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Stop Exploring 'Innovative Education Models', We Need Action Now

When enough people are moving, that's a revolution.

I've recently been drawn to a slew of impassioned posts from several strong voices in education, each managing more than the last to confirm we're headed towards a defining moment in the history of our schools: a shift from an exploration of more effective models of teaching and learning, to an ethical imperative to implement them in our schools.

Jonathan Martin confirms, in an authoritative survey of research on project-based learning that “instead of talking about whether PBL will work, we should focus on what is needed to make it work for our schools and students.” Similarly, Bo Adams invites us to turn our attention from discussions about the importance of student voice and self-direction, to more concrete actions to honor them:

For student learners to develop deep degrees of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, cross-cultural competency, computational capacity, etc., don’t we need to facilitate them having more control over their learning? Less sitting and getting. More choosing and doing. Don't we know at least that much about motivation, relevancy, cognitive commitment, heartfelt conviction, grit, and perseverance?


Grant Lichtman confirms the conditions for meaningful and systemic educational change have never been more ideal. In inviting us to "Join the Flamethrowers," he roots this moment in its historical context, appealing to principles that have been awaiting our reinvested energies—and current dynamics—for nearly a century:

Will we succeed? Will education for every student look dramatically different ten years from now? Will we break the shackles of the industrial age model of school that we KNOW is not the best we have to offer? I don’t know. I do know that we have found the path. We have found that those brushfires light the way back to what John Dewey, the Progressives, and the keepers of the Progressive Era flame knew all along.


Bo Adams frames the essential decision we'll have to make: "Schooling and education are experiencing a grand revolution… Schools can be leaders or left behind in this revolution. It's a choice."

The most vocal leaders of this kind of change are often mistaken for the very interests that have tried to co-opt their energies. Rampant misrepresentations of public schools in the media—alongside, and informed by, profit-driven corporate reform efforts—have inflamed a national conversation that baits educators, trumpets the "failings" of our school system, and misleads the public into believing our national "education system" needs to be "saved" by the same kinds of policy and punditry that savaged our schools in the first place.

Not so. As Chris Lehmann writes:

For folks who are arguing for a more humane, more inquiry-driven, more citizenship-minded, more modern education, it seems daunting. The forces that seem to be working against this kind of education are many. We are out-spent by those who would argue that workforce-driven, test-measured education is what we really need in this country. Worse, the very language of our best ideas often seem co-opted by those who, in the end, seem to be creating a very different kind of schooling than what our best ideas are really about.


Lehmann poses the single most important question of all: "How do we affect change?" He invites us to consider a solution rooted in local circumstances, and designed by local stakeholders:

What we need now is a new kind of organization—one that unites teachers and student and parents and admins who all believe that school can be more powerful than it is now. Maybe this isn’t a national organization at first. Maybe this is district by district, school by school. Maybe the time has come for fewer "Education Nation" moments, and more town halls…


What if—in cities and towns all over the country—we saw parents and educators (who are often the same people, it should be noted) and students and community members come together to discuss their best vision of what they hope school to be? What if, rather than the rhetoric of "fixing broken schools" we had a grassroots movement articulating our best ideas for what we hope a modern education could be? And what if we actually all worked together to make those dreams real…?


Last year, similar hopes developed in conversation with Richard Gerver, who dreamed we could help develop, with the support of nine leading voices in education, a set of common principles on which meaningful school change could be based. In the weeks leading up to our CFEE conference at Curtis School, we invited teachers and parents from 125 schools and districts to weigh in on their highest hopes for their students and children. We then joined Curtis' teachers and the conference presenters to identify patterns of shared belief in the teachers' and parents' input. At the conference, the panelists facilitated reflection and feedback on this "covenant" that might—as Sir Ken Robinson put it—serve as "a framework for collaborative action that could take us a very long way into creating the kinds of education systems that we need."

Our hope was that the "crowd-sourced" input, inclusive process, and collaborative design of the "Covenant to Help Inspire Learning & Development" might provide a model for how grassroots change in our communities might be pursued. To that end, several resources are available on the CFEE site—an overview of its background, PDF copies, videos of panelists' reflections, and presentation slides that can be adapted, if you wish, to facilitate conversations in your learning community.

On that resources page you'll also see and hear Sir Ken Robinson utter some of the words that have been most deeply inspiring to me:

The 'Education System' is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan's office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals…If you are a school principal, you are 'the education system' for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are 'the education system' for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change 'the education system.'


And if enough people change, and they're connected in the way they change, that's a movement. And when enough people are moving, that's a revolution.


Chris Lehmann recently confirmed that "the time has come for us to retake the language of school reform." Perhaps Sir Ken Robinson has illustrated for us why we must, and how we can.

Click here to add committing to C.H.I.L.D.'s 16 transformative education principles to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Pupils at elementary school doing homework or taking test image via Shutterstock

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