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In 2020, as the pandemic, polarization, and uprisings for racial justice have upended the status quo, calls to seize the moment to build a better education system to address national inequality have become ubiquitous. In the two years since then, that will to invent has largely disappeared.
Frustrated that so many people are reverting to old ways of learning, Michael B. Horn, author and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Breakthrough Innovation, created a plan for schools and educators to rethink the current education system despite the challenges. “I wanted to provide a template for how they can avoid it and what they can do instead,” Horne said.
At the start of the pandemic, Horne and Diane Tavener, co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, created the Class Disrupted podcast to help parents and teachers navigate teaching and learning during the crisis. This year, he took the project further with the book From Rediscovery to Reinvention: (Re)inventing the School for Every Child, which was published in July.
Last week, Horne and I talked about his book and how we can “transform” our education system to better serve all students. This interview has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity.
Yevery: What inspired you to take what you did on the podcast and put those theories into this book?
Mikhail: We received many questions from parents: “Why does the school work like this? How do we raise our children now that they are at home?” And we thought it was a great opportunity to try to help them open the curtain a little bit on schools, why they work this way, and for them and teachers to see that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there are better ways to unlock the potential of each student. And so we did this podcast… As we continued to do this, I felt like, gosh, I have to put this in one place so that educators can hopefully really design and build something better that really unlocks the potential of every student.
J: In the book, you talked about how the school system we have now isn’t set up for any student to really succeed? Can you explain your argument?
M: Before the pandemic, many people simply said or assumed that it worked on the wealthy in our society and not on the poor. But the pandemic, I think, has shown how broken it is for people from all walks of life. And the more people think about it, they realize, hey, actually, I’m not sure that’s entirely working for anybody in our society.
The big idea in the book is that we’re really trapped in this zero-sum system where we’ve assumed that for every winner there must be a loser. And either the wealthy are knowingly playing the “learning game” or the poor are ignorant of the learning game and are left out. Either way, gamifying learning distracts from the real goal, which is to prepare our students to live in the complex world as adults when they graduate. And for that, we need a positive-sum system that avoids this zero-sum thinking and allows people to truly understand who they are and develop their specific combination of passionate potential.
J: In the book, you talk about the need for schools to build an education system with positive outcomes. What is the difference between a zero-sum system and a positive-sum system?
M: The big one is the shift to skill-based learning instead of the current time-based system. In a time-based system, we teach a topic and move on to the next topic regardless of a student’s test scores. Thus, some students fall further and further behind, while other students “win” and, as it were, learn to play the school game. In a mastery-based system, we say that every student will achieve mastery.
The second one I’m talking about [is that] we need to move to a system where teachers don’t grade students. That they don’t make judgments about a student’s abilities, but can dedicate themselves fully to being their coach and helping them figure out their purpose, passion, and potential. This is the second big shift the book offers. Obviously, there’s a whole conversation about what parents are trying to prioritize and how they’ve gotten so used to seeing school as a status game or a condemnation of their parenting. [A positive-sum system] is trying to say that we can be part of this societal shift towards a healthier culture that doesn’t judge parents or their children, but supports both.
J: Let’s talk about parents. In the book, you refer to the experience of parents. Can you talk about what you’ve heard from parents about what they want from the school?
M: What the pandemic has done is destroyed the sense of the status quo, or forced it to keep you in place, and highlighted all the reasons why it would be great if you changed. Parents who want to help their child avoid a bad situation, or parents who want to be part of a community of like-minded people, or parents who have tried to fully develop their child, or even parents who say, “Follow my plan for my child.” They are much more conscious [that] the status quo, for whatever reason, is not achieving what they need [it to hit]. And they’re much more likely to either verbalize their displeasure or actually switch [schools]. We see it in the data, right? Approximately 3 percent decline in enrollment.
J: What does this mean for schools and teachers?
M: You must move away from the one-size-fits-all thinking that all children do better in regular learning, that all children achieve better with the same classroom experience, or that all children need the same lesson on the same day—to a system that truly recognizes that students and parents have different circumstances, different situations and need different models of schooling. School districts really need to meet with parents where they are more portfolio-oriented rather than one-size-fits-all thinking.
J: In the book, you tell the story of two fictional students, Jeremy and Julia, to demonstrate how the education system treats students as part of a group rather than as individuals. Who are Jeremy and Julia in our modern system?
M: Jeremy represents the only child of a single mother who works various minimum wage jobs, leaving him home alone during the day and throughout the year. And the other student, Julia, comes from an upper-middle-class home with a lot of parental support. You could call her parents “helicopter parents” as they keep appearing in the principal’s office throughout the book. They are archetypes that show how throughout the book, in various aspects, the school as it is just doesn’t match them. They are not attracted to it. It doesn’t help them make progress. It makes them feel like failures. They are punished when they try to have fun with their friends. Jeremy needs a lot more support and integration and help from the community to help them succeed. Julia — Maybe her family wants more customization, more choice. [I wanted] to try to get people to just ask the questions, “God, if it’s not working for Julia, holy cow, who isn’t it working for at my school?”
J: We talked about restoring a better education system for students and parents. In the book, you also talk about creating something that works better for teachers, especially after the pandemic.
M: I argue in the book that regardless of your view of the current teacher shortage—whether it’s the result of burnout or the result of more vacancies—we haven’t supported teachers for a long time. In developing the teaching profession, we ignored some pretty solid research into what motivates employees. I argue that we need to move to more team-based learning models, rather than models where teachers have a professional learning community that they meet with, maybe once a day if they’re lucky, but where they actually teach together in that setting , and they are able to differentiate roles. Now we can think differently about staffing schools and allowing those educators to bounce off each other in different ways.
J: In the book, you talk about how schools need to move beyond the “learning loss” conversation that everyone was talking about in the early years of the pandemic. Can you explain?
M: I came in with the idea that we need to overcome learning loss, and I was surprised while doing research that it’s actually important to frame it as learning loss to motivate resources for schools, like the unprecedented federal infusion of dollars. But being in such an environment of learning loss is incredibly paralyzing, demoralizing and demotivating for students and teachers. In the book, I suggest moving away from learning loss to framing guaranteed mastery.
Students set goals; they plan how they are going to achieve them. They learn and then show evidence of what they have learned. Then that informs what they do next, do they move on, do they dig deeper and reflect on the learning process along the way? This creates a positive success cycle.
J: Our educational landscape will likely continue to face disruptions, whether due to new variants of the coronavirus or natural disasters. What should schools think about in terms of digital technology that will serve both students and teachers better than some of the methods used during the pandemic?
M: I hope at some point we can step back and do a thought experiment. If this pandemic had occurred in society 20 years earlier, we would not have had the technology for continuous learning. The fact that many schools have changed as quickly as they have is amazing and a testament to what we have today. And yet, if there’s another natural disaster, pandemic, something like that, and we haven’t invested in that foundation so we can do it a lot better … we’re really going to beat ourselves up because a lot of things were done really badly. But … to think we should [not] maintaining this infrastructure seems crazy to me at this time, with all the problems the world has.
For those who say “virtual learning didn’t work” or whatever. Well, it worked better for some students. Yes, it’s the second option for most students, no doubt, but if we have to go for it, let’s make sure we have disaster preparedness and experienced teachers who know what they’re doing in these kinds of situations. I think it would be a mistake to leave everyone [that learning].
This story is about positive sum of education was produced The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to Hechinger Newsletter