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In 2020, as the pandemic, polarization and racial justice uprisings upended the status quo, calls to use the moment to build a better education system to address the country’s inequities became ubiquitous. In the two years since, that will to reinvent has largely dissipated.
Frustrated at seeing so many people fall back into the old ways of schooling, Michael B. Horn, author and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, created a blueprint for schools and educators to reinvent the current education system, despite the challenges. “I wanted to give a template for how they could escape it and what they can do instead,” Horn said.
Early in the pandemic, Horn and Diane Tavenner, co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, created a podcast, “Class Disrupted,” to help parents and educators navigate teaching and learning during the crisis. This year, he took that project a step further with the book “From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child,” which was published in July.
Horn and I spoke last week about his book and how we can “recreate” our education system to better serve all students. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Javeria: What inspired you to take what you were doing on the podcast and write down those theories into this book?
Michael: We were getting a lot of questions from parents: “Why does school work this way? How should we educate our kids now that they’re home?” And we felt it was a great opportunity to try to help them peel back the curtain a little bit further on schools, why they work this way, but also for them and teachers to see that it doesn’t have to be this way, there are better ways to actually unlock each student’s potential. And so, we did that podcast … As we kept doing it, I felt like, gosh, I’ve got to put this in one place so that educators hopefully will actually design and build something better that really unlocks each student’s potential.
J: In the book, you talk about how the school system we currently have isn’t built for any student to really succeed? Can you explain your argument?
M: Before the pandemic, a lot of people just sort of said or assumed it worked for the haves in our society and not the have nots. But the pandemic, I think, showed how broken it was for people from all walks of life. And then the more people have thought about it, they realize, hey, actually, I’m not sure it’s been working fully for anyone in our society.
The big idea in the book is that we really have been trapped in this zero-sum system where we’ve assumed that for every winner there must be a loser. And either the haves are consciously playing “the game of schooling” or the have nots don’t know the game of schooling and are being left out. Either way, the game of schooling is distracting from the real purpose, which is to prepare our students to be living in such a complex world as adults when they graduate. And for that, we need a positive-sum system that escapes this zero-sum mindset and allows people to really figure out who are they and develop their specific mix of passionate potential.
J: In the book, you talk about schools needing to build a positive-sum education system. What’s the difference between the zero-sum system and the positive-sum system?
M: A big one is moving to mastery-based learning instead of the current time-based system. In a time-based system, we teach the topic and we move on to the next regardless of a student’s results on the tests. So, some students fall further and further behind and other students “win” and sort of learn how to play the game of school. In a mastery-based system, we say every student is going to reach mastery.
A second one that I talk about [is that] we ought to shift to a system in which teachers are not the graders of students. That they are not making these judgments about student’s capabilities, but instead can be fully devoted to being their coach and helping them figure out purpose and passion and potential. That’s a second big shift that the book proposes. There’s obviously a whole conversation about what parents are trying to prioritize and how they’ve been so acclimated to seeing school as a status game or judgment on their parenting. [A positive-sum system] tries to say, we can be part of this societal shift toward a healthier culture that isn’t judging parents or their kids, but is instead supporting both.
J: Let’s talk about parents. In the book, you make a point to address the parent experience. Can you talk about what you’ve heard from parents on what they want from schools?
M: What the pandemic did was wipe away a sense of the status quo or have it as this thing holding you in place, and accentuated all the reasons that it might be great if you changed. Parents who are looking to help their kid escape a bad situation or parents who are looking to be part of a like-minded community or parents who were trying to develop their whole child or even parents that are saying, “Follow my plan for my kid.” They are much more aware [that] the status quo for whatever reason isn’t hitting what they needed [it to hit]. And they’re much more likely to either be verbal about their discontent or actually switch [schools]. We see that in the data, right? Of the enrollment declines of roughly 3 percent.
J: What does this mean for schools and educators?
