Schools by design: I failed, but we don't have to

“Have we created a trillion dollar multi-million student, sixteen year schooling cycle to take out our best and our brightest and to snuff out their dreams?” — Stop Stealing Dreams

Last week, I shared Seth Godin’s new manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, and even before I finished it, I knew I had to tell people: read this! In one small package, Godin fills us in on the truth about our schools and their high volt connection of people to the new, connected world.  We get the stories of the men who designed our educational system (the industrialists) and for what purpose (to ramp up for mass production and mass consumption). And then once we understand how our schools were purposefully designed 100 years ago, Godin talks about the urgent need to redesign schools for new purposes today.
Bottom line:  School in its traditional form no longer even serves industry let alone people.

Bay Ridge High School circa 1920

And then I ended with a promise to tell my story about why I get so fired up about this message – a message, by the way that is no longer just a groundswell of thought, but a sizeable wave set of thinkers and leaders who call for the same thing (Godin’s manifesto being the latest of a long line of works with the same message.)
It’s time we all make it a tidal wave.
What was it I said?
 Each of us — students and parents and educators and business leaders and citizens — must insist on real, core change.
Hmmm…sounds like a bandwagon I’ve been on before. I wonder. Will it be different this time? Are there enough people who will insist on change?
Okay. So here’s my story.

What a Teacher Knows

At one time in my life (the 1990s - it feels long ago now), I was a teacher. High School. Language Arts.  I trained to become a teacher because I believed in the value of public education (I still do) and I believed (maybe naively) that teachers could create change. I dreamed of reinventing schools.

In retrospect, my 1990s teaching career landed me smack in the middle of a huge education battle in this country, which rages on to this day.  This battle can simply be characterized by status quo vs. change. Traditionalists  vs. Progressives. On the one side, we had (have) the “back to the basics” camp. Schools were (are) pressured to drill down: input more facts, output more memorization, create more standards and more tests. On the other side, we had (have) people who knew even then — before the internet and its massive, global, economic reset — that forcing kids through an assembly line of memorized facts and discrete skills wasn’t the answer.

John Dewey 30 cent stampThat students, as Dewey said almost a century ago, learn by doing.

And engaging with and caring about what they learn.  And first they must be cared for, which isn’t exactly part of the school assembly line equation. And certainly, kids young and old need time and space to explore, invent, experiment, discover and create.

Anyway, my point is that I entered the teaching profession with a mission to recreate the classroom into an activity-based, project-based, experiential and individualized learning hub. Not only that, but I dreamed that one day all classrooms in all public schools would do the same. Just at the time politics and backlash ideology worked to preserve the status quo. My luck.

My First Teaching Assignment

A high school in California with 4000 students who between them spoke more than 60 languages.  Five classes in five different classrooms. See me carting boxes of supplies back and forth across campus in 50 minute increments to meet 30+ students who slouched in rows to greet me in varying stages of wary.

I soldiered on, though. I moved the desks in groups or in circles around the room (and moved them back into rows for the next teacher).  I turned classes into Reading and Writing Workshops modeled after Nancy Atwell. I built in student-centered projects and lots of group projects, too.

School Bell

But this, I knew, wasn’t what I was thinking about when I envisioned a new kind of school. The bell still rang on the hour, constantly interrupting good work. I still had to cover district curriculum  — skills broken down into bite sized units. And kids still rolled their eyes – regularly – at each new assignment.


Eventually I ended up teaching at a “better” high school in a different state, one that “prioritized” rigor and whose students were more “college bound”. I put those words in quotes because they are so loaded and unfair – code words and bad excuses. I am ashamed to say I used the words myself.

At the same time, not soon after, I went back to graduate school to study a relatively new field in Education: educational technology (while continuing to teach full time, with two young children at home…but I digress.) This was coincidentally the same time, in the early 90s, that the world was introduced to the internet.

What an exciting time to learn how to use technology in the classroom to create real and engaged learning! I felt a renewed sense of my personal mission to reinvent the classroom. It was so clear that now we had the means to transform the entire system of education in this country!

And so I struggled on. I worked hard to individualize reading and writing instruction for my 150-160 kids (and worse, make it through the relentless onslaught of thousands of pages of student writing per week).

I regularly moved myself from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” as I organized groups and projects and encouraged students to ask questions, analyze, synthesize and construct (rather than merely receive) knowledge.

I took opportunities to participate in education associations and to collaborate with my peers, to share ideas (I even spoke in front of the school board once: yes, we should allow them access to the internet) and devise a new kind of curriculum.

But outside of my classroom — and the classrooms of some other skilled, passionate peers? 

A practice of school by rote:

  • Lecture for the full 50 minutes (from notes jotted years ago),
  • Assign 10 questions at the end of the chapter for homework,
  • Test by Scantron.
  • Rinse and repeat.


