The Transformation of Public Education

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By Dr. Lisa Snyder
Executive Director, EdVisions

Teaching and learning is clearly a human-centered enterprise based on relationships. But as humans, we have a need to understand why-especially when it comes to change. This gets tricky because each of us has to construct our own understanding through our learning and collaboration with others. When we learn from another, share our practices, our failures and our successes, we all grow.

In recent years, I found this picture, that for me, provides a visual representation and unique metaphor of the transformation that is happening in K-12 public education.  

The established tree represents the strong foundation of public schools; a strong tree with many branches that have grown strong over the years that represent our diverse system of grade levels, content specialties and programs. The tree has continually reached for the sky to grow, adapt and thrive.  

Studying the tree more closely however, a new, blossoming tree can be seen growing out of the established tree. This new tree represents the new ideas emerging in schools, the increasing needs of society and of our students that are now essential for success.   

The established tree seems to be nurturing the growth of the new tree even as it still stands strong and proud on its own merits. Eventually like every tree, the older tree’s life cycle will end, but as it does, it will continue to feed the new tree as it lays on the ground nourishing the earth with its memory.  

So is our system willing to do this? Are we willing as educators willing to continually improve our foundational system while also allowing new ideas and methods to emerge and grow? Are we willing to let the new system stand proudly on our strong shoulders and blossom for all to see?

This is not easy work. It goes against much of our basic human behavior to allow contradicting beliefs to exist in the same system. Recently, I read a best-seller by scientist, Sean Carroll called, “The Big Picture” which attempts to summarize all that scientists know to date about our universe and why we exist. As the author discussed the many times that scientific discovery contradicts with our previously held beliefs, I couldn’t help but make connections to what is happening in public education as well as many other sectors that are responding to the changing expectations. Carroll stated, “When two dramatically incompatible beliefs come into direct contact, it can be like highly reactive chemicals being mixed together, leading to an impressive explosion-possibly even blowing the entire “system” apart until a new one can be assembled from different parts.” Instead of a grand explosion, he suggests we continually test and probe our beliefs for inconsistencies and structural deficiencies and be willing to improve the “architecture and composition even to the point of replacing our beliefs with better ones.” In the end we have to be willing to change our beliefs in the face of new information.

To this end we have to allow teachers and staff to test new theories; even if they are incompatible with past practice or prevailing beliefs. After all, shouldn’t we as educators be the first to question how our systems actually work? While our critics assert our pedagogy lacks relevance in the world today, should it not be us who lead the dialogue on questioning our practices?

A quick review of the literature demonstrates the common needs for education today:

  • Application and demonstration of learning (deeper learning vs. task completion or memorization)
  • Development of key skills and the ability to solve complex problems
  • Alignment of students’ needs, strengths, goals and passion to the learning (personalization of learning)
  • Alignment to economic needs & viable career pathways
  • Development of critical character traits
  • Understanding of culture, race and history in a global context

I believe in public education, so I sincerely believe that public education can meet the needs of our students in a responsive, relevant and personalized manner and that public schools are willing to adapt our approaches and practices to meet the needs of a global citizenry. Our national strategy should be around teacher empowerment to personalize learning. Our teachers are closest to the challenge.

What are the essentials for this to occur? Philosopher Thomas Kuhn conceptualized the term “paradigm shift” to describe how new theories can help us think of the world in new and different ways. We have to believe in human potential-in our high quality educators. We have to know that innovation requires a certain amount of uncertainty, and that we can handle it.

Educators must consider new and emergent practices as objectively and openly as possible and embrace the cognitive dissonance created through this dialogue. Educators must allow their colleagues to research their questions and test their hypothesis.  

So I ask educators:

  • Do you have a voice in what you do? In the system? In how to personalize learning? In how to raise student engagement? In how to raise achievement and results?  
  • Do you want to be a positive voice for our students’ futures?

I invite you to have a voice in the system. Help solve complex challenges such as personalizing learning and work as innovative partners in creating more transformative learning experiences for our students.