When Charles Reigeluth and Jennifer Karnopp titled their book Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold (2013 Roman & Littlefield), they meant it.
Reigeluth, an education researcher from Indiana University, and Karnopp, head of school at the Robert Frost Charter School in New Hampshire, propose radical changes in the way education meets the demands of today’s Information Age.
The model may seem unusual to some, even though it has improved student learning. But lasting success will depend on whole districts adopting this new paradigm. The authors provide a blueprint for change with the confidence that education will look much different in the future.
“We fully expect that existing school districts and state level systems are going to transform to this Information Age paradigm,” says Reigeluth, “just as the Agrarian Age system inevitably changed to the Industrial Age system.”
Your book goes much further than others on education reform. Where they discuss different teaching methods or leadership approaches, you advocate total systemic change.
Reigeluth: It comes down to societal changes. The one-room schoolhouse was the appropriate paradigm for the Agrarian Age, and the current factory model of schools was very appropriate for the Industrial Age. That was when manual labor was the most common form of labor and we didn’t need to educate very many people to higher levels.
But in the Information Age, we have knowledge work as the increasingly dominant form of work. We recognize that we must leave no child behind, yet our Industrial Age system is designed to leave a whole bunch of children behind for manual labor. The massive changes taking place in society are creating different educational needs that require a different educational system.
Has our technology-driven society changed faster than schools can keep up with it?
Reigeluth: It’s not so much the pace of change. I think the biggest crisis we have today is one of perception. People perceive that we can just tinker with the current system and it will magically work better to meet these new needs.
As much as we try to improve the current system, it isn’t going to be any better at meeting our current needs. The Industrial Age system has reached its upper limit, and vast expenditures of money to improve the current system are going to yield minimal results overall. We need to help people understand that piecemeal change is not going to improve learning outcomes. We must have paradigm change.
You envision schools that look familiar, but function differently from what we know today—no grade levels or class periods, no courses and no grades. How do you sell that concept to a society that grew up with those very things?
Karnopp: We have been doing that at the Robert Frost Charter School. We created a public charter that brings in the Montessori philosophy as well as project-based learning. While we still have to work within the constraints of the existing system—which can be a challenge—we have mixed-age classrooms where everyone is with the same teacher for three-year blocks.
We evaluate children as they achieve the Common Core standards. A first grader, for example, could easily be working on third- or fourth-grade standards in math, yet might still be working at first-grade standards in language areas. They meet with their peers and have group lessons, maybe four or five kids who are working on the same skills. They’ll be grouped together whether they are first graders or third graders. Then they move on for independent practice at their own pace. Some may move on faster than others.
How do you address parents who say, “That’s all well and good, but don’t experiment on my kid.”
Karnopp: We have had some challenges helping parents understand the system, but when they see their child’s engagement and excitement about school, the parents are sold on it. There is a fear of change for some, but once they see that the change works, they are on board.
As a public school we don’t turn down any child, regardless of their needs or abilities or income. We work with the entire range of the population at our school and have great successes with everyone.
Reigeluth: In fact, Jennifer’s school was started by parents. They were unhappy with the experience their children had in the public schools, and got together to create this public charter to do things differently. It can be a challenge for parents and others because it doesn’t fit their mental model of education.
In our book, we list over 140 schools we found that are working in this new paradigm. The vast majority are charter schools or private schools, because, unless the whole school district adopts this new approach, any school that does change will be incompatible with the rest of the district, and the district will work to change it back to what it was.
Years ago, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, he visited a school called the Saturn School of Tomorrow in Minnesota. It was a fantastic school that fit this Information Age paradigm, but it has now reverted to a regular school because it became incompatible with the rest of the district.
In the past 40 years, we’ve seen some exciting model schools started within school districts that eventually died out or reverted back to the factory model for precisely the reason that they became incompatible with the school district.
You wrote, “As with the civil rights movement in the 60s, mindset change is crucial to changes in attitudes and behaviors, but such change cannot be mandated.” So how do we do this? Does it have to be organic?
Reigeluth: I think it does need to be organic. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that minds needed to be changed and that is very much what is involved here.
It can happen through many different paths. One way is for a district to engage its citizens in dialogue to discuss what they want the schools to accomplish. That was the process I facilitated in the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township in Indiana for 12 years, working with them to help evolve the whole culture of the school system.
You can also have videos that showcase schools like Jennifer’s that are embarking on this kind of change and show the way it works and what it achieves. There are many different routes, but the most important outcome of a paradigm-change effort is to change the mindsets of the stakeholders.
Jennifer, have you experienced much resistance to what you are doing in New Hampshire?
Karnopp: In the beginning, there were definitely some concerns from the traditional public school about how this was going to impact them. But we are now starting our third year and they are starting to understand that we are part of the solution and that we are not trying to displace them. It has become more of a collaborative relationship.
We’ve had many visitors from public schools in New Hampshire and Vermont come see what we are doing and how we are doing it. We also open the schools to legislators so they can see what is going on. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive, but we also know that when it comes down to voting time in the House and Senate, the party lines rule.
Mindset change is a slow process. That’s why the more positive experiences that people can have that challenge their prior beliefs, the more likely we are going to build the momentum to keep the ball rolling.
In the book you discuss a “readiness factor” where administrators and teachers have to be ready for the paradigm change to occur. How do you prepare for that?
Reigeluth: What we focus on is the process itself. We don’t say, “Here are the changes that are going to be made, let’s all get on board.” Rather, we say, “Here is the process we want to go through to explore what kinds of changes are best for us.” It provides much more stakeholder ownership in the process than a top-down, mandated approach.
Karnopp: In our culture, there’s a notion that change that comes down from the top is not necessarily a good thing, and there is instant resistance.
But when the change can come from the bottom up, it can become a community dialogue and experience. A big part of that is recognizing the skills that students will need when they leave public school and go on to higher education or the workforce.
There is a growing recognition that our students are not arriving prepared for the workforce or college as it is today. When you look at the skills they need, it’s pretty clear that the current system isn’t meeting those needs and something has to happen.
Tim Goral is senior editor.