This is the Standard Lesson Plan you can find in far too many classrooms in every school in the land.

Students who fill in the most bubbles correctly clearly learn the most, right?  (It must be true because later, as Godin points out, the best bubblers on the SAT get into the “best” colleges…)

How we get the Standard Lesson Plan

How we get schools filled with this kind of teaching is in every way a product of design. I could see that from the very beginning of my teaching career. Forget all the ways students lose for a moment, this is a system stacked against teachers, too:

  • Too many kids per adult,
  • Too few resources (including a materials budget item further gobbled up by a multi-billion dollar, politically and intellectually corrupt textbook industry—ah, but I digress again),
  • Flat hierarchy and teacher isolation,
  • Compensation without reward for job performance,
  • Forced summer layoffs (the extra time being the envy of the workers everywhere, but as one colleague pointed out to me: at the price of reduced income), and
  • A workload that extends to weeknights and weekends — one result being  incentive for teachers to save time and cling to the Standard Lesson Plan.

After a while, teachers get it. Many of them — overworked and uninspired, tired and cynical —succumb to what I finally could not ignore any longer: No matter what we do in our classrooms, the assembly line, crowd controlled system works against our best efforts (And then, unfortunately, many teachers stick around for 20-30 years anyway because the only financial reward for under-compensated teachers is for career longevity.)

Okay, I’m being somewhat harsh.

There are many teachers — a majority, even —who work hard to engage learners and to foster creative and higher thinking skills despite the system. They close the door to the world and teach their hearts out. Some, for all of their careers (my personal heroes).

And the better public schools in our country have at least reformed some of the worst parts of standardized education. Despite terrible public support for funding education. Despite laws, policies and structures that mandate a system of standardized education. Despite the billy club of annual state and federal standardized tests.

But this was my experience, and I think every teacher will tell you the same:

No matter how much I wanted to help every kid to jump on the carpet of their own potential and soar to their own heights, I couldn’t do that within the confines of the school system. 

Heavy Blocks

Big blocks weighed us down

Time blocks and unit blocks and test blocks and you-will-learn-this-because-I-said-so blocks.

With everything broken down into units—of time, of space, of knowledge, of measurement — there’s just no room to put it all back together.

Skills we need in the workforce today, like leadership, creativity, initiative? No, sit in your seat, don’t speak until you’re called upon, be quiet, and do what you’re assigned or else. Else what? You FAIL.

I got a few launched into the air (I think), but most flew on their own more or less, crookedly out of site.

And so many never got off the ground.

I saw them everywhere. Kids full of all kinds of alternative ways of being..  Kids with great heart or creativity or shrewdness — an array of intelligences and gifts.

But so few adults told them that being good at working with your hands or gifted in art, or being personable or even rebellious — a sign of one who asks questions — is actually valuable in the world. Kids simply did not know what they could do because school did not nurture, guide and challenge each kid to be their best selves.

I feared for their futures and it broke my heart.

And finally I decided I would not continue to work within a system that forced me to fail. I left after 10 years of teaching.

The Final Take Away

So that’s my story, and I’ve been mulling over why I’m telling it to you. I guess it’s because I can confirm by first hand account that what Godin writes in Stop Stealing Dreams and what many educators and business leaders and parents also say — it’s true. I experienced it. The school system is an obsolete and broken system.

And yet…I think I do a disservice to the conversation to speak of education only as a (former) teacher because here’s the thing:

I’m not being completely honest if I don’t admit that I gave up. I’m not unlike all the teachers who teach the Standard Lesson Plan, really, who give up too. It used to rub me the wrong way, all the bad attitudes of teachers, grumbling day after day around the lunch table (at least at the three high schools (in two states) where I worked). But I gave up, too.

I shared their cynicism (it really doesn’t matter what I do, here) and I caved to the palpable sense of futility (things will never change).

This is not the light that I want to shine out to the world – for in fact, cynicism and futility are dead dark.

And pure bull crap!

While it’s absolutely true that traditional school as industrially designed fails us — has failed us — and the new world brings many major disruptions that leaves no industry or institution or person without risk.

It’s also true — as Godin repeats repeatedly in his work and as many leaders also point out — that the internet just opened the floodgates of opportunity.

Do enough of us get that?

Now we have access to information and tools and people we could ever need to create whatever we want to create.

But we need people prepared to jump into the world to do it — who know how to learn, to take risks, to imagine and to take independent action and lead and create.

 “We can teach people to make commitments, to overcome fear, to deal transparently, to initiate, and to plan a course. We can teach people to desire lifelong learning, to express themselves, and to innovate.” —Stop Stealing Dreams

Can you hear my tambourine on this bandwagon?

We must teach ourselves now.

And we must design new schools to teach our children.


School bell photo by sciondriver from Indianapolis, USA (school bell) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Blocks photo by Jgc3 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons