Shaping a solution

Criteria for a new paradigm and system
Reflections on a new paradigm – 17 ideas
Paradigm shift: An example that works

Criteria for a new paradigm and system

A paradigm of learning: The new K12 education paradigm would be a paradigm of learning and development of children and youth, contrasted to a paradigm of instruction. The paradigm of learning, and the subsequent operating systems, are based on defensible knowledge of development and learning of children and youth.

A learner-driven paradigm: The new paradigm would be learner-driven contrasted with adult-driven. The organization and use of time and place are allocated and assigned according to how students learn and grow into responsible young adults. The learner driven paradigm contrasts dramatically from the “assembly line” prescribed time and place of the current paradigm.  Time and place are organized and utilized according to the learner’s needs.

Learner-driven curriculum and schedule: Students, under teacher guidance and advice, develop a learning plan that reflects their interests and passion. The skills, knowledge, and attitudes of the curriculum are integrated into the learning plan. The learning plan describes activities, products, learning goals, and competency evidences, with checkpoints over time. The curriculum, accordingly, is not organized in grade level and time units of instruction.

Learning-based economic efficiency paradigm: Economic efficiency is no longer a measure of “instruction hours/dollars.” Planning for use of resources is carried out, managed and monitored by educators who accept accountability for student progress and competency in areas representing universal academic disciplines: science, language arts, communications, social science, mathematics, fine arts, health and physical fitness. Accountability is held and met for time and material resources monitored over a specified contract period.

Teacher as advisor, mentor, and monitor paradigm: The educators’ role is to stimulate and guide learners through a curriculum of knowledge, skills and attitudes while students pursue and develop their personal talents, abilities, passions, and interests. Teachers are no longer tellers and talkers.

Graduation as achievement paradigm: The new paradigm’s organization system “graduates” students who demonstrate competency in knowledge, skills, and attitudes of a curriculum of universal academic disciplines, as noted above.  The new paradigm’s system organizes educators as mentors, coaches, and guides to children and youth.  Educators serve as role models for personal development as well as guiding children and youth in focused study and work in learning plans. In short, the new paradigm is learner and learning-driven, based on educator’s knowledge, skill and attitudes on learning and development of children and youth.

Community collaboration paradigm: Group and individual art, theater, athletic, music, and cultural activities are provided through collaboration with community organizations and interest groups. A full array of personal performance and creative activities such as music, athletics, theater, art and the like are provided in collaborative effort among schools, community, civic organizations and professional groups. These activities would range from entry level for children continuing through more accomplished team and individual areas. Learners participate in these activities according to their interests and aspirations.

