Change That Rethinks: Different or Better?

A few days ago I was asked to respond to this prompt,

… interested in change that rethinks or reinvents and ultimately replaces old practice, that’s built on the more fundamental understandings that we have about how kids learn in ways that stay with them way past the assessment (assuming there is one.)

So here’s the question: What are examples of “better” and “different” that you’ve seen in your schools or in your travels? What makes “different” stick? What are the reasons people cite for “different?” What is the appeal of “better?”

which resulted in the following that I post for your review and consideration.

“Better” in our schools is about tweaking and modifying the systems and structures that are already in place.

For example,

Let’s offer more electives, re-plan our stoichiometry and Civil War lessons, add a tutoring program, a leadership program, an after school detention, a new internship program, a new school song, an administrative position to work on attendance data … let’s revamp our district professional development, hiring policies, evaluation systems … let’s allow for open-enrollment into any of our schools at any time of the year, change our schedule from a rotating block to an alternating block to a “nonlinear, cubic, Fibonacci-block” approved by the likes of Marzano, Wiggins, McTighe, Whitaker, and BIE (Okay, okay, I made up “nonlinear, cubic, Fibonacci” – (no offense to the work of these individuals and organization).

Let’s …. order new textbooks, subscribe to, vote in new standards, change our state’s assessment … add Text-a-Tip, online grade books, another school counselor, PLCs, booster clubs, new lunch vendors … let’s change the dress code, get rid of the dress code, convert the library into a Maker Space, FabLab, 21st Century Coffee Club, or whatever…

At some point “better” needs to stop, breathe, look around, and reflect. It needs to wonder about educational bloat – it needs to acknowledge its role in simply adding more and more to the proverbial plate without ever taking anything off. It needs to conclude that in its attempts to remedy problems it has become the problem … that it needs to look at itself from a “different” perspective.

I remember going to school and libraries (and other places) because I simply had to … that’s where information and expertise resided. These places were my learning network. I took science classes, English classes, math classes and such – taught by science teachers, English teachers, math teachers. I had wonderful teachers and not so wonderful teachers. I went to class, listened took notes, mixed some chemicals, read some stuff, asked questions of material that I did not fully understand, took tests, and eventually graduated…

… in 1992.

I’m preaching to the choir if I spend any time describing how much has changed and if I write anything about the power of today’s smart phones and how wireless lights our world and connects those previously isolated from one another … how “real world” (at least what our brains tell us is real world) is blending with our digital worlds and thus augmenting our experiences (hold all Pokéman Go! jokes please) … and how the use of video has accelerated, well, everything.

You get it.

What I’m suggesting here is that all of this has increased the gravity of “better” so much that we simply must think differently – clear the table so to speak and redesign. Hell, maybe even table needs to go.

We must question each and every method and reason involved in education.

Rigid school schedules (despite whatever magic happens inside a class and classroom) and a concept of “core” subjects are dated and completely unnatural to the ways of our modern connected world.

Instead of students asking which language they should learn, they should learn how to learn languages.

Learning how to learn, techno-literacy, community involvement as a pathway not a capstone, changing the world, and thriving within uncertainty need to be our new “curriculum.”

“Speciation” is an evolutionary term that describes when such significant change has taken place that two groups no longer mate with each other. It’s a branching event in the “tree of life” – something new has been born.

EduSpeciation, anyone?

So what do we do?

I think we need to ask “Why?” a lot.

Why do we do this? Why do we do that?

Then, when answers have been given, ask “Why?” again.

I suppose when “why” gets a bit awkward we could always switch to, “What do you mean by that?”

A friend who travels the country and world working with schools, teachers, and students has told me that when working with teachers he often asks them to describe some sort of ideal learning environment or situation … and that their individual and collective descriptions are so far from what actually takes place and what systems are actually in play … and how many teachers can feel deflated, overwhelmed, and powerless upon realizing this for themselves.

