Overcoming the ‘Immovable Mountains’

Photo credit: Stephen Walker

Photo credit: Stephen Walker

As I am packing my bags (read: "throwing things that might eventually go into the bags into a large pile to be sifted through sometime between now and a 3 am trip to the airport where I will have coffee and a green chile sausage breakfast burrito and watch the sun come up over the Sandias in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is not a bad way to start your day, by the way”) for a trip to the National Customized Learning Summit, I’ve been thinking about mountains. Not just because I am surrounded by them at my home here in Taos and not even because the Summit itself will be in Rapid City, South Dakota which will mean a chance to revisit the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, mountains I haven’t seen since I was seven and my family went on one of those family road trips of the kind that inspired the Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies, complete with a blue station wagon with wood side panels: I am thinking about the “immovable mountains” that we encounter in education. 

 And (probably because of the afore-mentioned family road trip from which we all emerged relatively unscathed), I am thinking about nostalgia this morning as well. 

 I can’t claim that this is an original pairing. At some point this spring, I stumbled upon this read, from a blog called “Notes from the North Country” by Aidan Bird. And while I thought about it at the time, I didn’t know that morning that I was reading something that would resonate with me and shape my thinking about the educational landscape in such a deep way as it has. Here is part of what he wrote: 

 “A few years back, Chuck Scranton, long-time Vermont high school principal and now the Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, gave a TEDx talk called “The Immovable Mountain.” It’s a great metaphor for what educators seeking change are up against.  What Scranton was referring to was the mammoth weight blocking the path of any would-be school reformer or innovator.  It represents a lot of obstacles. The immovable mountain is the Carnegie Unit. The immovable mountain is the schedule. The immovable mountain is the need to parcel out learning into eight separate, discrete classes every day in different rooms.  All of these “facts” of American education have proved next to impossible for even the most intrepid public school “change agents” to displace.  

The reason is, people know what a ‘real school’ looks like — it has bells and lockers, and eight separate subjects, and 6.5 hours, and final exams, and letter grades.  There aren’t wacky semester-long projects, or free comings-and-goings in the halls, or long breaks in the middle of the day for sports, or student taught classes. A “real school” is what we know — and deep down, despite our desire for positive change, that’s what we want.  The immovable mountain, in other words, is tradition.”

I was not one of those people who loved high school; probably as a result, I have committed large chunks of my adult life, including a great deal of time, energy, and brain-space, to rethinking everything I know about education. And yet, even as I study and write about innovative learning models in my work with the Institute for Teaching and Leading, I also have this deep sense of nostalgia for what I remember as ‘school’: chalkboards, those specific shades of yellow and green paint that scream ‘institution!’, the sounds of locker doors slamming, bells signaling the end of a 50 minute period, surfing the sea of students that thronged the hallways between classes, desks in rows… In fact, the high school that I attended in rural South Carolina looks and feels very much like the one right down the road from where I live now, give or take 24 years and 2000 miles. 

As Amy Valentine of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning wrote in her foreword for our upcoming research report, “... every student deserves the very best education we can give them, which means we as a country need to be shifting to a student-centered perspective. This, in turn, means confronting the traditional adult-centered structures that we have inherited from an outdated, Industrial-Age model and shifting these to support authentic, relevant opportunities for student-centered learning.”

The i4tl research project into customized learning models that I am presenting in less than 24 hours looks at how schools and districts across the country are creating highly student-centered models that are breaking down the constraining structures of traditional education. Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey, authors of the book Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning in the Age of Empowerment, have characterized these traditional structures as the “weight-bearing walls” that prevent student learning and the development of a true culture of innovative and empowerment. Many of them are exactly what students, families, and even educators are used to thinking of as hallmarks of education: grade levels, GPAs, assigned classrooms, class periods that last 50 minutes, daily bell schedules, a state-prescribed progression of classes (such as teaching Biology in 9th grade), textbooks, letter-based grading systems that give students an A, B, C, D or F on their report cards, report cards themselves, and even the ubiquitous nine-month school year. 

So, as I am drinking my coffee this morning (taking a break from the packing), I am considering the idea that really, when we get down into what moving immovable mountains and weight-bearing walls actually means, is that we, as adults, have to get out of the way of the very change that we advocate. The biggest mountain is not just tradition, it is our own nostalgia for a learning model that may not have served us well, necessarily, but is at least familiar. And those of us who have gotten to a place where we have a voice in impacting where education goes next, at some point did well enough in that traditional system to have benefited from it. We have to remove our own bias from the equation because when we really examine what we are asking of schools and districts, it is no less than to rethink all of the structures that come to mind when we try to answer the question “What is school?” As one enterprising blogger put it in a title that really resonated, “Your Nostalgia is Getting in the Way of My Learning.” 

Or, as George Couros recently said, “The greatest barrier to innovation is us.”

***Note: The research study The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning was published by the Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc