Friday, September 20, 2013

5 Obsolete Practices and Ways of Doing School We Need to Abandon

“The nation has become obsessed with ‘seat time,’ assuming that this ‘hunkering down’ at desks and tables will result in higher test scores.” Ron Nash, From Seatwork to Feetwork
What are some outmoded educational practices and ways of schooling that we need to change the most? Like the concept of "seat time" mentioned above, many of our ways of doing school and educational practices are obsolete. These obsolete practices are still embedded in many of our schools and need to be changed because they perpetuate the same kinds of teaching and learning from the old industrial model of schooling that fails to adequately prepare our students to engage life in the 21st century. Here's a list of those "Obsolete Practices."

1. The idea that more seat time = higher achievement. This assumption manifests itself in many ways. Advocating for a longer school day, longer class periods, longer school calendars, and any other scheme to try to “increase the amount of time students spend in the school building” are schemes to increase seat time. It's high time we gave up this assumption because it is simply not true. What matters the most is the quality of the learning activity the student is engaged in and the quality of the instruction. The reason studies on seat-time schemes like block scheduling and extended afterschool have not shown definitively that they work to increase achievement is because in each of these what really matters the most is the kinds of learning activities students engage in. If increased seat time only involves exposing kids to more passive learning activities instead of getting them learning actively, then there will be little return on the increased time invested.

2. Give up the idea of what Ron Nash calls, “Seeing Learning as a spectator sport.” Too often too many people see the students as passive recipients of the learning instead of active participants. As Nash points out, “When teachers talk, students often go to a better place in their minds.” They’re checking out in these passive learning classrooms and then both teachers and administrators wonder why students’ attention spans are so short. It’s time to view learning as something students engage in and not something students are subjected to.

3. The idea that teachers should be center-stage and in control of every aspect of the classroom. Yes, teachers need to focus on providing a safe and environment conducive to learning, but the most effective 21st century learning places are not places of strict control. They’re places where learning often looks messy and chaotic and failure is acceptable. As Nash points out, these “command-and-control” classrooms are not conducive to creativity, exploration, and inquiry. They are more about conformity and keeping the status quo in place.

4. The idea as Nash points out that “when the bell rings, we move from math to English.” Whose life is organized by subject areas and departments these days? Yet, we still shuffle kids through a system of bells throughout the day in a type of learning that is artificially compartmentalized. Instead, we need a system where we don’t run around like condition rats through mazes when bells ring. We need personalized schedules of learning where students also have time to explore and engage in inquiry-based activities that are real and authentic and not confined to the artificially compartmentalized, industrial-age system we have now.

5. The idea that teaching to the middle is an effective instructional strategy. This idea has long served its purpose. Nash points out that when teachers use this approach, they end up leaving those who need to move at a more rapid pace, bored, and those who need a slower pace end up being lost. Instead, when need personalized learning for all students that pushes them to learn as they can.

I’m positive there are many more instructional practices from the industrial-age model of schooling that can be piled on this slag-heap. But, we continue to insist on measures based on these outmoded ways of thinking about education. If we’re ever going to truly impact learning in the classroom, we’re going to have to change these fundamental ideas about schooling.

As Marc Prensky once pointed out, “I often liken this to Federal Express: you can have the best delivery system in the world, but if no one is home to receive the package, it doesn't much matter.” In education, we have all these schemes of command-and-control and to efficiently move students through the system, but in the end, if they’re not engaged, what’s the use?


  1. How about the most obvious and obsolete thing to change? Summer vacation.

  2. Great post. How do we accomplish #4 in a 1000 person school? I'll all for the concept, but am looking for a more concrete solution.

    1. Perhaps the issue lies in having 1000 student schools to begin with. You have to somehow make personalizing that many schedules possible. I'm not sure we can every do this as long as we continue to have large, factory like high schools.

    2. Agree on the smaller school piece, but most teachers don't see more than 150 students a semester (which is still a lot). I think the idea of thematic units helps with this so that learning is not fragmented. The different teachers could be different resource experts on one unit. I have seen it prove useful in many K-8 areas, but somehow it leaves education after that. But so do many students? Coincidence or correlation?