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"Redesigning Schools - Redefining Education"

“Redesigning Schools - Redefining Education”

by Dr. Jon Wiles


In most nations the new communication technologies are forcing institutions to adapt by altering their form and function. In business, transportation, communications, agriculture, the military, and health agencies, organizational and procedural change has been pervasive for over two decades. Schools, by contrast, have not been an active player in such adaptation and now find themselves in an undesirable condition of growing obsolescence.

In both form and function, schools are failing to keep up with the pace of change in the 21st century.

As a curriculum planner and consultant for over three decades, the author has searched diligently to discover why schools are soresistant to change. The answer, surprisingly, is not complex. Innovation after innovation in education, be it social or technical, fails because of the structure of schooling itself. In education, function tends to follow form, and the “box” that we call school does not easily absorb change. In the information-rich 21st century, schools are increasingly unfit to educate young persons who already possess extensive prior knowledge, have unlimited access to new knowledge, or who demonstrate a natural curiosity for learning. Education is no longer just a simple communication between a knowing teacher and an unknowing student carried out in a place called school.

Students who come to school possessing hand-helds, PC tablets, flash-drives, iPods, and cell phones cannot reasonably be asked to sit in a small space for five hours a day while a teacher talks about the past and present. To be fair to all teachers, nobody asked to be placed in these tiny lecture halls with thirty students, and certainly not to deliver a standardized curriculum that may have little to do with life as the student knows it. Most classroom teachers are caring professionals caught in a bad organization.

If the reader is wondering how we ever got here, the answer is long but can be described precisely. In the United States, public education moved through three basic stages:

    1) a building period (19th century) in which structure and procedure was put into place,

    2) a period of refinement (20th century) in which a somewhat classical education was adapted to a young and dynamic society, and

    3) an age of disassembly which is presently unfolding.

The modern model of schooling was created at the end of the first period when America was experiencing the industrial revolution.

School buildings, in the United States at least, were modeled on factories, and the students were seen as workers or future workers on the assembly lines. The structures, the procedures, the grades, the texts, the bells…all of that, came from this period only slightly more than a century ago.

The little one-room schoolhouses emerged as large factory-style schools because the basic premise of a teacher and student engaged in the transmission of knowledge in a place dedicated to learning was never challenged. The paradigm called “school” was so pervasive that even seasoned educators like the author overlooked the obvious answer to the question of why schools can’t change: we know what a school is and how it is suppose to look.

So What is Our Status?

Most nations would have a unique answer to this question, but we all have a similar concern. Our existing education systems are no longer fully serving students and, in many cases, may be doing a disservice to students by the way we are educating them. We must look beyond the five-year horizon of technological development to create a new paradigm for educating. We must also begin to acknowledge the new reality about our present status so that real discussion about learning can ensue. Using the United States, as a case study, we can see the emerging problem we face. The reader can extrapolate these observations to their own nation’s circumstances.

In the United States, 80 per cent of all expenditures in education are for school buildings and teacher salaries. The taxes required to support American education are massive, approaching 750 billion dollars in 2000. More disturbing for planners is the fact that this cost has doubled each decade since 1970; and will double again in the period 2000-2010. There is no easy way for the government of the United States, or any government to support such a cost increase in the face of rising demand for other services.

The price of educating each student in the United States has risen proportionally. The cost of educating a student for twelve full years, after 2003, was in excess of $100,000 (U.S.). Likewise, the need for school teachers, at $50,000 per unit, has risen 29% since 1990. Schooling is becoming very expensive.

The number of America’s 91,000 school buildings that need repair is very high with one estimate for repair and retrofitting with technology estimated at 322 billion dollars. (source 1) This figure is approximately ten times what is currently being spent by all 50 state governments on such efforts.

Add to this woeful financial picture the fact that America has a growing student population resulting largely from unplanned immigration and a dropout rate that is approaching 50 per cent in some cities and regions of the country. The task for school planners, and the fiscal burden of these needs, seems insurmountable. But even if we could wave a magic wand and dispense with these budget pressures, our problems would not be over. More important than any of the pressing fiscal issues is the fact that we are not yet addressing the real problem.

