Feature

Reasons to Learn in the New Village Schoolhouse

by TONY WAGNER

Most of us achieve more when we have aim for a higher bar. As a motivator, fear gets us only so far. That will be the big "a-ha" in education a few years from now--fear of not being promoted, fear of not graduating, fear of sanctions and, above all, fear of tests. These fears will begin to weigh us down rather than help us over the bar.

In coming years, we also will better understand that a bureaucratic system that enforces compliance through fear of consequences is both inefficient and unstable. Teachers, parents and students tend to do just the minimum in such a system. They only jump as high as they have to, while many become increasingly resentful.

We already are seeing serious flaws in the standards and high-stakes testing systems now employed in most states. The New York Times reported this fall that a growing number of able students are refusing to take the new tests. In Wisconsin, parents rejected proposed new tests when they realized the knowledge required to do well on them was little more than an academic version of the board game Trivial Pursuit. Parents in other states with high failure rates--notably Virginia and New York--are coming to similar conclusions.

Finally, early indications are that the imposition of high-stakes tests actually will increase the dropout rates at the high school level. In fact, some fear that policymakers and educational leaders know many of today’s high school kids will never pass the new tests. They view these kids as sacrificial lambs. Their failures are the means by which the next generation is supposed to get the message.

Though well-intended and meant to address real issues of inequity and poor performance, the standards movement in the final analysis is a last-ditch attempt to save an ossified and under-resourced bureaucratic system through a little tinkering at the margins. The implicit assumption behind the high-stakes tests is that the system hasn’t worked because teachers, parents and students aren’t doing their jobs and the fear of consequences will improve their performance. We don’t need to change the system, so the theory goes; we just need to ratchet it up.

The Reinvention Process
Let me suggest an alternative view.

The system isn’t working for the same reasons the one-room schoolhouse system of education stopped working at the end of the last century: A new industrial economy, the rise of the American nation state and changing social patterns all required that citizens have new skills. Reforming the one-room schoolhouse was not possible. It had to be reinvented. Replacing it with the "assembly line" system of schooling we now have took nearly 30 years.

We face similar challenges at the dawn of the 21st century with rise of an economy based on information and technology and an increasingly interdependent planet. Today, virtually all high school graduates need to be proficient in a set of competencies that we have only begun to define and do not yet know how to teach or test on a large scale: the ability to learn independently, think critically, solve problems, use technology, work in teams, raise a healthy family, be a thoughtful and contributing citizen--to name a few.

All over this country, individual schools are doing important educational research and development in this reinvention process. Collectively, their work begins to point to a set of principles for school redesign that I call the "four C’s."

No. 1: Competence (versus Coverage)
One of the more serious mistakes of the standards movement is to equate higher intellectual standards with mastery of more of the same old academic content. In the 21st century, the question will be not what you know, but rather what can you do with what you know and how do you update your knowledge continuously?

One of the more serious mistakes of the standards movement is to equate higher intellectual standards with mastery of more of the same old academic content. In the 21 century, the question will be not what you know, but rather what can you do with what you know and how do you update your knowledge continuously?

Instead of focusing on stuffing kids’ heads with more chemistry elements, history facts, math formulas and so on, the "best practice" schools increasingly take a merit-badge approach to demonstrating mastery of vital competencies like the following:

 

  • Workplace Competencies: completing one or more work internships; solving a complex problem using teamwork; demonstrating proficiency with technology; and writing a post-graduate work or study plan and preparing a resumé.

     

     

  • Citizenship Competencies: completing a community service project; registering to vote; demonstrating an understanding of an important current issue; and passing a proficiency test on the principles of democratic government.

     

     

  • Competencies for Lifelong Learning: presenting orally and in writing an independent research project; passing a test on the key features of a geographical map of the world; filling out a timeline of important events in history and analyzing an important event in history from multiple points of view; demonstrating understanding of the scientific method; passing second language and math applications proficiency tests.

     

     

  • Competencies for Personal Growth and Health: completing an independent artistic or musical project; demonstrating proficiency in a lifelong sport; passing a proficiency test on basic principles of human health.

     

    No. 2: Coherence and Choice
    Best-practice schools do not try to be comprehensive. They know that schools can’t do many things well. They also know that students have diverse needs and interests and so they should have some choice of where they attend school, and what and how they learn, above the minimum required competencies.

    Best-practice schools do not try to be comprehensive. They know that schools can’t do many things well. They also know that students have diverse needs and interests and so they should have some choice of where they attend school, and what and how they learn, above the minimum required competencies.

    Schools that do not try to be all things to all people can develop a clearer mission and a stronger sense of community--both of which have a positive impact on student achievement. A Rand Corp. study by Paul Hill, Gail Foster and Tamar Gendler, "High Schools With Character," documented these and other benefits of what they call "focus" high schools.

    No. 3: Core Values
    Core values are as important in schools as academic competencies for several reasons. First, it is increasingly clear from the work of Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence and others that certain emotional capacities such as self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy--or what Goleman calls EQ (for emotional intelligence quotient)--are as important as cognitive skills for success in adult life.

    Core values are as important in schools as academic competencies for several reasons. First, it is increasingly clear from the work of Daniel Goleman in and others that certain emotional capacities such as self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy--or what Goleman calls EQ (for emotional intelligence quotient)--are as important as cognitive skills for success in adult life.

    In its study, "First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools," Public Agenda discovered that 71 percent of all Americans believe it is more important to teach values than academics--not religious values, but rather the behaviors that are critical both at work and in a democratic society. By an overwhelming margin, tolerance and respect topped the list of values Americans want emphasized.

    Students, too, say they need respect from teachers to feel motivated to learn. Another Public Agenda study, "Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think of Their Schools," reported that only 41 percent of the public school students surveyed said most of their teachers treated them with respect, while 64 percent said they would learn "a lot more" from teachers who cared personally about them.

    No. 4: Community and Collaboration
    To assess competencies meaningfully, develop coherence in a school program, foster strong core values and get to know our students well, we need smaller-scale, face-to-face schools that are genuine learning communities for adults and students.

    To assess competencies meaningfully, develop coherence in a school program, foster strong core values and get to know our students well, we need smaller-scale, face-to-face schools that are genuine learning communities for adults and students.

    This is hardly a new or radical notion. The leading independent day schools in the country rarely have graduating classes larger than 100 students, although they could easily expand if they chose to do so. Most charter schools have fewer than 200 students. Recent research shows that creating smaller schools may be the single most important step we can take to improve student achievement, especially for disadvantaged students.

    The reason why smaller schools can be much better learning environments is that they nurture a very different set of motivations and a culture for teaching and learning--beyond fear. These best-practice schools actively develop a deep set of collaborative relationships between teachers and teachers, educators and parents, adults and students.

    This web of relationships, built on trust and respect, creates and reinforces strong norms for teaching and learning as well as appropriate behavior. No one becomes an outcast because he or she looks different or is not good at sports. All earn the respect of their peers because they work hard, want to learn and help others.

    The desire to gain and maintain the respect of others in such communities and the joy that one experiences in these relationships become far more powerful as incentives for productive work than fear of any bureaucratically imposed sanction could ever be.

    This is why the schools of the 21st century must look more like the schools of the 19th century than those of the 20th (with the important exception of technology). To want to achieve at high levels and develop an appreciation of learning for its own sake, students need to be a part of a voluntary but intentional learning community--a new village schoolhouse.

    Tony Wagner, an educational consultant, teaches in the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Programs in Professional Education, 339 Gutman Library, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail: tony_wagner@harvard.edu. He is the author of How Schools Change: Lessons from Three Communities.