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Education with cup holders

Posted July 22, 2012, at 10:49 a.m.

The subject of what is and isn’t working in education is once again on the front pages of our state’s newspapers. Recent Harvard study rankings have all of us all scratching our heads about what the grand solution may be to improving education in Maine.

In times like these, it is easy to resort to the lowest common denominator: the blame game. We’re all familiar with this game — it’s the teachers’ fault; there’s too much waste; we need more money; parents don’t do enough. Sound familiar? The blame game is easy and it makes for lively, and some might argue, interesting banter. What is harder to do is step back a bit, separate ourselves from the cacophony of complaining that pervades the response sections in our daily papers, and look at the big picture.

Regardless of your political leanings, evaluation of teachers and their unions, or opinions about what the right “fix” may be for education, it is easy to agree that our current system of education was created in reaction to a mass industrialization of this country that began well over a hundred years ago in the U.S. Take a second and Google “The Committee of Ten.” This group of ten educators came together in the late 1800s to provide recommendations to the nation in regard to the mass standardization of American education. The eight-year elementary school, four-year high school, agrarian-based school calendar, standard school subject areas and social promotion all are directly or indirectly based on this panel’s work. For the most part, what we do in all levels of education, how we organize and administrate schools and how we move students from one level to another has barely changed since 1892. Since that time, almost every educational reform movement, almost every seminal stride made in educational philosophy and practice and almost every piece of reform legislation has been superimposed, wedged into or relegated to the periphery of the Committee of Ten structure.

Mind-boggling, isn’t it? If the auto industry followed the same progress, we would still be cranking our cars in the morning before our daily commute. While many of the crank car drivers are dedicated, intelligent and caring drivers, and while the crank car may well be successful in getting us from point A to B, we know that today’s car consumers expect and need more. We have an education system without cup holders.

In their recent book “Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning,” authors Schwahn and McGarvey describe an educational system that is a bastion of the Industrial Age. The authors argue that with all the amazing educational research and data currently available, all the technological advances that allow content to be delivered efficiently and all we know about who learners are and how they learn, “it is now possible to meet the needs of each learner. Let’s stop tinkering with the current Industrial Age delivery system … (and) leapfrog to the Information Age and beyond.”

Schwahn and McGarvey present an exciting plea to all of us to stop tinkering with our Model Ts and reform education in a way that reflects the “mass-customized” society we live in. The leap to implementing such drastic change may be scary at first, but it would be easier if we all spent more time assisting and supporting such change and less time complaining about why it can’t happen. We all need to stop playing the blame game and focus on what’s really important here: our learners. I agree that’s much easier said than done, but we all seem to be well-intentioned in trying to improve outcomes and student performance, yet the quick fixes have failed us. Many of us drive to work or school every day taking our GPS, air conditioning and air bags for granted. We never really think about what that commute would be like with a Model T. Our learners deserve an educational system that comes with cup holders.

Scott Voisine is the Dean of Community Education at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

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