I was sitting in a meeting last year, and an administrator (from another school) said “you know, classrooms are just about the only place in this country where you could take a person from 150 years ago, drop him down in that place, and everything would be totally familiar to him. Classrooms have not changed for centuries.” He said this as if it was a good thing. At the time I didn’t think it was a good thing…and I also didn’t think it was true.
If we’re going to be talking in this course (and we are) about “School 2.0” (or 2.5? Or 3.0? Or 124c 41+? Or ∞?), we should probably start with School 1.0. What was that vision of 150 years ago? You’ll see one such vision in the excerpt from Tom Sawyer in this unit’s readings. And I’m sure you have many others from TV, movies, literature, and your own memories. But I wonder if those visions, tinged with nostalgia as they necessarily are, have any accuracy.
You’re writing some reflections about your own educational history in this unit, and while you’re writing that, you can remember the idea of “rose-colored glasses.” Or maybe “mud-colored glasses.” When we remember the past, we’re really creating the past. It’s not the past itself that we’re describing, it’s our memory of the past. And memory, I would maintain, is a creative act. We select what we remember, and we view our past through the lens of the present. So in many cases, in literature and in life, when we recall or report School 1.0, we’re really reporting something we want to say about the way things are today. (“When I was young, we walked to school. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways. And we liked it!”–that’s really not anything true or meaningful about the past school days…it’s a message about how the grumpy old man feels about kids today.)
But I think there are some things we can say that have changed, whether in your lifetimes or my lifetime. Or a longer span. One description of the change has been that we have moved from a model of a “sage on a stage” to a “guide on the side.” Classrooms have become less authoritarian, more student-centered, with more emphasis on engagement and activity rather than obedience and control. The old rule when I started teaching was “never let them see you smile until October.” And children were “seen and not heard.” And kids memorized. Multiplication tables, poems, passages from history books, the periodic table of the elements. All memorized and repeated and recited exactly. And there were big difference in exactly who was there in the classroom–and what they got to study. Girls and boys, people of different races and ethnic groups or national origins–in School 1.0, it was well-established that they had different things to learn, different ways to learn, and different ceilings beyond which they could not rise. Writing was meant to be correct and grammatical, not expressive or creative.
But even in those “old days,” some of those techniques, or some parts of them, did work, did help, and did acknowledge and meet real needs. Kids did learn. This is why some of the reports about School 1.0 are so negative about schools today. Some people think we’ve lost a certain shared cultural vocabulary, and that standards are lower than they’ve ever been, and they blame the changes in schools for those changes. But if you look at some of the dialogues of Plato, you’ll see that the Socratic method (hence the name) is not a recent invention at all. And much of what we think of as being new and modern and exciting and changing just today was really described by John Dewey almost a century ago.
It might be that the core moments of learning (or the long-term process of learning) is not something that is really connected to School 1.0 or 2.0 or anything point anything. In that one-room schoolhouse, people did learn, and in the high-tech “smart” classroom, people do learn. And in both of those places they sometimes don’t learn. So as we look towards the future of education, as we imagine that, let’s also focus on the core values that we remember and that we know–and look at how those are changing and predict where those are going.