The real problem that we facing the United States, and many other countries of the world, is that the physical structures that we all would instantly identify as a “school” are no longer a fully functional vessel for learning in the 21st century. The primary assumption of many school planners is wrong. We don’t just need is to fix and retrofit all of these old buildings; we need to completely redesign schools and begin to redefine education.

What is the Starting Point?

Your author would agree with many futurists that the beginning point must be a new way of thinking about an old problem. From the time of Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) futurists have been projecting, with significant accuracy, the things that are to come in the near future. (source 2) They visionaries are largely in agreement that we have entered a new age; an age characterized by distinctive and new mediums for learning and communicating. The futurists use disturbing words like impermanent, unlearning, and extrapolation when speaking of knowledge. They often entertain us with predictions of new technological gadgets relating to chips, transmission speeds, and the geometry of new knowledge progressions. They regularly “shock” us with their social projections for the societies of the world.

Specific to education, these same futurists speak of work and survival skills needed by young persons who will be active citizens in 2050. Perhaps most frightening is their projection of what work will become in the future. Our children will work at jobs that don’t yet exist, will “manipulate images” with persons they’ve never met, and will work without the permanence of a work place, paychecks, and retirements. Our children, the futurists tell us, will never be able to quit learning. Technology will be their universal tool for adaptation to an ever-changing environment.

In 2007 we are racing along at a “low” speed or so these experts tell us. The average American is said to be receiving around 3,600 hours of data each year via the mediums we all possess in our homes. Each year, some 35 million new web pages are being created in the United States alone as opposed to only 122,000 new book titles. Organized knowledge is doubling every 100 days on the planet. (source 3)

It is important to those of us responsible for our children’s education to realize that our children don’t think of these conditions as frightening. Any twelve-year-old has always known the Internet. All of the communication gadgets that adults grapple with are a regular part of each child’s worldview. For a few hundred dollars, any child in the world can possess technology that cost billions of dollars to develop. To state the case bluntly, our students are already in the 21st century, except when they come to school!

What Must Be Done?

It seems obvious to the author that any further defining of education in terms of fixed knowledge delivered at a site called school, by a person called a teacher, is untenable. Like all the other institutions, we are going to have to retool…and soon. In the United States, the aforementioned conditions and problems will form the basis for the redesign of schools and the redefinition of education. The scale of the change that must occur is quite substantial and will incorporate a major redefinition of purpose, organization and delivery. We must think beyond the parameters of the current institution or, to state the case in the vernacular, “outside the box.”

Steven Covey observation that effective planning “must start with the end in mind” will serve us well in addressing the future. (source 4) So would Alvin Toffler’s belief that “nothing should be included in a future program unless it can be strongly justified in terms of that future.” (source 5)

We must focus clearly on our students, their needs, and their probable futures.

With these new criteria of purpose, we can begin to redesign:

  • Construct Different Buildings - In a perfect world, education in the future might not create schools as we know them since learning is no longer defined by time and space. But, for the foreseeable future, the author believes we will use these spaces as organizers for educating our young. What we must do immediately, however, is begin to make these spaces more adaptable to the 21st century learning.

    It seems obvious that such structures will be “learning communities” characterized by adaptable spaces, small learning groups, new technologies, and environments conducive to both contemplation and interaction. These structures will need to be open to various community resources and provide a mix of persons who represent the real world beyond school. All structures should be “work relevant” while remembering what work might become in the future.

    The search for adaptable existing structures should be cost effective in most districts since the process of conversion could be one of “saving the best and shooting the rest.” What we can no longer do is continue to build structures modeled on business in the industrial age.

  • Provide New Learning Avenues- The avenues for learning in the future will be primarily technological and it will take new insight for educators to begin to think of something as simple as a cell phone as a potential revolution in teaching and learning. A visit to any busy airport in the world demonstrates that this is how business persons now learn and work. At this time, the new communication tools are banned in many schools because they do not fit the paradigm of how learning is suppose to occur.

