This essay is the first of a series that explore how we can move public education away from a rigidly standard, factory-like system, towards a more creative, inquiry-based and, frankly, more human foundation. 

This project began with the $1000 Socratic Challenge, which was won by Harvard Education's Jonathan Hasak with his essay on "Re-imagining Reform in OUSD."  Other essays include:

Below we offer a simple story showing the triumphs and pitfalls of historical efforts to improve education and articulate the broad contours of this ongoing dialogue.  Enjoy!

A Fable of Education Reform

Once upon a time, a crisis befell the Kingdom of Wisdom.  Students weren’t learning enough -- particularly compared to those show off countries across the Sea of Knowledge.  So a grand commission of meaning ministers, connotation counts and mathemagicians was called and soon solemnly pronounced:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on the Kingdom of Knowledge the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Student opportunities were defined by the zip code they were born into rather than a students’ studiousness.  Techno-tools offered new pathways for learning but schools remained structured largely the same as they had for the better part of a century.  Everyone agreed that the schools in the Kingdom of Wisdom needed fixing.  But how?

"Something must be done!"

Armies of adults clashed under banners such as the “alliance for school reform” and “school reformers united” to impose their preferred fix through changes in the standardized square pieces of paper entering and exiting classrooms (those going in usually were called “content standards” and those going out were usually called “standardized tests”).[1]

Often the fights would spill over into which group of adults would have control over implementing the standardized squares.  At their best, these fights created opportunities for much needed experimentation, but often they just became nasty.

Worst of all, the original purpose of these chartered schools, small learning communities and other new structures was often lost amid all the sound and fury of adults arguing.  Rather than working together to pioneer something cool and new, adults too often used these schools as scoreboards for political points.

Occasionally one side would win big and all the students would need to wiggle into a new standard square with new, undoubtedly pretty paper dimensions -- perhaps phi by phi.  Yet despite all the drawn out fights and shifts in standardized squares, students still weren't really learning enough.[2]

Of course, no one really should have been that surprised.  The challenge of preparing students to become productive members of the Kingdom of Wisdom extended far beyond schools.

Remembering how humans actually learn

Education has always been how one generation passed on knowledge to the next.  Students learn from their family, their friends, what’s on the TV, what games they play after school, what they do on their summer break, what their neighbors can teach them when they wander over to their garage, and whatever else young humans do beyond the school bell.

Everyone knew intuitively that those opportunities varied by zip code and that the new techno-tools changed how students connected to other people and information.  And those who took the time to look beyond the grand reform banners floating in the wind to explore what actually was going on the ground soon began reexamining foundational questions.

Why does a classroom have to be limited to four walls and a set of desk chairs?  Or why do students have to learn at the same pace in the same standardized way?  Or really ultimately why do we view school as something apart from society that you do until you’re done when humans learn throughout their lives?

Yet the adults who had invested so much time and money in the ongoing battles did not want to abandon their bastions of standardized square power for the uncertainty of a new direction: “If we don’t have everyone do things in the same sort of room in the the same sort of way, how can we ensure that every student gets an equal education?  We need to put students into standard squares to ensure a baseline of achievement and societal equity.”

Beyond standardization

This line of thinking missed the mark on several counts.  First, that narrative ignored the simple fact that a baseline of achievement and social equity never was achieved despite decade after decade of tweaks to the standardized squares.  Second, the Kingdom of Wisdom was educating students -- not producing cookie cutter blocks in a factory.  

Third and most damningly, a quick conversation with any actual student would confirm that the map of standardized learning embedded in these squares did not match the territory of what actually went on in a classroom.  Have you ever met a student who woke up in the morning excited to become standardized and plain vanilla like everyone else?

Instead of equity, standardization forced both slow and quick students to adopt the same pace, lowering the ceiling of learning for everyone who could otherwise spend that time going deeper into areas that are actually useful to that student.  Perhaps the greatest achievement of standardized squares was boredom -- a fact easily checked by comparing the bright faces in most elementary classrooms to the droll faces of dread painted across most high school classrooms.[3]

Together those three points leave us with a vastly different narrative about the effect of standardized squares on equity and educational achievement:

“We each learn in our own unique way and standardized squares squeeze out the intrinsic joy that humans encounter out of learning.  Students privileged to have more opportunities beyond the school bell or the ability to pay for a school that suits their particular needs -- attributes that mirror the zip code a student is born into -- will tend to succeed more than students who do not.”

So how might we build better pathways for learning than the status quo dominated by standardized squares?  How might we create an education system that’s frankly more human?

Pioneering the new

That inquiry has guided this Stag Hunt.  In the forthcoming essays, we look forward to tackling that challenge by bringing unique insights into the light.

This issue marries on the ground educational experience with deep reflection on how we might move beyond our tired reform debate.  We’ve worked tirelessly to creatively explore how we might leverage current technologies and design thinking to build radically more connections between teachers and community experts through pathways that transcend zip code.

And ultimately we offer an exhortation for everyone who has an interest in education to embrace the need to pioneer the new.  Put in game theory terms, the education challenge we face is a Stag Hunt.  We can choose the proverbial rabbit and look out for ourselves and cling to our favorite same-old-story reforms.  Or we can choose the Stag, putting our trust in our fellow man to build something larger than ourselves.

We believe California stands ideally poised to explore new models that information technology allows and geographic inequality of opportunity demands. Our history is full of pioneers who took pragmatic risks to build something better for the next generation.  

Why not build from that legacy to pioneer public schools that ennoble the uniqueness inherent in every human mind?

“You may not see it now," said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo's puzzled face, "but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in the pond; and whenever you're sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”

Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Quite obviously, this project is larger than its individual authors and it's goal is to offer ideas that stimulate constructive dialogue on this important issue.  We welcome your engagement via twitter @DailyStagHunt or drop us a line at StagHuntEnterprises@gmail.com.

[1] Note all the armies of many reforms required rigorous training on the Island of Conclusions to participate in their battles.

[2] Or at least it remained far from unequivocal how the Kingdom of Wisdom compared in inter-sea-of-knowledge rankings and how the engagement and opportunity gaps were changing.

[3] Or if you prefer, you might read up on the more formal literature on the engagement gap.