Stop waiting for a revolution

Traditional schools will disappear.

Knowledge itself will be obsolete.

In the revolutionary education system of the future, textbooks and standardized tests will be eliminated, and reasoning skills will triumph as groups of children abandon boring classrooms to connect with peers across the globe and pursue answers together in virtual spaces.

Really? Well, that’s what I got from watching The Future of Learning: Networked Society, the latest in a long series of educational utopian fantasies. (In case you didn’t know, TV was predicted to replace schools in the 1930s. In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner’s teaching machine was designed to replace teachers. Nope, neither happened.)

It is exciting to imagine the educational possibilities of new technology, but I’m afraid these popular utopian visions actually obscure the path to improving the schools we have right now — the schools where millions of us are working and learning.

The typical educational utopia story starts by tearing down the “factory model” school. It’s a fair criticism:  Most American public schools were built to produce workers for the industrial age, workers who could perform routine tasks and whose lives would be dictated by bells.

The story quickly concludes that therefore, traditional schools are not fit for training today’s workers, who need sophisticated reasoning skills and who will have flexible scheduling options. We don’t need children who are trained to stop working at the sound of a bell anymore, not if they’re all working at Google.

But let’s consider some non-factory-model schools. Eton, a famous British boarding school, was founded in the 15th century to educate the children of the elites. Eton was never a factory-model school, but the school day at Eton still consists of students attending multiple classes, each taught by an instructor. Students still learn lessons and write papers.

Closer to home, consider Phillips Academy. Here also, students attend classes – in 45 minute increments – to learn a variety of subjects from their teachers, the most notable feature being that classes stretch until past 5 p.m.

Phillips Academy, opened in the 18th century, was never designed to produce factory workers. In fact, Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter, both among America’s premier boarding schools, have turned out remarkable, insightful graduates like Daniel Webster, Lyman Spitzer, Julia Alvarez and Mark Zuckerberg. No one complains that these schools stifle the mind.

If we really did tear down classroom walls, toss out textbooks and dismantle the traditional school day, we wouldn’t just be getting rid of the factory model. We’d be getting rid of the model that works in the highest-performing public, private and charter schools in the U.S. and worldwide.

We would also be counting on technology to get us to learn to think deeply, something it actually doesn’t do very well. Research has shown that rather than encouraging deep reading and reasoning, technology encourages us to scan quickly and think superficially. Technology also distracts us and encourages us to amuse ourselves rather than do difficult work.

A study released by the London School of Economics this year found that rather than improving academic performance, smartphone use at school harms student performance, and the damage is greater for low-achieving students. The study, involving 130,000 students, found that when a school banned phone use, test scores improved by 6.4%. Among underachieving students, test scores improved by 14%.

Utopian visions of future schools are compelling because they help us imagine a world where learning is always fun and exciting and where every child is successful. These stories appeal to our optimism about human nature, and they raise very serious issues (like the over-reliance on standardized testing).

The danger is that these visions distract us from the reality of our work.

Learning is challenging. Our leaders and workers of the future — who must master sophisticated reasoning skills as well as creative thinking — need to engage in this challenging work. There is no way around it. If we want to improve our schools, we need to dig in and develop strategies that will motivate students to do difficult work.

The difference between an inspiring education and a poor education isn’t the structure of the school day, the existence of classroom walls or the available technology, but what happens in the classroom between a teacher and a learner.

Rather than fantasizing about schools of the future, let’s focus on that.