Re-Building the K-12 Operating System

How might we design a new Operating System for the education field?

That is the driving question considered by Grant Lichtman in Transforming Teaching’s inaugural guest post.

Grant Lichtman is an internationally recognized thought leader in the drive to transform K-12 education.  Based on two decades of work as a senior administrator, teacher, and trustee in K-12 education, he speaks, writes, and works with school and community teams to build capacity and comfort with innovation in response to a rapidly changing world. He is the author of two books, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, and The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School. Grant received his BS and MS in geology from Stanford University.


Re-Building the K-12 Operating System (OS)

By Grant Licthman

The education-industrial community directs billions of dollars and an endless flood of intellectual capital building, updating, and reforming the “hardware” and “software” of K-12 education. The problem is that we have virtually ignored the K-12 education “operating system” which has not had a substantial redesign since the middle of the 19th century.  We will not fundamentally change education, and will not evolve a post-industrial age model of knowledge creation and transfer, until we stop designing hardware and software for an operating system that is 150 years old.

What is the K-12 operating system?  It is the set of processes, boundary conditions, and assumptions, including physical and mindset configurations that determine the basic structure of how schools work.  Below are some key elements of the current K-12 education OS:

  • Moves students through the system according to biological age.
  • Transfers students at the rate of one increment per year of biologic age based on time in the system, not competency.
  • Encapsulates learning in a quantum packet of time (X minutes per day or week); space (standardized campuses, classrooms, and furniture); and subject (largely as autonomous units separated in time and space from all other subjects).
  • Assumes a nearly constant ratio of adults to students during time at school.
  • Occupies campus Monday-Friday, for approximately 180 days/year, between the hours of 8 am-3 pm.
  • Relies on adults trained in the current operating system to maintain the system.
  • Repeats most of what takes place in the classroom with very little change year after year.
  • Requires and rewards rigid hierarchies of decision-making and discrete silos of stakeholders: “leaders”, “teachers”, “learners”, “family”, and “community”.
  • Measures system efficiency and productivity using benchmarks like standardized exam scores, student retention, and graduation rates.

This current OS performed well when measured against the economic and social design specifications of the late 19th through mid-20th centuries. The system significantly (though not with complete equity) increased access to basic literacy and numeracy, helping to prepare young people to participate in evolving industrial economies and social democracies.  Most educators and many student and parent stakeholders, however, given the opportunity to question the basic assumptions implicit in the system, recognize that this OS does not align to the  outcomes we need for students in the first quartile of the 21st century: creativity, adaptability, empathy, global connectivity, collaboration, interdisciplinary thinking, and more.  Yet we continue to design hardware and software for a system that no longer meets the modern design expectations.

Elements of educational “hardware” into which we invest and spend enormous resources include:

  • Large, expensive physical campuses built around the core unit of a standardized classroom in which students and teachers spend the vast majority of the school day.
  • Support systems to accommodate community social needs (i.e., health, nutrition, transportation, day care).
  • Large physical complexes that support competitive athletics.
  • Digital technology and Internet connectivity.
  • Teacher training sub-systems at colleges and universities, many with their own outdated education operating system.

Elements of “software”, which are the foci of the ever-swinging pendulum of education best practices, include:

  • Curriculum
  • Instructional practices
  • Knowledge sources (textbooks and their progeny)
  • Daily and annual schedules
  • Standardized assessment practices
  • Computer software and applications
  • Professional training for teachers
  • School regulations, schedules, and decision-making procedures

Without redesigning the OS, we continue to develop education hardware and software for an outdated education model.  We make small adjustments and upgrades, and then are frustrated at the lack of real, system-wide change in outcomes.  While I do not pretend to know the complete nature of an authentically re-designed K12 education OS, some of the elements are being tested and implemented today at schools that dare to challenge foundational assumptions.  Some of these elements of the “new” OS, many of which were first successfully implemented during the Progressive Era of education more than 100 years ago, include:

  • Organizing learning around large, cross-disciplinary themes and ideas, not a small number of subject areas.
  • Empowering students with the responsibility to take concrete ownership of the learning process, including interest and passion-driven choices.
  • Students and teachers engaged in creating, not just transferring and consuming, knowledge.
  • Greater flexibility in the structure of the school day, with fewer hard-wired time periods.
  • Greater permeability of the physical campus, with learning opportunities for both students and adults outside the classroom, in the surrounding community, and amongst globally connected networks.
  • Assessment and progress of students based on demonstrated competency, performance, and body of work.
  • Matching of students and adults during the day and year based on fluid, dynamic drivers of mutual interest and the needs of the individual student.
  • Vastly greater distribution of leadership and decision-making authority that allows risk-taking and evolutionary adaptation in response to rapid changes in external conditions, needs, and expectations.

While education hardware and software upgrades can be, and often are, implemented piecemeal, the elements that comprise the new OS must evolve systematically, synergistically, and to a large degree, simultaneously.  I have argued (#EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education, Jossey-Bass, 2014) that such an OS will have vastly more affinity to a natural ecosystem than a human-designed and socially engineered system. Such a radical transition in design is hard to accomplish. But if we can pull it off, the system will be, unlike today’s system, sustainably aligned to current and evolving goals of learning.

This OS redesign will not come out of a single group of diversified stakeholders sitting around a table or workshop.  That design process is characteristic of engineered systems and antithetical to an evolving ecosystem.  The redesign will evolve out of a widely distributed, but (and this is critical) symbiotically connected system of trials, failures, iteration, and recombination. The process will not be centrally controlled by large entities like the Department of Education or a small consortium of corporate or not-for-profit organizations. The process is actually underway already and will be accelerated by greater connectivity amongst innovation incubators: individual schools where leaders allow risky prototyping of non-traditional pedagogy without the guarantee that they will succeed; amongst consortia of schools that share elements of the new OS, like the Deeper Learning Network, Big Picture Learning, New Tech Schools, EnVision, and others; and by back channel groups of educators and non-educators like The Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, The Emerson Collective, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the Education Policy Center at the American Institutes for Research, and others.

Unlike adoption of the Common Core, for example, which was a software upgrade, there will not be a single point in time when we can say, “switch to the new OS”. There will, however, be a tipping point, when a quantum number of educational innovators have shifted the learning practice at enough schools; when the demand of families for education relevant to this century and not the last have resulted in the closing of unresponsive traditional schools; and when colleges and universities are forced to adjust their antiquated, test-based admissions policies to attract applicants.  We won’t know that time until it is upon us; I believe we are closer than most of us think.


Follow Grant on twitter @GrantLichtman

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