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Are You an Old School or a Bold School?

The time is now for some serious reinvention for schools.

As we welcome in 2012, let’s do a quick recap of the new state of the world of education, shall we?

Reality #1:

It’s clearer than ever that the Web has fundamentally undermined the main premise upon which our schools and systems were built—namely, the assumption that access to teachers and information is scarce. That assumption grows less valid each day as more of our students (and we ourselves) come online through faster and more mobile connections. We’ll soon hold the sum of human information in our palms, and we already carry a connection to over two billion potential teachers around in our pockets. In talking about this disruptive reality last fall, author Clay Christensen said, “I think it will not be long before people will see that those who took their education online will have learned it better than people who got it in the classroom.” Welcome to our moment of change.

Reality #2:

Despite the 180-degree shift that the Web represents, schools as we know them are not going away. Society, specifically the two-income family, would be hard-pressed to adjust to millions of school-aged kids staying home to take courses online.

Reality #3:

Given all of that, schools and communities that are not undergoing a serious process of reinvention will find it difficult to remain relevant in an era of abundant personalization in learning, especially if passing the test is the ultimate goal. Individualized, online learning environments featuring ongoing formative assessment will do a better job of delivering test-passing content and skills to our students than classrooms will. (Read more about this on my blog.) Sooner rather than later, therefore, we need to be asking the question, “What is our value in light of the challenges and opportunities that the Web now brings to education?”

Right now, we need bold schools, not old schools. By that, I mean we need schools to take serious steps to not only reinvent themselves, but to step out and advocate for a new, more meaningful definition of what learning means for our students, one that goes beyond simply “higher student achievement” or “increased student performance.”

Bold schools are places of questions, not answers. When much of what we currently think is important for our students to know is just a few taps on a phone or a Google search away, our central mission can’t be to deliver and test for content mastery. Instead, it must be to develop deep dispositions for learning by supporting sustained inquiry into both the content and context of whatever subject students are tackling.

Learners First

Bold schools are steeped in cultures where everyone, both educators and students, are seen as learners first. To be fully able to seize the opportunities that access provides, the adults need to be engaged in the learning process as much if not more than the kids in our classrooms.

Bold schools are innovating and inventing in the classroom and curriculum, poking the box of traditional education in ways that make sense for kids. Morristown (N.J.) High School’s Classics Academy is a great example of how we can deepen student learning by giving students agency over their education.

Finally, bold schools are those that are actively educating around and advocating for meaningful change in their local and state communities. Just like the 400 Long Island high school principals who last fall organized to protest to the N.Y. state Regents board about the connection of standardized test scores to teacher evaluations, bold schools are talking about how learning is shifting and how our thinking about education must shift with it.

In this new year, it’s more important than ever that we go bold school instead of old school. If we don’t, we risk losing much of the absolute goodness and value our classrooms bring to our kids—value that test scores simply can’t measure.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at