    Schools, or learning communities, should be characterized by their access to the world beyond. Personal computers, cell phones, hand-held devices, and whatever comes next year should available and usable to communicate and solve problems. The new learning is essentially a process of networking, and making personal knowledge applications. These new learning devices can help us solve the century-old problem of individualizing learning for our students. Schools that deny students these devices may program them for communication dysfunction in the future.

  • Acknowledge Human Difference – The old school program that starts all children at age six and lock-steps them through a standard curriculum for twelve years is obsolete in the 21st century. Over 100 years of research in education and psychology documents the differences in students, and we should cherish such uniqueness.

    As hard as it will be, educators must stop thinking of learning as something that completes with a grade promotion, successful test, or graduation. What our students need is to find out what they can use to adapt to an ever-changing world. Current conceptions of various intelligences help, but it is yet another step to believe that students should not be alike in what they know and how they learn.

    The other crucial thing about acknowledging human difference is to assist our students in accepting such differences. The future for our children will be one of more globalization and interdependence with other persons unlike us.

  • Tie School To Work - Particularly disturbing in the United States is the centuries-old dismissal of occupational training as a legitimate focus for education.

    Ask any parent what they want for their child and the answer is always the same: “a good education and a good job.” It is imperative that school planner’s demand that this work bias be overcome, and that a vision of what work may mean in the future be detailed and expanded.

    Vocational education is no longer limited to work skills needed in industry. Projections of the work future for our children includes such basics as training and retraining, using technology for connection to work opportunities, basic forms
    of invention, and entrepreneurship. The author believes these skills will be considered basics in the near future.

  • De-standardize the Curriculum – If any one thing has retarded the schools of the
    United States from entering the technological world of the 21st century it would be standardized curriculum introduced to schools two decades ago. In some kind of throwback to the industrial age, politicians mandated the Department of Labor (SCANS) skills as the “basics” of education and converted them into a lock-step of teaching and testing that has driven many fine teachers from the teaching profession.

    The focus on standardization reached its zenith just as the Internet became available to schools in the mid-1990s. Instead of perceiving the new access as a vehicle for individualizing instruction for all students, standards-based education used computers to cover material and enhance test scores. Even today, many schools place their computers in labs that look familiar to those used to rows of desks in classrooms.

  • Find New Teachers – Obviously, any new conception of a school will include teachers to assist our students. But, if these teachers are from the “old school mindset,” there is no hope for curriculum reform or the re-invention of education. At present, less than one-half of all teachers in the United States actively use technology in school despite the fact that almost all schools in the United States are equipped with technology. (source 6)

    When your author thinks about this condition, what seems important to realize is that these same non-users of technology possess personal technology out-of-school. Almost all teachers have cell phones and computers at home but they don’t use these tools in school. Is it that they don’t know how to use the technologies or is it that they don’t know how to integrate technology into their classrooms?

    Whether it is a problem of the need for technical training or a redefinition of role, this is a most critical areas to address. As Michael Fullan once observed, “If teachers don’t buy in to change, there is no change. It is as simple and as complex as that.” (source 7)

    Since there is a ten per cent retirement of teaching staff each year in American schools, it would seem that significant progress could be made in finding competent and tech-savvy replacements over the next decade. We will need a new workforce in schools with a high comfort level with technology and a greater view of teaching as one of guide to learning rather and a “sage on the stage.”

  • Provide Useful Technology – Since the early 1990s, educational leaders in America have expended resources at an alarming rate to transition to the new technology age. Unfortunately, our pursuit of these new learning tools has been primarily as consumers of machines rather than as educators. We have viewed technology as gadgets, rather than as a vehicles for learning. We are becoming exhausted by our inability to catch this speeding train, and it is a fact that expenditures for technology in American schools are actually declining. (source 8 )

    Individual schools will need a vision of all such technologies as tools for learning that can be used situationally to solve a problem or make a connection. The idea of territory in schools, from classrooms to learning tools will have to be disassembled. All technologies will need to be perceived as impermanent, and leasing will always be preferable to owning. Budgets for technology will have to come from the major item areas, buildings and salaries.

