Why School? – Book Review

“This isn’t about delivery. In a word, its about discovery”

I recently read Why School? by Will Richardson, a great book looking towards the future of education and I thought I would put together a quick review of my thoughts on it. If you are anything like me, you are hoping that we are on the precipice of major change in education. I am hoping that we can break free from many of the traditions we have continued for far too long. Of course I am not bright enough to point us in the right direction, but I am ready and waiting to be a foot soldier for the cause.

This book does a lot to inspire more foot soldiers like me to take up the cause of meaningful school reform. In the past few years I have gone from believing in a prescribed curriculum, to believing we need to have a more freeing minimalized curriculum, to the point now where I wonder (often to myself for fear of being dismissed as going to far) if we need a curriculum at all. This book definitely validated the idea, and provides a great deal of the “why” behind a change in this direction.

Here is a run down of some of the major themes of the book along with some quotes from these sections.

Abundance vs. Scarcity

One of the big ideas of this book is the competing views of abundance vs. scarcity. Will talks about how the Internet has changed the way we need to look at the availability of information and learning:

 “In a nutshell, here’s what happened during the last 15 years with regard to information, knowledge, teachers, learning, and getting an education. Thanks to the Internet and the technologies we use to access it, we’ve moved from a world where all of these were relatively scarce to one where they’re absolutely abundant.”

This change in access has an obvious impact on our education system and what we should be aspiring towards. Will provides a quote from Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State University, on what this abundance should look like:

“ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous information, ubiquitous networks, at unlimited speed, about everything, everywhere, from anywhere, on all kinds of devices that make it ridiculously easy to connect, organize, share, collect, collaborate and publish.”

While we are not at the point that Michael Wesch talks about, it is important to keep in mind all the advantages this new age of abundance provides us. In a chapter called “The Upside”, Will comments on what this type of access can do for education.

“But consider the incredible upsides for learning and education if we have that access – and if we know what to do with it. We have an amazing array of tools we can use to create and share beautiful, meaningful, important works with global audiences. We have vast opportunities to connect and learn from and with authors, scientists, journalists, explorers, artists, athletes and many others. We have immense storehouses of primary-source information that we can literally carry in our pockets. This new landscape transforms our ability to work together to change the world for the better. And don’t forget that all of this has happened in little over a decade.”

“Better” vs. Another Way

So with this new world of abundance, Will talks about two ways it can be used to move forward. One being to simply use this abundance to keep doing what we are doing but BETTER. He talks about how corporate and political influence point to this being the way forward.

“They see schools as places where technology is increasingly a tool to better deliver content, where a growing emphasis on passing a test becomes a business proposition, one tied to competing against other countries, schools, classrooms, teachers, and students. In this view, we focus on the easiest parts of the learning interaction – information acquisition, basic skills, a bit of critical thinking, analysis – accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored. Learning is relegated to the quantifiable: that which is easy to rank and compare.”

In this chapter Will ends with a great point and question, one that should be fundamental to our thinking and help us push against the perpetuating models of traditional education delivery.

“This, then, is what schools look like to those who see abundant content and connections through the “let’s deliver the old curriculum through new tools” lens of reform. It’s old wine – or, in this case, old thinking about education – in new bottles. How does this serve our kids at this moment of abundance?”

It’s in Will’s words about “Another Way” of change that this book really inspires and motivates me to push for change.

“There is a second narrative, however, that presents a much different vision for what schools can and must become in this moment of huge change. This vision is being co-created by thousands of educators around the world, who recognize a different future for their students and understand deeply how technology and the Web can enhance learning, both in and out of the classroom. This isn’t about delivery. In a word, its about discovery.”

“This narrative focuses on preparing students to be learners, above all, who can successfully wield the abundance at their fingertips. It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up.”

“The emphasis shifts from content mastery to learning mastery”

Will doesn’t try to make it all sound wonderful and easy though. He is clear that there will be difficulties as we try to change what we do while still trying to be accountable to our stakeholders.

“There lies the tension. This second path is simply not as easy to quantify as the first. Developing creativity, persistence, and the skills for patient problem solving, B.S.-detecting, and collaborating may now be more important than knowing the key dates and battles of the Civil War (after all, those answers are just a few taps on our phone away), but they’re all much more difficult to assign a score to.”

Assessment

While re-thinking what we teach, how we teach, and the learning experiences we provide for our students, Will also addresses the idea of changing the way we assess our students. 

