Seth Godin put out an interesting manifesto on education yesterday, called Stop Stealing Dreams.  It’s a free download and can be read online, printed, or read in any ebook format.  I strongly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in education.

I currently have two kids in school, and sit on two committees for our school district as a parent representative.  I feel I have a pretty good sense of our schools from both a teacher, admin and parent perspective, seeing how and why many decisions get made.  I’m a strong advocate for public education, and what it means to our communities.

That said, I have also long held that we need to do things differently.  Our kids are growing up in a world that’s rapidly changing- just as an example, the three year age gap between my kids is the gap between VHS and DVDs.  When one was born, VHS ruled- by the time the youngest turned one, we were pitching tape in favor of DVDs.  The age of “Be Kind, Rewind” was over.  The rapid rise of the internet, social networking and more is forcing adults into having conversations and addressing questions they are not prepared for themselves.

All you have to do is look at some teacher professional development videos that say they will address Facebook, and it starts out with “No kid under 13 should have an account, period, because it’s against the terms of service” and then goes on to talk about some general rules about Facebook and good general computer rules, it totally ignores the reality that a reasonable estimate of 50% of kids under 13 in our area are already on Facebook, having forged their birthdays to get on.  Moreover, none of this training addresses the real life concerns that occur when Facebook interaction issues come up and begin affecting the social fabric of the classroom during school hours, whether the child has a legal account or not.

Seth’s e-book explains well that traditional school was formed to create an educated workforce in this country, meant for an industrial economy.  Now that our economy has shifted to be one based on information and innovation rather than factories, we need to be able to build a different student.  I would argue our students are already different, but we haven’t yet acknowledged this and keep trying to jam square pegs into round holes.  Worse yet, I think parents, teachers and administrators already know this, but aren’t comfortable yet with the change themselves to guide others through this morass with confidence.  If anything, I see teachers and administrators doing their best to try to make decisions with few resources, and a feeling like there’s very little margin for error or tolerance of mistakes.  Often they want to wait for more information or data so they can be sure of making a fiscally sound decision with tax payer money and children’s futures hanging in the balance, and in the abundance of caution, end up falling father and farther behind.

I think the difference at the heart of Seth’s debate is about remodeling or redesigning.  If you “remodel” your house, I think of it as working within the existing framework, changing appearances and perhaps locations of things, but it’s less radical than a re-design.  Redesign means going back to the drawing board and looking at almost philosophical constructs.  What do we want to accomplish?  What are our core goals and principals?  How do people naturally move through this space over time, and what works with them?  How does the space we design effect the people and their interactions?

Many of our classrooms are designed with a traditional “Sage on the Stage” orientation, where there is a front and a back to the room, like a bus.  Sometimes there are groups of desks, and work stations, but the overall design is static.  Many of the desks have changed from the ones we had where you could drop down the desktop to better facilitate writing, to static chairs and desks that always make me feel like a veal being shoved into a one size-fits-all cage when I go for parent-teacher conferences.  And while I think we should start redesigning education by also redesigning the buildings we use for school, you could just as easily start small with something like redesigning the seating.

IDEO, the famous design firm, has redesigned a school chair called the Node. (Video below).  Something as simple as a more comfortable chair would do wonders to make students feel more welcomed and comfortable in school.  The ability to rapidly reformat a classroom configuration by moving these chairs on rollers from group to lecture to solo activities allows a new flexibility for both teachers and students within the four walls of the classroom.  Add computers/tablets and wifi, along with the longer battery life allowing students to cut the cord, and every student in the classroom can be working on the same project, or in collaboration with someone else across the globe, sharing what they are learning, removing the walls that both contain and constrain learning and opening it up to brand new possibilities.  The limits dissolve away once the physical constraints begin to dissolve as well.

Solving all the problems in education are not as simple as redesiging the seating, but it’s a serious start.  We need to be able to design flow and flexibility into our students at all levels, and it might just start with allowing the classroom itself to become a more flexible environment that encourages collaboration and sharing rather than separation and isolation.

We need more than mere remodelling.  We need re-design.  And we need to start somewhere, whether we’re ready or not.  We have to make decisions before all the data is in, and we all need to be tolerant of people making the best decisions possible, even if it turns out the decisions weren’t perfect later on.  No decision is truly more devastating than making one with incomplete data at this point.  Our kids can’t wait any longer, nor should they have to.  Every day we seek to maintain the status quo because the future scares us too much, is a day lost for our children’s future.  Time to dive into the breach, with all the tools we have at hand, and do our very best.  That’s all anyone can ask.