    The new technologies allow students access to current knowledge, to the technical fusion of medias, to global connectivity, and to new strategic alliances in learning. This is the very basis of the new paradigm for teaching and learning The next generation of technologies will continue to be mind-boggling Hand-held computers and smart classrooms will give way to devices utilizing artificial intelligence and learner aptitude-driven software. The school/home school connection will accelerate as new learning devices free us further from place-bound learning.

This is Everyone’s Problem

While this article has focused exclusively on the author’s country, it can be observed with authority that redesigning our schools is a problem for educators almost every where. A few examples from the author’s consulting experience will illustrate this point:

  • South Africa – Following the end of Apartheid, the South African government faced the blending of different populations with very different educational experience in common learning sites. History since then has found these efforts to be remarkably successful. Finding a way to meld and serve learners has certainly been challenging, and the effort continues to date. Technological access to learning holds promise for meeting these needs of great diversity.
  • Scotland – A small nation with a very high quality of education wonders how it will prepare its children for a new global economy and interdependence. Technology is providing the vehicle for reaching out to larger economies such as China and connecting the students of Scotland to other European nations.
  • Vietnam – Emerging from a period of political turmoil, this nation desires to possess the same economic prosperity of other Asian countries but does not have the start-up resources to fund high quality universal education for all. Leaving the security of an excellent education-by-examination system is difficult, but technology suggests a possible means of jumping over the 20th century and into the age of new learning mediums.
  • United States – As the population of this nation shifts (large cities lose students and other areas gain students) the problem of funding school buildings is significant. A new conception of schooling is needed to provide more flexibility and to aid the transition to 21st century life for students. Technology is the most promising avenue in this effort to redesign education for student relevance.

Each of these nations, then, is dealing with the same general problem of re-inventing the school for the 21st century. Each will build on the existing foundation of their present education system and that means, in most cases, re-designing and remodeling schools themselves.

The school building, the author believes, has historically been a major conceptual obstacle to school reform, but may also provide educators with a new avenue for redesigning education for the 21st century.


Author Information:

Dr. Jon Wiles is an author and consulting educator in the areas of curriculum design and development. His twelve textbooks are used at over 100 universities in the United States and abroad. Over the past three decades Jon has served as a consultant to educational agencies in forty-five states and a ten foreign nations. He and his wife, Michele, live on the northeast coast of Florida.

Redesigning Schools: Redefining Education represents a bold statement by an experienced American educator on the topic of how new technologies are changing education. In this book Dr. Jon Wiles traces the development of schools in the United States and concludes that, without the infusion of new technologies, obsolescence is inevitable. The problem of how to bring about such change is the major focus of this book.

Dr. Wiles believes that the school building may be the key to redefining what we mean by the term education. Long a physical impediment to any educational change, school building design and retrofitting now opens the door to substantial questions about the curriculum itself. Using this access point, curriculum leaders might introduce substantial changes
relevant to 21st century living.

Contact Information:

You can reach Jon at .


Note: This initial article grew out of a Redesigning Schools: Redefining Education, a book Jon co-authored that includes the following sections:

Chapter One - The Status of Schools

Chapter Two - The Fifty Year Slide

Chapter Three- How Technology is Changing Education

Chapter Four - What Must Be Done

Chapter Five - Visions of a New School

Article Citations:

1 “Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?”, The National Education Association, Washington, D.C., 2001,
2 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, New York, Random House, 1970
3 David Thornburg, Florida Education Technology Conference speech, February, 2004
4 Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989
5. Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, New York, Random House p 384
6. National Center for Educational Statistics, Washington, D.C., Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, 2003
7 Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change, Jossey-Bass, 2001
8 National Center for Educational Statistics, op cit.

January 22nd, 2007

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