This is Our Chance to Redesign the Education System
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This is Our Chance to Redesign the Education System

Snow days are gone. Now is the time to rethink everything about K-12 learning.

This is my first pandemic and like everyone else, I’m learning as I go. Learning, for me, has been a lifelong adventure and it gets me up in the morning, along with the smell of coffee. And, a pandemic is an ideal time to learn, because change is forced upon existing systems and we get to see how those systems respond. Our K-12 education system has seen the greatest impact and has the largest responsibility.

As a starter, I was having a conversation with Julie Fitzgerald of Forecast5, a venture that essentially does big data for education. She said that they’ve been working with some school districts for almost five years to move them to a 1:1 learning environment. Along came Covid-19, and those same schools made the change in a weekend, with parents driving up to pick up a Chrome book or iPad. Five years of effort with barriers of all kinds, crushed into a Saturday and a Sunday. Done.

Also, it occurs to me, why can we sit down, search the Internet and find an entire semester long set of lectures (and course materials) from a favorite history professor at Yale and yet not find a lecture from a favorite high school teacher? Don’t make the excuse of resources, that’s a fallacy we use to avoid the challenge. It takes an iPad with Airpods and the technical competence of a high school freshman to make a lecture video.

At the collegiate level we also have “Rate Your Professor” and other tools for kids to avoid the professors who get bad ratings. It’s a feedback system that allows the teachers to learn to be better at teaching while the students become better at learning. Even those systems are crude in their current form, imagine if you could see a rating of a teacher not just on a basic scale but also compared to the grade of the student rating them (ex: 4.0 students rank this professor much higher than 2.0 students).

We are forced into a learning system at around age 5 and exit that system at 18. It was originally designed for the student, in order to advance our society and improve our collective wellbeing. As time has passed and other systems have changed, the education system has remained steadfast, uniform, and consistent. Which is also how we might describe McDonald’s. Yet, the world has changed and there are ways to allow a great teacher, who now might teach a few hundred kids a year, to teach a few thousand. We can let great teachers teach more and great students learn more.

Learning is hard. Our brains are wired to find the patterns and stick with what we believe works. Even my favorite behavior economist (Daniel Kahnmann) speaks to the System One brain, the learning brain, as lazy and requiring more energy. It requires discipline and dedication to form patterns of curiosity and a desire for lifelong learning. And, teaching is hard, which many parents discovered at the beginning of this pandemic. Yet, this wasn’t the entire picture.

It was a shift in labor and competence from teachers being there with a student for an entire school day, charged with keeping them occupied and learning, while parents worked and earned for their family. The shift put the labor on parents who already had another job and responsibility. All of a sudden it became less about the student learning and more about the safety of teachers. Which I certainly understand, I have two kids who worked as grocery store cashiers throughout this pandemic. Will teachers lose their jobs if they don’t teach? Will parents lose theirs if they don’t deliver on expectations? This is the precise spot where the conflict exists.

We are capable of much more than what our education system represents today. In this, I am not blaming teachers, unions, parents, or administrations. We are all to blame for a system we’ve allowed to become the only good meal some kids get each day. Or for a system that is a state-run babysitting service for working parents. We know the phrase “one size fits all” should be left to the history books because an education system designed in that manner is equal to an old smelly gym sock. We can redesign this system.

This pandemic is the greatest opportunity for the education system to change and be redesigned for the student. Inspired by Jeremy McCarty, who has been dreaming and writing about this since his kids started in the education system many years ago. We can apply human centered design principles to education and put the student back in the center of this system. The education system (of all our national systems) is likely to take the largest cultural hit from this pandemic. What happens when the location of a school becomes less important, what do we do with districts and what if kids can go to any school, in any district? This should be motivating and inspiring, kids (and the parents who have such high hopes for them) can be at the center of a system.

We get the chance to rethink how kids learn. There’s a strong correlation between the bubonic plague and the renaissance. This is our chance to make that kind of change and we could look back in a decade and admire what our teachers, administrators, politicians, parents and students achieved during this challenging time. We might speak of how everyone faced their fears, stepped up with creative ideas and put in the largest effort they could to be an example for generations to come.

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