Revolutionary ideas: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

Ongoing claims that schools need an overhaul because they’re based on 19th century models reminded me of this post from 7 years ago.

At this point, I’d take Alfred North Whitehead’s observation one step further. When over an extended period of time a variety of people with compelling credentials and affiliations proclaim repeatedly in mainstream media outlets that we need a certain type of revolution (whether in education, in priorities, and/or in how we think or act), there’s a good chance that this revolution is long over and that the ideas that support it are old hat.

More revolutionary ideas for classroom change

One of the book reviews I most looked forward to reading in last week’s New York Times book review was Lisa Miller’s review of “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era,” by Harvard’s Innovation Lab’s Expert-in-Residence Tony Wagner and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith. In Miller’s words, the book:

argues that the only way to ensure any kind of future security for our children is to totally upend the education system and rethink what school is for.

Gosh, I can’t imagine where I’ve ever heard that before. Thank goodness Wagner and Dintersmith are getting the word out.

Equally astounding are Wagner and Dintersmith’s notions of the revolutionary ways that things might change:

After the revolution Wagner and Dintersmith imagine, college will no longer be a scandalously expensive universal requirement but an option for only the most academically minded. They propose an overhaul of the SAT scoring system in which adolescents would be sorted into categories of collegiate preparedness: “In Good Shape,” “It Won’t Be Easy” and “Think Different.” Those in the last two categories might be satisfied, and indeed better served, in free or low-cost apprenticeships or by taking vocational courses.

A time when college wasn’t expensive; a time when only the most academically minded attended it; a three-level grading scale (good/fair/poor; A/B/C; “meets expectations”/”needs assistance”/”struggles”)–when have we ever seen these things before?

The authors also suggest “an interdisciplinary approach; hands-on, project-based learning; student-directed curriculums.” How disruptive! How revolutionary!

It’s interesting that all these upending ideas have already been tried out–either in previous centuries, right now, or all along. The only thing that might possibly qualify as novel is Wagner and Dintersmith’s idea that all students should be molded into entrepreneurs. But that just adds one more layer of implausibility and impracticality to an idea that’s already long been popular: the idea that all students should be molded into leaders.

Far more revolutionary than all of this is a proposal by Alfred North Whitehead:

When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them.

Science and the Modern World, 1926

For an introduction to this epoch’s underlying assumptions, Wagner & Dintersmith is a great place to start.

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