In Reimagining School, What Must We Hold Onto – & What Must We Let Go Of?

Think about all the ways in which our brains are already hard-wired to think about “school.”

Desks. Chairs. Tests. Lectures. Lunchrooms. Hall Passes. Freshman (or Sophomore or Junior) years. AP (or Geometry or Spanish) classes. The list is endless.

All of these things came about in the creation of a model of education that was designed for the Industrial Age, when we were trying to answer a different set of questions: How can we batch and queue unprecedented numbers of young people through a system and into an economy that will be largely fixed and known? How can we acculturate waves of immigrant children into the core values of American society? And how can we do all of this in the most efficient, orderly manner?

Say what you will — but at the time when they were being asked, those were probably the right questions to organize a system of schools around. And clearly, they are no longer the right questions today.

Not all of the symbols and structures of our Industrial-era model of schooling need to be jettisoned. The question is, which ones are no longer serving their purpose?

We now live at a moment in history in which the world young people will be entering is both fluid and unknown; when the time between asking a question and finding the answer is almost instantaneous; and when the mark of a successful school is less about the knowledge you put into your students, and more about the wisdom you are able to pull out.

What would it need to look like if a system of schools was truly aligned around a different set of organizing questions — where the goal is not to standardize, but to individualize; where the objective is not uniformity, but uniqueness; and where the feelings “school” arouses in the majority of us are not endless shades of grey, but wild and inspiring spectrums of color?

If these were our objectives, how would the structures and aims of our schools need to shift? And once they shifted, what would we need to hold onto from our past ideas about school, and what would we need to let go of — so something new and improved could have the space to come into being?

The first step towards that sort of paradigm shift is simply to think about all of the current symbols and structures of schooling — and to decide if it’s something we will need to hold onto and carry forward, or let go of and redesign.

For example, age-based cohorts: hold on, or let go?

Hall passes and cultures of permission between adults and young people: hold on, or let go?

Grading: hold on, or let go?

Subjects: hold on, or let go?

The act of choosing is its own form of clarity.

What, then, would you choose?

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  1. Posted February 4, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    This is brilliant, and almost impossible.

    Not only is the establishment unwilling to sacrifice symbols, they don’t even want to admit that they HAVE symbols.

    We have an urgent problem, and this is a great way to start down the road to fixing it.

  2. Posted February 4, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks Seth! What do others think?

  3. Posted February 4, 2015 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    My kids attended a Montessori school so I could lose lots of classes and imagine a school where most kids work independently most of the time — and sometimes work in groups and occasionally sit for lectures. Probably requires more teachers, not fewer. For all the hiccups with introducing technology I think every kid ought to be fluent on a computer as soon as they are ready. I could see teaching more foreign languages and figuring out which subjects kids can teach themselves and which ones really require adult supervision. I can see actually teaching about teamwork. Finally, I could see a lot more hands on activities, especially at younger ages and more focus on communications skills at the older ages across multiple media — numbers, language, pictures, video and music

  4. Bobby
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m working at a school that is really trying to do this.

    Jettison everything that separates and sorts. Personalize & engage technology. Teachers spend time on what they have leverage over (relationships, deep cognitive skills, day to day school logistics).

    What’s holding us back from doing everything we’d like is the uniformity of demands for college admission. Our goal then is to provide a near-limitless set of routes and experiences, but toward a more limited set of acceptable outcomes.

  5. Posted February 5, 2015 at 7:59 am | Permalink


  6. Darcy Bedortha
    Posted February 5, 2015 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Excellent Sam. Thinking of you today and always your questions about what it means to be educated… Touring the possibilities as we build a different kind of school #HOC_learningtour

  7. Posted February 5, 2015 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I’m intrigued by questions like these, and in full agreement with the case for change. Right now, I work with teachers in England who are working in schools to create small changes that lead to big results. The reality? It’s hard. The weight of entire industries built for old structures makes change scary (and when — really — has change ever been welcomed?). Nevertheless, the number of people asking these questions is growing. And that gives me hope.

    We need to let go of a lot, and in my opinion, the things we need to hold on to are not so easily described. They are the stuff of values — ethereal and misty though they be, they are the ideas that might lead us to a revolution.

  8. Posted February 5, 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Kay.

  9. Posted February 5, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Bill Gates Lakeside School was designed for the Industrial Age?

    Here’s the Mission Statement for Lakeside. Strange, there no mention of ranking students by having them take endless bubble tests and firing the teachers at Lakeside from the results. And the average class size is 16—not the 100 that Bill Gates is pushing for in the public schools.


    The mission of Lakeside School is to develop in intellectually capable young people the creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits needed to contribute wisdom, compassion, and leadership to a global society. We provide a rigorous and dynamic academic program through which effective educators lead students to take responsibility for learning.

    We are committed to sustaining a school in which individuals representing diverse cultures and experiences instruct one another in the meaning and value of community and in the joy and importance of lifelong learning.

    Mission Focus

    Lakeside School fosters the development of citizens capable of and committed to interacting compassionately, ethically, and successfully with diverse peoples and cultures to create a more humane, sustainable global society. This focus transforms our learning and our work together.

  10. Posted February 5, 2015 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    But what would YOU hold onto, Lloyd, and what would you let go of? Are you saying you want all schools to have what Bill Gates’s school has? Or are you saying something else?

