Sacred Cow (def’n): Something which cannot be tampered with, or criticized, for fear of public outcry. A person, institution, belief system, etc. which, for no reason other than the demands of established social etiquette or popular opinion, should be accorded respect or reverence, and not touched, handled or examined too closely.
In his paradigm for a new education system, “Stop Stealing Dreams“, Seth Godin mentions the word “industrial” seventy-eight times (creativity only four times and innovation just twice!!). Godin sees industrial thinking as the main problem with our education system.
He asserts that modern schools “…were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing. ” Modern schools were designed to produce compliant workers and eager consumers for our emerging industrial economy.
Godin says we’re now living in a “post-industrial age” and need to change our schools for changing times. Standardization and conformity should be eliminated and replaced with a love for learning, self-expression and innovation.
I don’t completely agree with everything Godin writes in “Step Stealing Dreams”, but I acknowledge that schools need to change, and quickly. The shift from standardization and conformity has already begun, and schools are too slow to respond.
Educators must look critically at the “sacred cows” in schools, the vestiges of industrial age thinking, and decide if they have any place in an education system that tries to foster independent thinking and individuality.
Here’s my list of Sacred Cows in our Schools and what we need to do with them. The aim is to start people thinking about those things we accept as part of schools, but no longer make sense. I suspect that as you consider these 13 you’ll see many other things that no longer makes sense:
- Uniforms and Dress Codes: Students who make more choices get better at making choices. Expressing yourself with what you wear is an easy first step. A child in kindergarten can choose their clothes. Provide general expectation around appropriate dress, nothing else.
- Anthems & Flags: You can’t expect students to think independently but make the first act of the day standing in obedience to national symbols. Let children make choices about what is deserving of their respect. Explain why it’s important and let them choose.
- Walking in Lines: Instead of forcing children to move through schools silently in straight lines talk to them about respecting others’ rights, why that’s important, and let them figure out how to do that.
- Timetables and Tardy Slips: The same start and end times don’t work for everyone and they aren’t necessary. If students naturally wake up later, let them. Run schools on “flex time” so that students can learn when it’s best for them.
- Grades and Report Cards: Feedback is an essential tool in learning but learning is complex. Assigning an arbitrary letter or number to an emerging skill is misleading and often confusing. See Joe Bower’s excellent blog for more on this.
- Grouping by Age: The benefits of multi-age groupings are well documented yet we continue to group students based on what year they were born. Use flexible groupings that change as student needs change.
- Bells: A school that runs on bells screams “factory model”. Let students take breaks or eat when they need to, not when everybody else does.
- Desks in Rows: Learning doesn’t always happen in isolation, so why isolate students? Flexible arrangements that support students working both independently and collaboratively are needed.
- Exams: A single large evaluation, written in a large hall, doesn’t work for all students so why do it? Give students choices: a major project, write a thesis and defend it, etc.
- Morning Announcements: Few people get their information at the same time and in the same way as everyone else. They get it when they need it and how they choose. Put announcements on school social media or web resources so students can access information when they need it.
- School/Classroom Rules: One set of rules for all students doesn’t make sense. They have different needs and abilities. Instead use a set of guiding principles that can be applied to all students rather than a list of the things you can’t do.
- Fixed Classroom Walls: The recent work of Fielding-Nair and The Third Teacher is challenging the idea that children learn best in boxes. Sometimes walls are needed but sometimes they isolate and remove possibilities for collaboration. Movable walls offer flexibility and options.
- Desks and Chairs: A variety of furniture types support a variety of learning and learners. Tables for group work, couches and bean bags for reading, floor place for kinesthetic learning, etc.
Changing these 13 things won’t, on their own, change schools. Changing them will, however, make a new way of teaching and learning more likely. They’ll provide a fertile ground for the seeds of educational change to flourish and grow.