Reflections on a new paradigm: 17 ideas 

  1. Teachers and principals know how to plan and deliver instruction and a school environment that will provide “what’s best for all kids.” A new K12 education paradigm would provide structures, connections, and systems with built-in provisions for principals and teachers to collaboratively plan, design, and deliver, and subsequently monitor and evaluate “what’s best for all kids.”
  2. All learning begins with curiosity, interest, or questions. Accordingly, for kids to learn pedagogy must be based on students’ curiosity, interest, and questions.
  3. All people have interests, indeed passions, which motivate actions and learning.   Kids in school also have interests and passions.   Kids are motivated to learn when they pursue their interests and passions.  Adults, teachers and staff members are motivated and learn when they pursue their interests and passions.  The new K12 paradigm is created to embody these important notions.
  4. Kids are different. In school, kids learn at different rates and in different ways as indicated through research and observations regarding multiple intelligences, brain-based research, and different learning styles. Understanding brain research and learning styles reveals the importance of a variety of activities and school environment configurations to foster learning and engagement among students.   “Brain research and brain compatible methods have stood the test of time while continuing to uncover information on the way students learn and how we will teach…brain research is here to stay.” (Sprenger, 1999)
  5. It is a “form of insanity to expect that thirty children in a classroom room with a teacher, five days a week, for about 40 weeks, will have attained the same level of learning achievement in response to the teacher during that time,” (Theodore Sizer, circa. 1997). Probably the only thing a group of six–year-olds have in common is that they are six years old.
  6. Kids grow physically and socially year-by-year. Grouping students for instruction and other school activities with an implied achievement or outcome should be based on the content of the activity and the nature of the instruction, the students’ ability and competency levels in the activity’s content. Grouping should not be based on age or the artificial “grade level!”  Grouping kids for instruction and other school activity can be determined by the requirements of the activity, the students’ level of interest and competency.  The school activity and instruction groups can be adjusted by student interest and performance, and can change regularly and frequently.
  7. Teachers and principals are different and communicate, listen, and respond in different styles.  Knowledge of different communication styles, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to recognize differing styles, can foster more respectful and effective communication among school people.
  8. The “blame game” is a dead end.  It is a misuse of time, energy and resources.   Blaming other players in K12 education — legislators, school board members, the teachers’ union, parents, law enforcement, and the like. — for drop-out rates, the achievement gap, disorderly schools, or generally poor educational experience, will neither deliver nor help genuinely bring about an education providing “what’s best for all kids.”  Operating from a new K12 education paradigm based on student learning, educators will be able to successfully address these issues.
  9. Teachers in schools are not “lone rangers” who can close the classroom door and do “their own thing.” A school is a system in which every action and every person influences everything that happens there (Senge, 1990, 1993). The new paradigm must be one of substantive and genuine collaboration among students, teachers, community resource people, and other school staff around student engagement, achievement, and enhancing competence.
  10. The work of W. Edwards Deming in the early 20th century from which “Total Quality Management—TQM” and the “Fourteen Points of Quality Management,” emerged was an impetus of dramatic quality and productivity improvements in American industry (Deming, 1995). Two core, basic principles emerged from Deming’s work:
  • It is not possible to establish quality products or service through checks and inspections at the end of the production or delivery process.  Quality is built into the product or service during the process by which the product or service is produced.  Quality is not created by inspection or testing at the end. (Tenner & DeToro, 1992).
  • Eighty-five percent of the responsibility and control of product or service quality rests with management because production and service delivery systems are designed by the organization’s management while only 15% of quality is controlled by workers who make the product or deliver the service (Schmidt & Finnigan, 1993).

These principles are affirmed by the later work of Senge who noted that “systems thinking” is a component of learning organizations, because it is the system that shapes behavior, not the other way around (Senge, 1990, 1993). Of course, while schools are not product production lines or consumer service organizations, these organizational concepts, such as “systems thinking,” “Quality,” and “TQM” are generic to organizations and therefore fit in schools.

Likewise, teachers and school staff members must collaborate in design, operation, and management of the instructional system. Schools must create a system that provides an environment focused on learning and development. If our school is not producing the learning and development we wish, then we must examine our system, not punish the educators.

Or, as a TQM vernacular suggests, “If we always do, what we’ve always done, we’ll always get, what we always got” Or stated in another way, “To keep on doing the same thing and expect different results is a form of insanity!” If the principles of TQM and system thinking are correct and apply to education they suggest the frustration and futility of “failing a grade” and “social promotion” or “repeating a grade.”

  1. When a student “fails” a grade or activity, it is the school that has “failed” the student, not the student who has “failed” in school. School should be about learning and enhancing the capabilities of young people for success in life, not about sorting out “failure” and “success” in school.  In a new K12 education paradigm, there will be no failure.  Students will demonstrate an acceptable level of achievement, but do so at differing pace and time.
  2. Mandated standardized testing required by state and federal legislation are not singular instruments or determiners of teacher or school accountability.   Authentic accountability of educators and schools exists when all stakeholders are accountable and participate in setting goals, agree on evidence of those results and agree on the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders in achieving those results, including the available resources and responsibility for allocation of those resources.
  3. In the literature of cases of school improvement with sustained high quality educational achievement and educational experience, each example of educational success will generally have three components in common:
  • Strong, visionary leadership in an autonomous education unit, a school within a school district, a private school, or a charter school.
  • Extensive and substantive parent and community involvement.
  • Genuine and substantive collaborative culture and practice among principal, teachers, staff, parents, and community members—i.e. all stakeholders.
  1. Six educational elements that most excite and motivate students. (University of Minnesota; Center for School Change, circa 1994)