    Better yet, leave Gates out of it for a moment. What do you think are the foundations for an on-point reimagining of school going forward — and what are the structures and symbols that are holding you/me/us back?

  11. Posted February 6, 2015 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I find it odd that some people who have strong opinions on improving schools end up talking mostly about structures, techniques, technologies, tools, measuring, and sorting. It’s like we’re talking about building Volkswagens or semiconductors. As John Merrow asked recently, what’s our ‘product’? That’s what to hold onto: a vision of the next generation of citizens and change makers. People who know how to build and join thriving communities.

    There’s much more to say about this. But one other, more immediate, thing we can hold onto is the notion that you — as a teacher, parent, student — can start where you are. You don’t have to wait for the ideal structure or tools to come along.

  12. Posted February 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I see it as a both/and. Yes, our focus needs to be on the young people, and on who we want them to be — much more squarely than it has in the past. And yes, the best way to put ourselves in a position to follow through on our vision is via a different set of structures, systems and symbols — chief among them a different mindset around what children are capable of, and what schools are ultimately about.

  13. Posted February 6, 2015 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    As a mom of two living in New England, blanketed by snow and even more snow days, I’d love to re-imagine the school year. Is it really about 180 days, and must they be enveloped around summer months? What’s the larger goal – beyond the metric of days/time – by which I (as a parent) can and should be held accountable to my children’s learning?

    I’d love to also reimagine the value placed on social-emotional growth, alongside academic achievement, and the metrics that matter (locally, cultural) for really valuing this, not to mention the role of teachers, parents, and community members in making such growth possible, visible, inevitable. If we believe that learning happens everywhere and can show up in more forms than verbal/linguistic or mathematical/logical, why aren’t we putting our systems where our mouths (and hearts, minds) are?

    The questions you ask are timely, Sam. Rhode Island just recently launched its highly participatory planning process for the 2015-2020 Statewide Plan for PK-12 Education (, convening a host of community conversations that are giving voice to the public that is public school in Rhode Island. A whole lotta re-imagining to be had in this “people’s plan” which could be a significant turning point for RI PK-12 education. And if we want our children to be able to challenge the status quo in anything/everything they learn, might we flex this muscle as well?

  14. Dan Schmitt
    Posted February 19, 2015 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I would let go of 1/2 the curriculum and 1/2 the teachers and replace it with 1/2 time real world experiential learning (not case studies or internships) but whereby the students were tackling real world problems assigned to them by real world organizations.

    Teachers? A Socratic teaching certification would be required and pay raises would be earned by successful projects which offer additional compensation via the real world business.

    This solves the problem for WHAT kids want to learn, in an environment that supports HOW they want to learn in an economy that demands we change what and how NOW or else we are in big trouble.

    It also happens to align with our natural instinct….go figure. In this regard, there isn’t much of anything to hold unto and any cliche mission statement does not a school make.

  15. Evelyn Boyd Simmonse
    Posted February 27, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Sam, I love your thought exercises!

    I think this skips a step. You told us what society needed from schools of yesteryear and pointed out that we no longer need that. Having discredited the industrial model you went straight to re-imagining it. Don’t we need to do more thinking and consensus-building around the notion of what we need the new public school mission to be? We know it’s not preparation of a job in a factory. We know we aren’t trying to acculturate waves of (European) immigrants. Do we no longer need to be efficient and orderly?

    The core of what you’ve slammed us to the quintessentially American value of individuality and its first cousin customization. Those are familiar and comforting and worthy defaults values but they are just that.

    The real question is what do we need our next generation of publicly educated citizens to be, do and be prepared for? I get that “uncertainty” is a big part of it but what else? Are we as comfortable asking and answering this question as we were in the days of automation? Probably not. But if we don’t know what we need to produce, how well can we do at re-designing the factory?

  16. Posted February 27, 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Great clarification, Evelyn. What else, at this point, would you say we need our next generation of citizens to be (and do)?

  17. Gisele Huff
    Posted February 27, 2015 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Before you can answer the “what” and “how” questions raised by Dan, you have to answer Evelyn’s “why” question. What is the purpose of education in the 21st century? Certainly not cramming information into our children’s heads – there’s Google for that. So although knowledge is necessary, it is not sufficient. We have to develop the right skills and dispositions in order for our children to cope with whatever uncertainties (and they are legend) await them.

    The world bears no resemblance to the previous century, it is modular, personalized, networked and flat. Our children have to be life-long learners, problem solvers, able to deal with failure and in charge of their own learning. We can no longer assure them that a college degree will lead them to a career. We have to help them become people who are not defined by the jobs they perform but the contributions they make.

    Regardless of processes, systems, adults and buildings, if we redesign education to be learner-centered, we will have prepared our children for whatever the future holds.

  18. MarkT
    Posted February 28, 2015 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    For example, age-based cohorts: hold on, or let go?
    Within reason you can let this go. Here is a charter in AZ that has been doing it for a while:

    Hall passes and cultures of permission between adults and young people: hold on, or let go?
    Respect for adults needs to be retained IMHO – does it need hall passes? probably in large schools

    Grading: hold on, or let go?
    keep for middle school up – no grades equals no work once they start getting older

    Subjects: hold on, or let go?
    Core subjects Math, Science, English, History are still relevant
    Gisele has a nice post but currently a college degree is necessary for more jobs (even when not really needed) then ever before so the paper chase is worse then ever and the cost of that paper is ridiculously high.

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