As teachers, do we feel embarrassed when it’s suggested that the classroom hasn’t changed in 100 years? Should we? Is teaching a timeless and universal act, communicating knowledge from one person to another, from one generation to the next? Or are schools frozen in a factory model that no longer reflects the world around it or serves their students and teachers?
Maybe that’s a cheap question used by critics, yet the general perception that everyone knows what happens in a classroom, that it hasn’t really changed, underlies many education discussions. As teachers, we’re well aware of the convenient oversimplifications of the rhetorical yes or no questions. We use them regularly to provoke dialogue. Yes, of course school has changed- we’ve adapted to many social and pedagogical changes. At SPA we’ve added Harkness tables, adopted a one to one laptop program and replaced Latin with Chinese. Or perhaps, no, education really hasn’t changed as students still move in groups from class to class following teachers’ curricula in ‘core’ subjects defined at the creation of the comprehensive high school in the 1920’s. We still launch our curricular airplanes in the fall and land them in the spring, hoping everyone arrives safely. Assessment of content knowledge still forms the largest parts of grades because teaching and assessing skills feels messy and subjective.
Louis Menand’s book The Marketplace of Ideas tracks change and reform in the American university system noting the influences of economics and politics over time. Of course reforms, both large and small, are part of the natural cycle of all organizations, although like many, I’ve felt education seems more prone to the reform urge than other systems. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen credits education for remarkable progress. In a somewhat flattering opening, he notes that, “In essence the public schools have been required to do the equivalent of rebuilding an airplane mid-flight—something almost no private enterprise has been able to do. On average, however, schools have done just that—adjust and then improve on each new measure” (51-52). This analogy differs from another transportation analogy sometimes used for education reform- ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.’ He does go on, however, to suggest that online learning will be a ‘disruptive’ change that will fundamentally alter schooling.
In Larry Cuban’s How Teachers Taught, a history of American K-12 education, he surveys the past 100 years in teaching and find few progressive moments amidst decades of teacher centered direct instruction. Defining progressivism, he notes, ‘reformers wanted instruction and curriculum tailored to the children’s interests; they wanted programs that permit children more freedom and creativity than exist in schools; they wanted school experiences connected to activities outside the classroom; and they wanted children to help shape the direction of their learning’ (50). I have to admit I find it disturbing the progressive education goals from 1920 to 1940 sound so much like the goals of the current 21st Century Skills movement. And more disturbing that it’s still too far from my own classroom.
So, is it a fair question? Has education changed? Even without any definitive answer to the question, our own answers underlie our attitudes about change. Perhaps a more useful question is- Has it changed enough? Here, I think most would agree it hasn’t. Certainly, most recent conversations I’ve heard at SPA suggest a readiness for change.