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Lesson 10.1

Blow It Up?:
Big Ideas For Education Change

It’s easy to be bold, in theory

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Reform advocates (especially rookies) periodically call for the education system to be “blown up.” The old hands smile, or grimace.

Education is Big

Most calls to "blow up" the education system generally paint over the question of scale. Perhaps because classrooms are small, it is hard to internalize the reality that America’s education system is big. Really, really big. Giant, actually. In rough numbers, the census counts nearly 10 million students just in preschool and kindergarten. About 50 million more attend grades 1 through 12. Another 20 million or so are enrolled in college or graduate education. Just in the K-12 grades, America employs approximately 3.6 million teachers, and spends well over half a trillion dollars per year. These are big numbers, certainly. But are they bigger than other big things in America? For example:

  • Q1: Which does America have more of: teachers or soldiers?
  • Q2: Does America have more schools or Starbucks?
Roughly a quarter of America's population is currently enrolled in school.

The answers are not close. America has far more teachers than soldiers, even if you count teachers sparingly and soldiers generously. There are about ten schools for every Starbucks.

Big systems don't change quickly - at least not without destructive consequences.

Change Is Inevitable

Nevertheless, if there is consensus about anything in education, it is that change is both necessary and inevitable. Many classrooms still look about like they did fifty years ago. Is it really imaginable that 50 years hence students will still sit in rows, doing the same workbooks at the same time? In an age of ubiquitous computing, online classes, and personalized learning, what is the future size of the market for #2 pencils?

The world’s best teachers of many subjects are only a click away. When students really want to know something, they Google it. When they want to learn how to do something, they turn to YouTube.

Public education has changed more over time than most people realize, or at least acknowledge. Lesson 1.7 discusses some of the major themes of the last 100 years of education change in America, particularly the developing ideal of "universal" education. The challenge, of course, is that big ideas and major changes unfold over time. Kids grow up waiting on the world to change, including the world of school.

Systems Resist Change

There are many obstacles to change in education, including policy inertia, organizational inertia and human inertia.

Policy inertia. Many aspects of education are governed by detailed laws, for reasons good and bad. The workings of governments tend to be slow, and movements toward change in one area can be blocked by opposition in another. In 2009, policy gridlock in California had become so frustrating that a movement led by the Bay Area Council called for a California Constitutional Convention. The basic idea was to provoke a bold rethinking of the policy apparatus of the state. A related suggestion "in the mix" at the time called for the entire California education code to be scheduled to “sunset” over a period of years. The idea earned a brief vogue with the support of the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence.

Organizational inertia. The "ecosystem" of education includes many participants with different perspectives, such as teachers, parents, students, businesses and taxpayers. Changes that require policy action must survive the policy process. Even at the nominal "end" of a policy decision process, changes only affect students to the extent that they are carried out.

Human inertia. A new set of standards does not automatically change lesson plans, or the materials a teacher uses to explain an idea to students. Just because a teacher receives new software does not mean that he or she wants to use it, or knows how. In many schools, teachers feel that they are expected to work miracles with nothing but chalk and charm; they are naturally disposed to proceed with caution when presented with the latest shiny idea.

The next two lessons examine two competing ideas about the role of resources in education change. Would efforts for change be better served by massive investment, or by a tightened belt?

Updated August 2021


Which of the following does America have the most of?

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Sonya Hendren June 11, 2020 at 12:45 am
Another "big change" I've observed with Distance Learning, is that students have been asked to be more resourceful. When activities are done in the traditional classroom, the appropriate supplies are provided, but with Distance Learning, the students have had to repurpose household items, finding something that works the best they can. For example, rather than assigning a specific science demo, the teacher assigned a topic and a couple YouTube compilations of demos on that topic, and asked students to perform whichever demo they choose, based on which items they have at home. This approach teaches creativity, problem solving skills, and "common sense." The approach does a great job of demonstrating how failures are a part of the learning process. The more open-endedness lends itself to the higher engagement of student-directed learning.