“Education author Jay Cross, says that ‘knowledge is moving from the individual to the individual and his contacts’… It’s not what I know, it’s what we know. And my reality is that I would suddenly become much dumber if you told me I had to disconnect when seeking answers or solving problems… Remaking assessments starts with this: stop asking questions on tests that can be answered by a Google search. Or, if you have to ask them, let kids use their technology to answer them.”

“In other words, let’s scrap open-book tests, zoom past open-phone tests asking Googleable questions, and advance to open-network tests that measure not just if kids answer a question well, but how literate they are at discerning good information from bad and tapping into the experts and networks that can inform those answers. This is how they’ll take the reali life information and knowledge tests that come their way, and it would tell us much more about our children’s preparedness for a world of abundance.”

“Let’s also shift our assessments of students’ mastery to ones that examine mastery in action. Performance-based assessments, where students actually have to do something with what they know, tell us volumes more about their readiness for life than bubble sheets or contrived essays.”

Rethinking Teaching

The last third of the book focuses on how we can change our teaching to better fit with this new world of abundance. Will presents 6 strategies to follow when it comes to unlearning and relearning our practices.

1. Share everything

“We can raise the teaching profession by sharing what works, by taking the best of what we do and hanging it on the virtual wall. Many would argue that it is now the duty of teachers to do so.”

2. Discover, don’t deliver, the curriculum

“…we have to move away from telling kids what to learn, and when and how to learn it. We have to stop not only because it drives away any passion our children have for learning, but alos because – especially now, when curriculum is everywhere – it’s not a very effective way of going about our business. When you think of how we learn once we leave school, developing our own paths to learning the things we want to, why wouldn’t we let kids do that in the classroom?”

“Teachers need to be great at asking questions and astute at managing the different paths to learning each child creates. They must guide students to pursue projects of value and help them connect their interests to the required standards. And they have to be participants and models in the learning process.”

3.  Talk to strangers

“The reality is that the kids in our schools will interact and learn with strangers online on a regular basis throughout their lives. “

4. Be a master learner

“If we’re to develop learners who can make sense of the whole library, we must already be able to do that ourselves. In other words, the adults in the room need to be learners first and teachers second.”

“People who model their own learning process, connect to other learners as a regular part of their day, and learn continuously around the things they have a passion for.”

“And they have to exhibit the dispositions that will sustain their learning: persistence, empathy, passion, sharing, collaboration, creativity, and curiousity. Most important, they have to be willing to learn with my children.”

5.  Do real work for real audiences

“I’d rather know that my kids were creating something of meaning, value and I hope, beauty for people other than just their teachers, and that those creations had the opportunity to live in the world. That they were thinking hard about audience. That they were learning how to network and collaborate with others. That they were developing ‘proficiency with the tools of technology’, learning to ‘design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes’, and becoming literate in the process.”

6. Transfer the power

“If we expect our kids to be able to own their own learning, find their own teachers, create their own classrooms, and find other students to learn with, then we need to make sure they have opportunities to do these things in school.”

“Don’t teach my child science; instead, teach my child how to learn science – or history or math or music. With as many resources as they have available to them today (not to mention what they’ll have tomorrow), kids had better know how.”

As I have said, I have been ready to be a part of change in education, but I have never felt like I knew exactly where to go, what to do or how to do it. I am not suggesting that this book is a “How-To” guide to instantly changing education systems all over the world, but I do believe it gets us asking the right questions and reflecting on the right parts of our practices.

Some people may read this and say that this is a book of ideas and not enough in the way of practical guidance. To me, this argument always puzzles me, because anything new has to start as an idea before it can be implemented. Some people will read this and argue that the change is too radical given the restraints of our system. To me, I wonder how people could keep plodding along knowing that there is a better way to serve our students. When it comes to leadership and change, we should always make our decisions based on principles. The guiding principle in education should be “What is the right thing to do for our students?”. What Will’s book tells us is that a monumental change to our education system will be difficult, but it is most definitely the right thing for our students.

I hope you will spend the $1.99 to download this book and sit down and read it with an open and reflective mind. Take what is said and weigh it against what you believe is right for our students, and how your practices assist your students to learn. Then, if this book inspires you, share it, and join the conversation. We are lucky to be working in a profession at the most exciting time to be in this profession. Let’s embrace the change and see just how great we can make our schools for our students.