Students are engaged and learn when:

  • Education takes place out of the school building;
  • Students really want to do it (a school activity or task) and have a choice in what they pursue;
  • Students have an opportunity to collaborate with others;
  • Students produce something—there is a product and audience beyond the teacher;
  • Students’ efforts are useful to other people; and
  • Students have an opportunity for reflection and refinement.
  1. The traditional nine-month school year and six to seven-hour school day are archaic remnants of a pre-industrial, agrarian America, quite out of touch and dysfunctional in a high-tech, electronic, fast paced, and “Flat” (Friedman 2004) world of the 21st century.  At the very least, schooling should become year round. Quarterly units of student time on learning tasks and activities— summer, autumn, winter, and spring quarters — would provide appropriate break points.   Educators and staff, along with students could opt for participation quarter by quarter.  Better still, within the year round basis, schools should offer 24/7 services. Clearly such a change, albeit important and beneficial to students, families and communities alike, would require financial and in-kind support from various service, community, business and volunteer organizations, in addition to traditional public education financing.  With a new K12 education paradigm, the school day and year will be irrelevant.
  2. A new K12 public school paradigm will require that the existing public school paradigm be examined in view of how the current schooling system is performing for children and youth and for the American society, generally. That is, does society receive an appropriate return from its investment in education?  Different schooling and education paradigms focused on development and learning of children and youth and what we know about teaching and learning, such as brain research, need to be examined.

Public education is a political system in which there is likely to be little if any interest to examine the paradigms that underpin current public education systems and structures.   The various components of the public sector, school boards, administrative organizations, legislatures and legislators, unions, and special interest groups that hold power and influence are likely reluctant supporters of different paradigms that could lead to their reduced or limited power in the education systems.   Nonetheless, different education paradigms are needed.  It is a moral and ethical responsibility for educators to initiate and sustain dialogue in this area.

  1. Incentive pay is based on a notion that people will “work harder” for more money.  Or put another way, money, or the possibility of more money, motivates people to produce more or better work results. Incentive pay fits in some industries such as direct sales, but is a questionable practice for education. Equally questionable is making teacher compensation a function of students’ standardized test scores. Merit pay, based on the concept that exemplary performers in an organization should be paid more than average or poor performers, is a defensible idea.  However, the critical issue regarding merit pay in any social science organization, such as social work, counseling and teaching, is to describe and reach agreement by all members on what is exemplary, average and poor performance.  Nonetheless, compensation for educators must become sufficient to attract able people with credentials and a commitment to children and youth, into the education profession. Once in the education enterprise, committed and credentialed educators must have a sense of contribution and of making a difference in the organization and organizational performance. Educators must have a substantive role in defining the school’s goals, and the environment and instruction and learning processes.   “Teacher compensation should shift a to pay for knowledge and skill structure … to reward teachers and school staff for developing the expertise to accomplish the school’s goals.” (Odden, 1998).

Paradigm shift: An example that works

The Minnesota New Country School is located in a southwestern Minnesota community. It opened in 1994, enrolls a maximum of 125 youth from ten or more school districts and graduates eight to sixteen students each year. Ron Newell, writing in the introduction to the book, The coolest school in America: how small learning communities are changing everything (Thomas, 2005) describes this public charter school that has evolved from a new paradigm:

“…there are no classrooms, no bells, no textbooks, the people (educators and staff) are not employees, the school building was not built with public dollars; students work at their own pace and are not graded; graduation is by competence and performance through creating projects and meeting standards; students decide how, when, where and what to study. Students are taught how to manage their own lives by developing life skills, in other words, how to learn…the school is about a different form of teaching: facilitating and guiding acquisition of knowledge, as opposed to delivering a curriculum…it is about advisory groups and student work stations…(and) about students having real world experiences and using the whole world as the curriculum.”