Civil Rights, Broken Things & Six Bags of Potatoes: Thoughts on the Incremental Education Revolution

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A few weeks ago, I listened to a fascinating podcast in praise of incremental revolutions. From the gay and civil right movements in the US, to the Team Sky cycling teams, Freakonomics’s Stephen Dubner describes the incredible changes that can be brought about by small, incremental, and sustained shifts.

If you really dig under the surface and trace the tangled roots of any revolution, you will see that there are seldom any revolutions that sprout overnight. There may be landmark decisions, massive uprisings, and paradigm shifts which seem to explode at the surface from time to time. But almost invariably, these are the result of slow, steady (and often unnoticed) build-ups.

All of which got me thinking about education, and how we might deploy an incrementalist approach to revolutionizing our schools.

Sir Ken Robinson has this to say about revolutionizing education:

Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment and it’s not enough. Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need… is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.

Two things are worth noting:

One: Sir Ken’s original TED talk is now more than 10 years old, and the follow up happened in 2010, and although there have been massive changes to how many schools do things, I would argue that we haven’t had the massive transformation Sir Ken had hoped for.

Two: Dismissing the concept of ‘evolving’ education in favor of revolutionizing it dismisses some useful metaphors we could use to understand why and how education needs to transform. Evolution happens as a result of a series of small adaptations which make a species better able to thrive in its environment. Evolution is experimental, it is collective, and it is transformative. While it might not be an intentional process, it is a beautiful one that turned dinosaurs into birds and proto-monkeys into us. Evolution is incremental: given enough time, the natural world can completely transform itself.

The problem is, of course, time. (Which is exactly what Sir Ken was saying in his famous talks.) I have no doubt that the education system will evolve over the next few decades. Slowly, but surely, schools will become dynamic, individualized and flexible hubs of child-centered and relevant learning. But we cannot wait that long. We owe it to the young people we have in our classes right now to give them the best learning experiences we can. We need a kind of accelerated evolution in education.

And this is where incrementalism comes in. Here’s how I think we could deploy the lessons of a sustained and intentional approach to revolution in our schools:

We must have a shared, unified vision of what we want education to be. Not just in our faculties and schools, not just between home and the classroom, but as nations and even between nations. The International Baccalaureate, for example, already has a vision a well-educated young person that we could easily draw upon to inspire us to make this happen: learner-profile-en 

We must put the child first. Not political agendas. Not religious or traditional indoctrination. Not the needs of businesses and universities. Not syllabi. Not standardized tests. Not teachers. Not even parents. Our students must be at the forefront of what we do in our classes. Period. Even if we strike off these other priorities incrementally, we must, slowly and steadily, find ways to make school about helping children to forge their own paths in life, rather than forcing them to walk ours.

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We must make learning authentic. If we challenge our students to inquire, to research, to ponder, and to solve real-world problems based mainly (but not exclusively) around their own particular mix of interests, we can slowly and steadily bring about a truly meaningful education revolution. Ideally, this kind of learning should be cross-curricular and student-driven, with the teacher offering guidance, advice, inspiration, and skills as they are required. Granted, there must be opportunities to learn foundational skills, but beyond this, learning should be student- and inquiry-driven.

Schools must find ways to build more meaningful partnerships with universities and the workplace. At present, this relationship is deeply schizophrenic: both universities and workplaces demand good grades as a precondition for entry, but then bemoan the lack of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving acumen of these graduates. And yes, good test-takers often do learn these soft skills along the way, but the ability to store information and then apply it in a test reveals little about a student’s ability to think for themselves in a wider context.

We must take on board the latest findings of neurologists and educational researchers. But we must do so cautiously. The fact is, schools have much to learn about children’s minds and brains and how to unlock their potential more effectively. But at the same time, these researchers have much to learn from schools about what constitutes effective pedagogy. A great deal of educational research into ‘what works’ in education is based, for example, on kids’ abilities to recall information and perform well in tests. This is not education. And the results of this ‘objective research’ should be treated with caution.

And then there are also incremental revolutions schools need to win around life-long learning, curiosity, confidence, empathy, distributed cognition, power relations, and learning spaces, among many others. But the point is a simple one: we need to celebrate our small victories and build on them. Slowly, gradually, and with a sustained sense of purpose, education can and will evolve. Our revolution may seem small and insignificant at first, but it will build to a groundswell over time, and eventually emerge as a fully-fledged revolution.

Dubner uses weight-loss as a very useful metaphor to help us understand the importance of incrementalism. I’ll give him the final word:

Let’s say you weigh 30 pounds more than you should. And you decide to lose it. What’s your expectation – that you can lose it all in just a few weeks, even just a few months? That’s ridiculous. Do you know how long it took you to put on those 30 pounds? A long time! It’s a lot of work to put on 30 extra pounds – well, not work, it’s actually quite fun, eating all that delicious food. But still, it took a lot of nachos and rice bowls and sugary drinks to put on 30 extra pounds. Go to the supermarket and look at a five-pound bag of potatoes. Now look at six of them – that’s how much you’ve accumulated, over time. So you know what? It’s going to take some time to decumulate. Little by little. Choice by choice. Increment by increment. If you expect otherwise – well, your expectations are likely to be dashed. By lowering your expectations, you can actually raise your chances of success.

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