Historians have a unfortunate reputation for being wet blankets. Reformers propose a new idea or a program aimed at transforming what children or youth do in schools and some historian will say: “Hey, that ain’t new. It was tried in the 1890s and lasted less than a decade.”
The historian is nearly always accurate in the facts that similar or even identical innovations did occur before but those very same historians too often forget to add that the contexts then are not the same contexts now. Times change. Teaching machines in the 1950s, for example, are surely similar to widespread “personalized learning” in the present decade in seeking individualized learning but the 1950s and 2010s were politically, economically, technologically, and socially very different.
Historians, then, can see the similarities in innovations but must note the differences in how the innovation began and played out over time in two different contexts. In doing so, such historians can inform current school reformers on the policy strengths, defects, and outcomes–both anticipated and unanticipated–in previous efforts suggesting where there are potholes and bends in the road that have to be noted and avoided by contemporary policymakers. While there are no “lessons” or an easy “usable past” that historians can tell policymakers, historians can point out similarities and differences that can help decision-makers, practitioners, and parents in current policy debates and actions.
There is also another reason for historians to draw upon the past to inform decision-makers about consequential policies; those innovators who come up with an idea and put it into practice already have a view of the past and they act on it. They already have views and identities shaped by history. Those views and “facts” may be uniformed, naked of accurate information of what happened in earlier years but it is, nonetheless, a view of the past that entrepreneurs and policymakers–who are eager to create schools that will best prepare the young for an uncertain future–hold.
Essayist and novelist James Baldwin said it all in 1965.
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
As always, historian David Tyack put it crisply: Policymakers do not have a choice about whether to use history. They do it willy-nilly. The question is: How accurate is their historical map?
And the historical maps used by entrepreneurial innovators inspired to transform traditional schooling into futuristic venues–“learning spaces”–that better prepare students for an information-saturated world where yesterday’s careers are obsolete and today’s jobs disappear each year bear little resemblance to what happened before. These techno-utopians believe that, while the task will be difficult and complicated, they can succeed where previous efforts failed because, well, they are smarter, know exactly what to do and how to do it, have more technological tools, and pocketfuls of cash. In short, they are arrogant–they know better than those who do the work daily in schools and ignorant of past similar efforts where just as smart, well-intentioned reformers put into practice innovations a generation ago.
All of this occurred to me as I finished reading Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism an ethnography about a New York City public middle school that opened in 2009. Amply funded by exceedingly idealistic and optimistic technology entrepreneurs, students would create gaming software, work on high-tech projects in teams, and learn in spaces similar to start-up companies. This would be a school where coding and digital media production practices across the curriculum became routine, where pedagogy was redesigned to be game-like, and where the school would “cultivate student agency, creativity [and] improvisational problem-solving capacities” (p.98). In short, a media technology, student-centered school of the future.
Christo Sims who was there as a researcher when the public school opened with a sixth grade class spent three years at Downtown School–a pseudonym–and described the thinking that produced the school, its policies, and practices.
Things didn’t work out the way the designers intended, however.
Consider how school-made rules for controlling student movement and reducing noise appeared. Sims asks reader to consider how school leaders and teachers broke down classroom lessons into step-by-step procedures and set activities. Sims notes that in some classrooms rows of desks facing the front of the room replaced tables and chairs arranged in circles with students facing one another. He documents that as lessons ended, teachers organized students into “quiet, forward-facing, single-file lines before they left the classroom” and then “teachers marched students down the hallway to their next class” (p.97). Furthermore, teachers and students became time-minded, both having a sharp awareness of completing an activity in a given amount of time. This, according to Sims, this student-centered ideal school turned into practices eerily similar to a traditional school.
One part of the school year did come close to the aspirations of the school designers. Called “Level Up,” a week-long period, three times a year, when the school completely altered their daily schedules, classroom lessons, and interactions. School leaders issued a challenge to teams of students to work on. The first “Level Up” week students were challenged to build a Rube Goldberg machine out of common materials (popsicle sticks, paper clips, rubber bands, plastic bags,etc.) that parents and teachers had provided. Another week-long session had students writing and producing short plays based on fairy tales that they had “remixed” from music, videos, photos, and art.
These interludes during the school year were moments when the school designers’ rhetoric of student agency, participation, and involvement matched what occurred in the school. Students chose which kind of machine or “remixed” fairy tale to create, worked on it together and turned in a product that they exhibited to the rest of the school. But these interludes were three weeks out of a 36-week school year.
After close observation and participation in the school for three years, Sims concludes that: “While the reformers championed student agency and creativity, students had very little say about what they could do, and most of what they were supposed to do was quite similar to the very schooling practices that reformers criticized and aimed to replace” (p.94).
The Downtown School continues to operate in 2018. And so does the historical paradox of creating schools for the future that end up resembling present-day schools. A well-funded redesigned school where well-intentioned, optimistic reformers reject the traditional model of teaching and learning only to slide inexorably into the kind of schooling similar to what they found lacking is not rare but common in the history of public schooling.
Smart, well-funded idealists thought (and continue to think) that creating a brand-new school with a novel curriculum and state-of-the-art technologies would be free and clear of traditional space, schedule, parents’ social beliefs about what a “real” school is, and the inherent asymetrical power relationships between teachers and students that have marked tax-supported public schools for at least two centuries. The Downtown School that Christo Sims describes may well be an instance of “regression to the mean,” a statistical phrase all to common in the performance of organizations and individuals. That movement to the middle of a continuum is what Part 2 explores.