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What a REAL Paradigm Shift in Education Would Look Like

Exploring the deep, fundamental flaws at the backbone of our "core curriculum."

Photo Credit: Nenov Brothers Photography |


I envy Thomas Paine’s way with language. I’ve been searching for years for words that would have the impact of those he penned in his 1776 pamphlet,
“The Crisis.”

Admittedly, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and the words that followed, weren’t a howling success. Only about a third of the colonists agreed with Paine’s call for revolution. Another third wanted to stick with England. The remaining third were neutral or apathetic.

What Paine was able to do that I can’t do is sell an idea to at least enough people to make something happen. I need to convince not a third of readers but, say, a tenth, to call their legislators and tell them to dismantle the education “reform” machine assembled in Washington by business leaders and politicians.

Long before corporate America began its assault on public schooling, American education was in trouble. Educators were, however, increasingly aware of the problems and were working on them. When Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, Mike Bloomberg, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and other big name non-educators took over, that worked stopped.

What I want people to understand is that the backbone of education — the familiar math-science-language arts-social studies “core curriculum” — is deeply, fundamentally flawed. No matter the reform initiative, there won’t be significant improvement in American education until curricular problems are understood, admitted, addressed, and solved.

Few want to hear that. Reformers are sure America’s schools would be fine if teachers just worked harder and smarter, and reformers are sure the teachers would do that if merit pay programs made them compete for cash. They seem incapable of understanding that classroom teachers are doing something so complicated and difficult that even the best of them are hanging on by their fingernails. If they knew how to do better, they’d be doing it. Would surgeons operate differently if they were paid more? Would commercial airline pilots make softer landings if they made more money? Would editorial writers write better editorials if their salaries were raised?

Teachers are doing the best they can with the curriculum they’ve been given. Here (in regrettably abstract language) is the curricular problem at the top of my list:

Change is in the nature of things; it is inevitable. Human societies either adaptto change or die. The traditional core curriculum delivers existingknowledge, but adapting to an unknown future requires new knowledge. Newknowledge is created as relationships are discovered between parts ofreality not previously thought to be related. The arbitrary walls betweenschool subjects, and the practice of studying them in isolation from eachother, block the relating process essential to knowledge creation.

Stick with me here. This isn’t complicated, just different from the usual school fare.

(1)Change is in the nature of things; it is inevitable. The earth heats and cools. Seasons come and go. Water tables rise and fall. Human populations increase, decrease, migrate. New tools change the ways societies function. People multiply, resources diminish, and waste builds. Civilizations appear and disappear. This is — or should be — the usual content of the core curriculum.

(2)Human societies either adapt to change or die. Ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome are no more. A century ago, the Elks, Eagles, and Masons were popular organizations. More recently, Kodak, Bethlehem Steel, and Sony dominated whole industries. If we value our way of life, we need to understand the dynamics of change, but it’s not in the core curriculum.

(3)The traditional core curriculum delivers existing knowledge, butadapting to an unknown future requires new knowledge. Obviously, what will need to be known in the future isn’t yet known, from which it follows that it can’t be taught. However, the process by means of which new knowledge is created can be taught.

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