “reform” debate.

Such new thinking is needed. Consider a canonical education reform case study: class size reduction. In the early ’90s this policy gained steam as the reform du jour and earned favor at the state Capitol.

As a result, the policy needed to be implemented; and implemented quickly. Never mind the fact that there are deep reasons we develop, plan and finance capital improvements like school facilities over the span of several years; the new incentives meant districts needed to reduce class sizes almost overnight.

Education reformers wanted results yesterday. So bungalows were hastily constructed to house the new teachers anywhere space was available – often on playgrounds. The reformers’ beautiful map crashed into the realities of California’s 10,000 plus schools – each with its own local particularities – and children lost an area for play.

Some people forget about this byproduct of a research-driven reform. I do not. The reformers ruined my recess, and I want it back.

Over the intervening years, we’ve had a raging management-labor dispute over which group of adults has power, but in too many districts, the basic model of school as a place where students go to sit in neat rows and get talked at for several hours each day has not changed. In fact, that underlying factory-like structure has remained basically the same since Horace Mann brought the Prussian common school model to Massachusetts over a century and a half ago.

Yet humans are not widgets and it makes little to no sense to talk in terms of “optimal” class sizes in universal terms. What regression should one run to uncover the truth of whether every human ever will learn best in a classroom with under 20 students, a classroom of 34 students, alone in their backyard canyon or among a hundred thousand online peers? How is it not a premise that students learn better in groups of various sizes? And why do we not more fully consider that a given student might learn best in one environment for one line of inquiry and in a different environment for another?

So why not make such learning-group-size decisions on the basis of individual students and specific subjects? Some might point out obvious barriers: the finite resource that is a teacher’s time, the difficulty of coordinating so many individualized learning plans, the difficulty in differentiating so many curriculums or the challenge in managing kids going at such radically different paces in such diametrically different directions.

Here it’s important to remember what’s changed since the early ’90s. The Internet has dramatically matured, providing categorically new pathways for learning. Platforms such as Quora offer a virtual glimpse into how community might transform education. The popularity of social media sites such as Meetup and Skillshare suggests a hunger for local knowledge and a desire for lifelong learning across diverse groups.

We too quickly forget that schools are but one pathway for learning and that substantial areas of human knowledge are necessarily unmapped. Think of what a doctor learns in residency, a novice carpenter learns in an apprenticeship or an aspiring public servant learns in a Coro Fellowship. The whole point is that such practical insight, what the ancient Greeks called metis, cannot be gained in a classroom or through a book.

The simple fact is that education extends far beyond formal schooling, and the shortcomings of our current school structures are foundational. The argument is not that we should completely toss out how we currently educate the next generation; rather we need to look deeply at the foundations of our educational model and examine how we might build a model that more fully reflects the world we live in. That’s the goal of Stag Hunt’s Socratic Challenge.

Returning to our original case study, before we can ask what class size is optimal, we need to ask what actually constitutes a classroom. The answer lies beyond four walls and a few desk chairs.

We at Stag Hunt look forward to reading your plan for your local school district.

This post excerpts from a longer Stag Hunt white paper “Reforming Education Reform” from the inaugural Summer Stag Hunt magazine. The winners of the Socratic Challenge will be included in the Rainy Season Stag Hunt magazine.


Patrick Atwater is co-founder of Stag Hunt Enterprises, a publishing startup pioneering political economy insights. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Education Partnership and as a mentor in College Bound.

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  1. OC 6 years ago6 years ago

    "Common Core State Standards... make local school districts dramatically more autonomous." Really? With Common Core, local districts have zero control over their base of standards in math and ELA (and soon science), beyond the 15% they get to add on top of CCSS. The books will be the same, the materials will be the same, the tests will be the same and teachers will teach to the test as they did with Star. Only … Read More

    “Common Core State Standards… make local school districts dramatically more autonomous.”

    Really? With Common Core, local districts have zero control over their base of standards in math and ELA (and soon science), beyond the 15% they get to add on top of CCSS. The books will be the same, the materials will be the same, the tests will be the same and teachers will teach to the test as they did with Star. Only districts that courageously OPT-OUT of Common Core (as they may do under California law), will be “dramatically more autonomous.”