“Different” is powerful. Thinking differently is invigorating and courageous. Thinking “better” … well, I can see how that hangs some heads.

Modern instructional design must be run through a filter that asks Why?; that takes what would traditionally end the experience (e.g., application) and instead begins with it; that adds sincere student perspective (first thinking of them, then thinking with them, then thinking because of them); and that follows a philosophy of “less is more” that never over-explains and therefore lets students communicate their needs and “gaps” to target and explore.

Different asks “What if…?” and then takes action.

What if school schedules were built around students’ questions and interests? What if teachers rallied around these questions and committed to working with a group or groups of students to investigate their questions and to sharing their progress and thinking?

I know, super messy, right?

Good luck to anyone who tries to remedy the uncertainty of now and tomorrow with power and control.

What if students move from one place to another because they need to (frontal lobe) rather than because they heard a high frequency, high volume electronic noice (aka a “bell”) screech from hidden speakers (lizard brain)? Image students running from one place to another because they are so interested and excited rather than zombie walking in herds. Wait, I forgot, no running in the halls… speed-walking then…

What if schools were designed around Czikszentmihalyi’s theory of “Flow” rather than around methods of efficiency and crowd control?

What if we honestly acknowledge and discuss how society primarily relies on schools as institutes of childcare rather than as networks and beacons of learning?


On a side note, I’m thinking of writing a blog post tentatively titled, “What education reform can learn from the British, Soviet, and American experiences in Afghanistan…”


What are some examples of “different”?

I like what Shawn Cornally and Iowa BIG has created. Of course we’re working hard in the Mosaic Collective to do “different” … I know networks of “homeschoolers” that are inspirational in terms of how they ebb and flow to meet the needs and whims of their students … Kelly Tenkely and her teachers at Anastasis Academy are also exemplars…

What makes “different” stick?

“Different” builds to meet needs and is thus built to stick. I mean, it doesn’t over-explain and over-complicate matters. Different is local, flexible, and highly responsive – it’s Frank Smith’s “classic view” of learning – a consequence of the human condition – been happening naturally for eons. Remember the movie “The Matrix?” Well, real “different” to me is analogous to taking the red pill.

What is the appeal of “better?”

It’s neat and tidy… it’s “the system worked for me so why change it too much?” it’s also, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” … I suppose it’s seems safe to some … but here’s the thing, it operates under the assumption that the “other way” isn’t as good. It can be fear- and somewhat deficit-based in terms of thinking along the lines of, “Well, students won’t ask that and they are not capable of doing this or that…”

“Better” is also an industry. There are so many programs and acronyms built around better – around tweaking this and that. If we only had a rubric for better… 😉

A while ago Frank Noschese began to use the term “pseudoteaching” on Twitter and in his blog posts. It’s an interesting term, really… psedoteaching … pseudolearning…  My nature is to want to blow up the system, which can be easily dismissed as impractical – that is, too detached from the front-line (i.e., the classroom) – so, thinking more practically, yet differently, we might often ask,

Is this pseudoteaching and pseudolearning?

Am I wasting my students’ lives right now?

Working to be different is powerful … it is creative and mindful work that is a welcome distraction from the bloated-nature of “better.”

In my experience, real and powerful learning is messy. Schools and such are just not designed to handle messy. I don’t want to dismiss concerns like safety and accountability, but I do think these terms are often tossed out there and used as shields from the “nonlinear” and somewhat ambiguous nature of motivation and its inherent influence on connecting experiences.


The other day my son’s friend was over at our house. He’s eight years old. At one point I found him standing in our kitchen staring into the corner counter. “What is THAT?” he asked as he pointed to our one tethered house phone attached to the wall. “I don’t know,” I said, “maybe you should take a picture on your phone, send it to your parents, post it on Instagram, on Facebook, and on Twitter, and someone will know.”

He shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said, “Okay, I will.”


(Image Credit: Raphaël Labbé)