The transformation of our schools–from the outdated model that focuses on rote learning of content and short-term preparation for tests, to one of deeper learning that prepares students for success in a rapidly evolving future–is, finally, inevitable.

At a 30,000-foot level, our broad community of education stakeholders—learners, parents, practitioners, administrators, and community builders—is faced with three big questions: “Why” should schools change? “What” does that change look like? And, “how” do we make those changes?

Why should schools change?

During this new millennium of radically increased dynamism in the world around us, our basic system of education has stayed remarkably static.

In just the last five years, we have seen a growing consensus amongst professional educators, students, parents, and community stakeholders—like employers and colleges—that we simply must update how our schools operate and how our students learn.

Why should schools change? I think there are four primary points of growing agreement:

  • First, because we must. While there will always be a timeless set of knowledge that helps prepare young people in the moment and for their future, students need skills that help them navigate a future that is increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous).
  • Second, because we want to. We want a system that is more equally balanced between performance in academic subjects and the development of non-cognitive skills that prepare students to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives.
  • Third, because we know better. Cognitive neuroscientists, armed with brain-mapping technology, have shown us how learning takes place at its most foundational levels. We can connect engagement to better levels of cognitive development through the processes of deeper learning.
  • Fourth, because we can. Technology is never the driver of transformation, but it is always a critical enabler. Like the rise of technologies that fueled the agrarian, industrial, and information revolutions, virtual, connective technologies are already forming the basis of a global socio-neural network.

What does the change look like?

We see a significant differentiation of school and non-traditional learning experiences from community to community. But, I find dramatically more agreement than disagreement about “what” great education looks like in our world today.

Read more: It’s time to change our learning model

The most common theme is the major shift from “doing learning to learners” to “learning by and with the learner.” In 2013, the Hewlett Foundation defined deeper learning and said, “At its heart, it is a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job.” Hewlett lists these competencies as follows:

  • Mastering core academic content
  • Thinking critically and solving complex problems
  • Working collaboratively
  • Communicating effectively
  • Learning how to learn
  • Developing academic mindsets

Educators, schools and districts, and their community partners add meat to these bones in many different ways. With multiple paths to choose from, how can a community approach these changes in ways that are most beneficial to their learners?

How schools are making the change

For my new book, Moving the Rock, I asked a global question: How can we transform the system of education at scale, and, more specifically, get beyond the finger pointing and pendulum swings that have created the massive inertia that has plagued our school systems for decades?

It turns out “the answer” shows up in a number of ways depending on the community exploring the question. What surprised and excited me most is that many schools are able to transform without permission, empowerment, or additional resources.

The seven primary chapters of Moving the Rock address each of these big “levers” that are successfully changing the school system in typical schools and districts across the country:

  • Creating Demand: Unlike a decade ago, education is now subject to the market forces of supply and demand.
  • School-Community Learning Laboratories: We need to massively reconnect “school” and “world” in ways that deepen learning, better prepare students for life after school in the real world, and get broader community skin in the game.
  • Free, Universal Access to Knowledge and Curriculum: The rapid growth in the quality and availability of free, fully vetted curriculum, learning materials, and remarkable web-based knowledge sources is leading to the demise of expensive textbooks and other canned, outdated content delivery mechanisms.
  • Measuring Success and Re-tooling College Admissions: We are starting to see both colleges (“Turning the Tide”) and high schools (Mastery Transcript Consortium) have begun to re-think what they value most and how to measure those values in individual students.
  • Teacher Training for Deeper Learning: We need a rapid, widespread, collaborative national overhaul of the teacher education program, led by courageous future-focused educators from research universities, teaching colleges, and the practitioners in K-12 schools.
  • Connectivity: Booming investment and dramatic advances in virtual reality will revolutionize how people all over the world connect, communicate, create, share, and learn together.
  • Distributed Leadership and Training: Teachers and administrators need universal access to modern leadership skills that embrace, rather than stymie, change and innovation.

We also see a convergence of tactical processes in individual schools and districts that accelerate transformation.

Read more: 5 major changes in the future of learning

The following is my sequence of common tactics, influenced by and overlapping with those outlined by Kotter (2012) in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Create a sense of urgency around a big opportunity
  • Involve the community through radical inclusiveness and transparency
  • Unwrap and articulate a shared North Star
  • Grow a volunteer army of eager change agents
  • Accelerate movement by removing barriers
  • Design and test with rigid devotion to logic model progressions
  • Visibly celebrate significant early wins
  • Institutionalize changes in culture

It is not enough to talk about why education must change. There is no one left to point fingers at, to blame for a system that has failed to evolve substantively in more than 100 years. It is up to us; we just have to do it. If we fail, it is on us.

[Editor’s note: The full version of this article was originally published at Education Reimagined. This version has been condensed for our readership.]

About the Author:

Grant Lichtman is an internationally-recognized thought leader on the transformation of K-12 education. He works with school teams to develop a comfort and capacity for change in a rapidly changing world. Since 2012, Grant has visited more than 125 schools and districts, published three books, written numerous articles, and worked with thousands of school and community stakeholders to develop unique and powerful visions and strategies for transforming education.


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