Break out of the Box

Prior to the industrialization of education, the education model was centered around a single-room school house consisting of one teacher with many students throughout many grades. The teacher was a facilitator of an instructional design that had students teaching each other. The younger students benefited from the knowledge of the older students and the older students benefited by reinforcing what they had learned, encouraging their mastery of a subject.

That's the opener for a good article by Farb Nivi in Education in a Social World in e-School News. It provides a strong contrast to Amanda Ripley's article in Slate Brilliance in a Box that gets it all wrong.

As the industrial revolution uprooted rural communities it likewise established a school system in the image of the factory. The rural communal schoolhouse was replaced by an assembly line model that moved children through the system in batches based on age, with teachers – wise or otherwise – bolting-on the information as the students moved on the conveyor belt of grade levels.

This one-size-fits-all mass production establishes school as a society segregated by age: Children at the same chronological age, at the same stage of readiness and development, and with the same interests and needs are put on the assembly line and processed through to graduation.

This is the model that so much of education reform is so desperately trying to improve with better delivery systems (aka teacher improvement), better assembly line techniques (curriculum change and the teacher-proof curriculum), improved quality control (standardized tests) and higher standards (more shoddy rejects and a higher dropout rate).

From one perspective it is a a highly individualized system: students are isolated learners and the teacher's role is to manage the individual learning of the whole class. The good classroom is a silent and still place with children on task working alone under the surveillance of the cheating police.

The article makes a simple proposal:

Go back to the principle that worked so well in the single school house model: social learning.

There are a few problems on the issue of that one room schoolhouse model that I will write about separately, but let's stay with the central notion of learning in a social shared space and the implications for learning and design. Farb Nivi looks to students for his answers:

Project Tomorrow, a national education nonprofit group, conducted a 2010 survey of more than 250,000 students and asked them to speak about their vision for 21st century learning. Three essential elements emerged:

Social-based learning – students want to make use of emerging communications and collaboration tools to create and personalize networks of experts to inform their education process.

This makes sense from the constructivist learning perspective that maintains all learning is social and interactive.

Un-tethered learning – students envision technology-enabled learning experiences that transcend the classroom walls and are not limited by resource constraints, traditional funding streams, geogr

aphy, community assets, or even teacher knowledge or skills.

This makes sense in a world where we are swamped with information. Learners must become intelligent navigators, grazers and deep-sea divers.

Digitally-rich learning – students see the use of digital tools, content, and resources as a key to driving learning productivity, not just about engaging students in learning.

This make sense because it means using the best available tools to advance the cause of using, seeking and creating knowledge.

The Slate article was also on the topic of learning and design but manages to get it all wrong. Brilliance in a Box is an unfortunate title that suggests good education can be manufactured and taken off the shelf as a prefabricated item. Look at the model of excellence proposed and the the assumptions about learning. In the comments there’s a wonderful and impassioned response from Prakash Nair that is worth quoting at length:

This is a horrible article and full of old stereotypes about education. It is based on a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be “educated” in the 21st Century. It repeats the Bush (and now Obama doctrine) that hammering kids into submission and then “measuring” how educated they are via test scores is the answer to a failed education system. Pathetic that in this day and age we are still stuck squarely in the 1950's and … buy into this MYTH about what education is. … Before you jump on Amanda's bandwagon, PLEASE, PLEASE watch the video … Sir Ken Robinson's take on education in the 21st Century at: … it is time to look around and see that it is actually impossible to have “brilliance in a box” unless you assume that Peer Tutoring, Multiage Groupings, Independent Study, Hands-on Project Based Learning, Learning from Nature, Performance-Based Learning, Seminar Style Learning, Play Based Learning, Distance Learning, Internet Research, Service Learning, Inter-disciplinary Learning, and Art and Design-Based Learning are all marginal and secondary to the “real” learning that happens only in a classroom with the teacher firmly in command. Oh! and the “box” also keeps teachers trapped instead of allowing them to collaborate with their peers as the rest of the world does. So what to do? Please see how brilliance can best be achieved when you do exactly the OPPOSITE of what this article recommends — break out of the box!! Want real world examples of this? Visit the projects we have been working on for the past 10 years at: And anyone really interested in pursuing this and having an honest discussion about what is wrong with our education system and how to fix it should read Alfie Kohn's masterpiece: The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher” Standards.


Cross-posted on The Compass Point



  1. […] Digitally-rich learning – students see the use of digital tools, content, and resources as a key to driving learning productivity, not just about engaging students in learning. via […]

    October 25, 2010
  2. @creativeedu said:

    I highlighted your post in my Daily Digest of Education related blogs today as I thought other teachers would find it of interest. You can see it here:

    November 5, 2010

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