M: You have to get out of this one-size-fits-all mindset that all kids do better in brick-and-mortar learning, that all kids do better with the exact same classroom experience or all kids need the exact same lesson on the exact same day — to a system that really recognizes students and parents have different circumstances, different situations and they need different models of schooling. School districts really need to meet parents where they are with more of a portfolio mindset as opposed to a one-size-fits-all mindset.
J: In the book you share the story of two fictional students, Jeremy and Julia, to showcase how the education system treats students as parts of a group, rather than individuals. Who are the Jeremys and Julias in our current system?
M: Jeremy represents an only child of a single mom who’s working multiple minimum-wage jobs, which leaves him home alone a lot during the day and during the year. And then the other student, Julia, comes from an upper-middle class home with a lot of parental support. You might call her parents “helicopter parents” as they appear constantly in the principal’s office throughout the book. They’re archetypes to show how, throughout the book, along a variety of dimensions, school as it is, it’s just not meeting them. It’s not engaging them. It’s not helping them make progress. It’s causing them to feel like failures. It’s punishing them when they try to have fun with friends. Jeremy needs a lot more support and integration and help from the community to help them succeed. Julia — perhaps her family wants more customization, more ability to make choices. [I wanted] to try to get people to just ask questions of “Gee, like if it’s not working for Julia holy cow, who is it not working for in my school?”
J: We’ve talked about rebuilding a better education system for students and parents. In the book, you also talk about creating something that works better for teachers, especially coming out of the pandemic.
M: In the book, I argue that regardless of your take on the current teacher shortage — whether it’s a result of burnout or a result of more teacher positions — we’ve not been supporting teachers well for a long time. We’ve been ignoring the pretty clear body of research about what motivates employees as we’ve designed the teaching profession. I argue, we need to move to more team-teaching models and not models where teachers have a professional learning community that they meet with maybe once a day if they’re lucky, but where they’re actually co-teaching in these environments, and they’re able to differentiate roles. Now we can think about staffing schools very differently and allowing these educators to bounce off each other in a variety of ways.
J: In the book, you talk about how schools need to move beyond the conversation of “learning loss” that everyone was talking about during the first years of the pandemic. Can you explain?
M: I came in with that mindset that we needed to get beyond learning loss and I was surprised as I did the research, that actually it was important to frame it as learning loss upfront to motivate resources for schools, like the unprecedented federal infusion of dollars. But staying in that framing of learning loss is incredibly paralyzing, demoralizing and demotivating to students and teachers. In the book, I suggest moving away from learning loss to a framing of guaranteed mastery.
Students are setting goals; they’re planning on how they’re going to reach them. They’re learning and then they’re showing evidence of what they’ve learned. Then that informs what they do next, do they move on or do they deepen and reflect about the learning process along the way? That creates a success cycle of positivity.
J: Our education landscape will likely continue to face disruptions, whether from new variants of the coronavirus or natural disasters. What should schools be thinking about, in terms of digital technology, that will serve both students and educators better than some of the methods used during the pandemic?
M: I do hope at some point we are able to step back and do a thought experiment. If this pandemic had occurred 20 years earlier in society, we would not have had the technology to do any continuity learning. The fact that so many schools pivoted as quickly as they did is amazing and a testament to what we have today. And yet, if another natural disaster, a pandemic, something like that occurs, and we have not invested in that backbone so that we can do it way better … we’ll really be kicking ourselves because there are a lot of things that were done really poorly. But to … think that we should [not] keep that infrastructure up seems crazy to me in the current moment, with all the challenges we have in the world.
For those that are saying, “Oh, virtual learning didn’t work,” or whatnot. Well, for some students it worked better. Yeah, it’s the second option for the majority of students, no question about it, but if we have to move to that, let’s make sure we have that disaster preparedness and experienced teachers who know what they’re doing in those environments. It seems to me it’d be a mistake to walk away from all [that learning].
This story about positive-sum education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter