To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.
Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.
Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.
An EGOsystem of Education
When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.
These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.
The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.
Four Phases of Transition
Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.
1) The Control Phase
Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:
- Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
- Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
- Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
- Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
- The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
- Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
- The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
- Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
- The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
- This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
- All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.
2) The Competition Phase
With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:
- Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
- The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
- Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
- Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
- In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
- As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
- With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
- Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
- This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
- All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.
3) The Connection Phase
When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:
- Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
- Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
- Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
- Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
- The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
- The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
- In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
- The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
- The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
- Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
- This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
- All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.
4) The Collaboration Phase
Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.
- Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
- Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
- While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
- In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
- Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
- Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
- The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
- Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
- This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
- All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.
The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.
An ECOsystem of Education
Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.
When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.
As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.
While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.
With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.
By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.
The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.
This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.
As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.
As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.
In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.
Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.