Friday, July 03, 2015

Idea #4: Think Differently About Classes

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the fourth of an undetermined number of blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (The first was Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank; the second was Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It); the third was Think Differently About Time.)

Name of Administrator,

In my last post I suggested we think differently about time, and I touched on the idea that the idea of "classes" was something we should think more deeply about. In this post I just want to briefly (really, it's going to be brief this time) explore that a bit more.

Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years. Our current conception of education in the U.S., with comprehensive K-12 education for all students, with the goal of preparing them for at least four years of higher education, is really a post-World-War-II phenomenon, so has existed for about 60 years. That works out to 0.03% of the time that modern humans have been learning. To put that in perhaps a more understandable context, if we think of modern human history being a calendar year, January 1st through December 31st, the school system as we know it began at 9:22 pm on December 31st.

Here's the problem: we think it has to look this way. Because humans have evolved to view the world in a linear fashion, and because we have short lifespans, the perspective that you, I and all of our colleagues share is completely encompassed by the 60 years of our current system. So when we have conversations about what we might do differently, the anchor point for our discussion is the current system. And, because we are products of the system working in the system, our perspective is also the perspective of the system.

I'm suggesting that these perspectives are misguided. We should use those big brains that ushered in the era of the modern human to realize that just because a school system has existed for the last two hours and thirty-eight minutes of the calendar year, that's not the only way the system learning can look.

We currently view the concept of a "class" much the way that scientists used to view the concept of the atom. 'Atom" literally comes from the Greek word "atomos", which means  "that which cannot be split." Some scientists initially thought that atoms were the fundamental unit of the universe, that you couldn't get any smaller or more basic. We now know that isn't true, there are subatomic particles such as quarks, leptons and bosons. In schools, we often behave as though "classes" are the fundamental unit of learning, that they can't be split and that, in fact, they are the building blocks of learning. But that's making the fundamental mistake of viewing learning from the perspective of the system instead of the perspective of the learner. We can do better.

I'm not suggesting there is no place for the concept of classes, I still see some value in classes for certain needs and in certain situations. But they shouldn't be the default assumption, the fundamental building block of learning. While we don't typically think of it this way, our current goal for our students is to be successful in completing our classes. The class is the fundamental unit of our system, so we design and define everything in terms of the class. We can do better.

Instead of thinking in terms of learners completing classes, let's just think of learners. What do we want for our learners? Most importantly, what do they want for themselves? What is the best way to help our learners figure out what they want and then pursue that? We need to think differently about classes. If we focus on the learners, and not the system, we will do better. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.



  1. I am glad I was able to read this post. This really opened my eyes on how we do not think deeply enough about the classes we teach. I previously read your post about time. They both are great articles. Thanks for the post.

  2. This was very interesting. I see how the "completing a class" can differ from actually learning the material in that class. Students can do everything to "complete the class" and can never really learn what they needed to learn. I am sure these ideas are going to be discussed extensively when you present them.