Schools as a Monopoly

During my time the Learning Forward annual conference in Boston, I was fortunate enough to attend a ‘Thought Leader Lecture’ session by Dr. Richard Elmore.

The lecture was provocative and somewhat controversial, although I found myself in agreement with many of the ideals being presented. Central to the argument put forth by Dr. Elmore is the notion that schools and educational organizations have essentially developed, and continue to protect, a self-serving monopoly on learning. Elmore believes that learning is no longer (and never was) something that happens only at school and that the teacher is no longer (and never was) the only person students can learn from. The difference now is the abundance of information (learning) available from non-traditional sources away from the classroom (technology). Dr. Elmore believes that our traditional view of education must change to embrace the learning students do outside of the classroom and outside of the curriculum. He also believes this learning comes from things that matter to the learner and that they are invested in, not from topics demanded by the teacher/curriculum.

Much of this we agree upon (see my recent post on student curiosity). However, I had questions on some of the things that are being done in schools around these ideas. Fortunately, I was able to get five minutes after the session to discuss these with Dr. Elmore.

Firstly, I asked him about how the concept of the ‘flipped classroom‘ fit with his ideas on schools as monopolies (in the interest of full disclosure, although I see merit in some of the flipped classroom work and models, I am more inclined to side with the views of Gary Stager expressed in a recent Twitter debate and his overall summary that the “flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum”). It was not surprising that Elmore felt the attempts to institutionalize and control the learning being done by the student away from the school building was another example of the education sector trying to protect its monopoly on student learning.

Secondly, I asked Dr. Elmore what education looked like when the institutional monopoly on learning was removed, or what a compromise looked like. He mentioned high-schools in Victoria, Australia, where students are scheduled significant ‘free’ time during the instructional day. This time is self-directed, with the outline that the students can explore and learn about anything they wish, in any way they want, and represent this learning in any way they choose. I am sure that the teacher has a strong facilitation/guidance/mentoring role in this, but the learning, and the sources of learning, are controlled by the student.

Elmore believes that removing the institutional monopolies that have been developed in the education system is the future of learning. What is the role of the teacher in this context? It certainly isn’t the same as it was ten years ago. Whatever it is today, I am certain it will look different again ten years from now. The common thread through this is the exponential increase in access our students have to information and learning outside of the classroom that was not available when our school system was designed. As teachers we need to be redesigning our classrooms and evolving our practice to match this changing circumstance. If we work in the future as we did ten years ago, the result will be students who struggle to see the relevance of school and who learn more away from the classroom than in it.

Posted on December 5, 2012, in Thoughts and Questions. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I saw Elmore’s lecture via the archives. I think he is right that there is shift towards learning and away from schooling. This saddens me because ‘schools’ and ‘learning’ shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

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