What Can We Do To Change Education?
Part I

November 14, 2016


When I was growing up on a farm in North Dakota near a small town in the southeastern part of the state, there was no carpeting in my family’s house. All floors were covered with linoleum. It did not seem odd or different at the time because all my friends’ houses had the same arrangement. It was understood by me, and everyone, from an early age that linoleum made sense, not carpet. “Mud rooms” were either not existent or weren’t adequate to catch all the remnants attached to the kids and adults returning from work in a barn, slogging through a muddy yard, or working in a dirty and greasy shop. A mop, some water, and some pine sol could tidy up a linoleum-floored house in a short time.

In 2016 regardless of location, farm or city, you would be shocked to find linoleum anywhere in a house other than the kitchen, dining area, bathrooms and utility areas.

From kindergarten on I attended a school in the small town near my farm home. It was comprised of polished floors of wood, rooms with windowed doors, a gymnasium, a lunchroom, locker rooms, bathrooms, a stage, a large lecture hall, a wood shop, desks in rows, books for each student in each required subject, a teacher for each grade or subject, a library, a chemistry/biology lab. In 9th grade I moved into a setting where I was shuffled from room to room for different subjects (years prior to my entry into high school this had also included 7th and 8th grade) alerted for my need to move to the next class by a bell. I learned to type. I learned to read, to do math, to make maps, to write stories and reports, to draw pictures, to interpret news stories, to know dates in history, to be a good citizen, to play act, to dissect a frog, to remember all the names of all the bones of the human body, to recite the words of 25 famous poems, to balance a ledger, to take objective tests, to take essay tests, to take achievement tests and to be sure to say please and thank you.

In 2016 regardless of location, small town or large city, you would be shocked, if in visiting a school, you saw anything significantly different than what I described in my last paragraph.


Why? Why, even though much has changed in our world directly or indirectly including us and/or impacting us, are our schools pretty much the same as they were when we were kids – 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 60 years ago?


Some would say that schools have changed. Others would say they haven’t changed, but it is because the school are over-regulated. Others would say that they have not changed due to local control. While others would say they don’t need to change; what was good in the past is good now.

Who’s right? I don’t know, but I do know I now walk on a carpeted living room floor in my house. I no longer worry about the linoleum cracking or curling up in the corners.

I also know that at least three dramatic changes have taken place outside education that even the most luddite among us would have to admit that one would think would change education, if it is to remain relevant. The three are:

  • Access to information is much greater now by many magnitudes than in the past, and most of that access is free. The internet and all of its ramifications allows everyone, including our kids, to find the latest information about anything with no more effort than it takes to enter some words into a smart phone.
  • Much of what we now produce as adults and thereby what we do to make money to pay our bills, buy our groceries, make our trips to the lake, requires teams of people; teams of people using tools and methods that require well-developed skills. Skills that were in our past acquired through experiences outside the classroom; but now are experiences that no longer exist or that exist in a manner that is not applicable to the right kind of skills development.
  • We now know a great deal more about how people learn. We know more about how to apply the science of the brain to the teaching of our kids.
Our Reaction

If you are an educator, you may agree that education needs to change, but you may disagree that the current state does not reflect change. You are sure that it does, at least at your school and if not your school, your classroom.

If you are not part of the education community’s mainstream or are not an educator, you likely have a different reaction. You can’t help but wonder, “why haven’t schools changed?” But even more important, “what should they look like? If not what comprises them currently, what should they look like? What should be going on inside them? Is there even an ‘inside’ to go to?”

Our Question

But rather than the why, it has been my experience that most of us quickly begin to transition to asking what, not why. After all, if you aren’t a policy-maker or a leader in education can you really get to the bottom of Why? And once you get there, if that is possible, then what? Do you fix the Why and then make revisions that can only come about by enacting new policies? If you are a policy-maker or an education professional this might be possible.

But will that fix the problem? Maybe. But you are compelled to ask yourself why haven’t the same groups fixed the problems up to this point?

Inevitably we ask ourselves the question (or should), What can we do? Even more precise and practical, we ask, What can I do tomorrow?

What do I do tomorrow? Do I do nothing? Do I wait for the groups I assume are overseeing education – state agencies, law makers, and education professionals, to determine, if there really is a problem? And if they determine there is one, do I let them do what they see is necessary?

Or do I do something on my own? And if yes, what can I do?

What can I do?

Our Answer

Every community, and every member of each community in ND can start by listening to their kids. Our next Governor, Burgum, says he wants government to treat taxpayers like customers. North Dakota agreed with him by the biggest margin of victory in the history of the state. Apparently most of us agree with him. Now we need to recognize that our kids are customers, too.

Our kids are able to describe what they want; and most often, if we listen closely, what our kids want, adds up to what they need.

  • They want to be motivated.
  • They want to understand how what they are assigned to learn is relevant.
  • They want to be challenged.
  • They want to solve problems.
  • They don’t want tests to be their main source of success and affirmation.
  • They want choice.
  • They want to be able to make mistakes without penalty.
  • They want to know that they are not odd, that there are others out there that are just like them.
  • They want to figure out the best pace of work for them individually.
  • They do not want to be labelled.
  • They want to be proud of what they can accomplish.

Communities, that is, the adults in them, then need to examine what is available to meet the needs and wants of their kids. We do so recognizing and appreciating that our kids are the only ones that can produce the end-product of the education enterprise – learning.

One, Proven Solution

NDCDE found an educational program that meets our kids’ expectations, while at the same time, their needs. It is a program that not only delivers learning for students, it has a track record of being capable of changing the school itself. The program’s environment provides solid hope that the kids exposed to it will be capable of competing in a future world that will have an overwhelming amount of information to sort through, a global economy that will require more and more workers to acquire higher and higher technical skills, and a workplace that will require nearly all workers to be productive members of teams. That learning environment is the North Dakota SmartLab.

What is a SmartLab? The ’Smart’ in SmartLab alludes to a type of action-planning – S.M.A.R.T.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measureable / Motivational
  • A = Assignable / Attainable
  • R = Realistic / Responsible
  • T = Time-based / Touchable

The SmartLab in action is a room comprised of computer-assisted work areas where projects are designed to teach all academic areas, but do so through highly engaging problems to solve. Each problem is posed in a way that fits the person’s grade level. There are enough problems to choose from to satisfy all interests. Each problem and each project is fully supported by software and construction kits. Each problem and project is provided in the context of real-life situations. The SmartLab is a safe and encouraging place where students explore STEM and media arts through applied technology and project-based learning.

Next Step(s)

But how will the communities’ adults know how to examine the worthiness of the SmartLab; after all, most members of a community are not professional educators? Most of us don’t typically assess course materials; most of us don’t typically read treatises on brain science; most of us don’t attend seminars on the latest methods of teaching a particular subject?

Each of us will know when we reach inside ourselves and consult with the kid that resides in each of us. That kid knows what he or she wanted and didn’t get. The kid is an expert, if we let him or her be one.

To help the kids inside us remember, let’s let the kids of today tell us about the SmartLab in their own words and in their own way.

The answer to ‘what can we do’ starts with listening to the story our kids can tell us and show us. Then the kids outside us, and within us, along with the adults we have become, will figure out what we do with our tomorrows.

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