Now is the time to make big changes!
user avatar
Sonya Hendren June 11, 2020 at 12:42 am
It will be interesting to see which of the "big changes" necessitated by Distance Learning become more permanent. Teachers are relying on on-line learning tools, assigning videos instead of lectures or class activities. Some of the on-line learning tools are adaptive (adjust to each student's individual level.) I'm excited about the potential for adaptive aps to allow each student to work at their optimal level for learning. They would always be challenged, not bored by too-easy material or a too-slow pace. They wouldn't have to struggle with material for which they lack foundational skills or knowledge, because the algorithm would switch to those foundational lessons.
user avatar
Mary Perry June 25, 2014 at 10:59 am
While a bit of pragmatism about big changes is in order, creating some sense of urgency and a vision of what's possible are also important.
For the urgency part, I like this article, that challenges educators to make school more relevant. It really puts students at the center of the question of education change -- right where they should be.
The article was posted on Mindshift (at ) which provides a wealth of ideas -- from many different points of view -- about what's possible.
Here's how the Mindshift blog describes itself: "Launched in 2010 by KQED and NPR, MindShift explores the future of learning in all its dimensions, covering cultural and technology trends, innovations in education, groundbreaking research, education policy, and more." Credible source and challenging ideas. It's worth a look.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren September 2, 2018 at 7:54 pm
Thanks for the article. I like the idea of "Dream Directors." Kids don't have the world experience to know the best paths toward various goals or careers ("you don't know what you don't know"), but educators, with their larger perspective, can help direct them!
user avatar
Gisele Huff May 20, 2011 at 9:43 am
It is true that often, reform advocates, myself included, have called for blowing up the system and starting from scratch. However, for the first time in the second decade of the 21st century, it is possible to do just that.

As someone who has been in the trenches for more than 12 years, I am no longer talking about reforming education but about transforming it. As a matter of fact, I am no longer talking about education but about learning. That shift in vocabulary places focus squarely on the child and not on the adults or the system. In that space, personalized, differentiated learning rules and can only be delivered through technology.

In my view, learning should be bifurcated between content and pedagogy. Children learn content on the computer, adaptively, at their own pace. The software tracks their progress, evaluates their performance, intervenes when necessary, and creates a profile of their activities that is instantaneously available to the teacher through a dashboard. The teacher is Socrates, helps the students connect the dots and go deeper into the material they have learned on the computer.

In this scenario, as it is practiced at the Carpe Diem School in Yuma, AZ and at two 5th grade and two 7th grade classes in the Los Altos School District that use a Khan Academy math curriculum, the teacher has much more time to spend with each student individually. Not having the responsibility for imparting content to a group of children with varying abilities and particular learning problems, the teacher can now personalize the necessary intervention on the spot, as it were. No one falls through the cracks, no stitch is dropped.

That is the future of learning and the salvation of this country if we are to continue competing in the global economy.
user avatar
Mamabear April 12, 2015 at 2:25 pm
I wonder how many more schools are now doing what is mentioned in the post added May 20, 2011:
See below:
use a Khan Academy math curriculum, the teacher has much more time to spend with each student individually. Not having the responsibility for imparting content to a group of children with varying abilities and particular learning problems, the teacher can now personalize the necessary intervention on the spot, as it were. No one falls through the cracks, no stitch is dropped
user avatar
Caryn-C September 18, 2017 at 10:59 am
Yeah, I'm a big believer in evolution rather than revolution. Plus, I reallllly don't want to homeschool. So what does that leave me with? It leaves me with the knowledge that my children will be attending California public schools in a certain time and place in California public school history. Thank goodness we crawled out of the Great Recession but who's to say what economic downturn will next come our way? Inertia is something I try to fight against in all its forms. Differentiated learning is key and, while the inequities make me angry, part of me feels like, at present, I can only keep my eyes on getting my own children through the system.
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