Getting Specific: Six Ways Traditional School Design Falls Short

by Jim Rickabaugh, Senior Advisor

We often talk about the need for education to change to meet the needs of today’s youth, our society, and our economy. However, the focus too often is on changing the behaviors of people in the system, as though they are the problem. In fact, we have been blaming and pressuring people for more than three decades, since the Nation At Risk Report in the 1980s. Yet, the changes in outcomes we have sought have not emerged.

It has become increasingly clear that the problem is not the people. It is the design of the system. If we do not change the design in ways that shift the experience of learners, there is little reason to believe that learning outcomes will change.

The challenge often is to be specific about how the traditional design inhibits and even undermines development of the skills, habits, and dispositions learners need to be successful in their futures. After all, most adults experienced the traditional design of school, and have little against which to compare or contrast their experience. What follows are six areas that in a traditional school design too often undermine efforts to engage and support the learning of all students.

  1. Time
    The traditional design of schools establishes a standard amount of time available for learning regardless of learner background experience, natural learning pace, or the amount to be learned. Yet, we know that learners learn at difference paces and at different times. Taking more time to learn a skill or concept does not mean someone is a poor learner, nor does learning quickly mean that what is learned will be retained.
  2. Content
    The traditional design presents the same content at the same time to all learners, even if some learners have already mastered the content and others are not yet ready to learn it. The result is a scattering of learning outcomes with some students being bored while others are overwhelmed.
  3. Learning Goals
    In a traditional design, students are expected to pursue goals set by the teacher. While this may seem a reasonable practice, research shows that when students set goals for their learning, progress is greater, commitment is stronger, and learning persistence expands. Further, in the world for which we are preparing today’s learners the ability to set, pursue, and achieve goals will be crucial for success.
  4. Learning Path
    In the traditional design the teacher is expected to determine the learning path for students. While teachers have expertise in how learning happens, offering a single path disadvantages students who may learn differently. Further, learning how to create and pursue a learning path is a crucial skill for career and life success. When students are able to co-create learning paths they can develop this key skill while also developing a sense of ownership for their learning.
  5. Assessment
    Traditionally, student learning is assessed when scheduled, not when students are ready. Too often, this practice advantages students who learn quickly and disadvantages learners who are on track for success, but need more time. Further, conducting summative assessments on a schedule rather than when students have completed the intended learning servers little purpose beyond inflicting embarrassment and shame. Typically, the teacher and student know what the outcome will be before the summative assessment is given, so the process does not even provide new information.
  6. Instruction
    The traditional school design dictates that instruction moves forward even when not all students have achieved mastery. Once grades are assigned, the class moves on. The result often is a “Swiss cheese” effect on learning which leaves students with holes in their learning and too often unprepared for the next phase of instruction and learning. For teachers, this element of the design encourages a focus on coverage of content rather than impact on learning.

Obviously, these are just a few examples of why the traditional design of school does not serve today’s learners well. However, they can be good starting points for a discussion and examination of how we can change the design and experiences in ways that lead to better learning outcomes and greater success opportunities for learners.