Public School Educators Need a Paradigm Shift

Public school teachers in our nation’s most challenging schools and communities are like someone lost in the middle of a swamp who finds him or herself up to their waist in alligators. The rest of us act surprised when people who find themselves in such a predicament cannot seem to find their way out or even find the time to wonder how they became lost in the first place.

The concept “paradigm shift,” first introduced by American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, and later popularized by Stephen Covey in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (first published in 1989), is a significant change in the way people think about an idea, concept, or process that provides one with a whole new perspective. Once a paradigm shift occurs, nothing looks the same. After our perspective has been broadened, we begin to see forces at play in our world that have been invisible to us. When we gain an understanding of these forces, whole new realms of possibility reveal themselves to us and, very often, we see new ideas scattered around us like precious gemstones.

It is bad enough that we criticize public school teachers for their inability to extricate themselves. What makes it worse is when we blame them for the existence of both the swamp and its dangers. Worse, still, is the fact that the self-proclaimed education reformers and the policy makers who are influenced by them, are choosing to turn their backs on these dedicated men and women. The focus of education reformers has shifted almost entirely to privatization through the creation of charter schools as alternatives to public schools, and voucher systems to help families pay for such choices using tax dollars. If one steps back and examines the education reform movement systemically, there is a clear picture of intent “to help the families we can and leave the rest to fend for themselves.”

This focus on privatization through charter schools and high stakes testing also leaves public school teachers to fend for themselves. It is as if we have decided that we cannot do anything to repair the system, so we will just bypass it and those who want to come along are invited to join us. For the rest, “c’est la vie.”

This situation is aggravated by the fact that public school teachers have opted to play the role of victim. Much of the efforts of teachers appear to be devoted to defending themselves from criticism rather than taking ownership of the problems they face in their classrooms. These teachers are constrained because they are so busy fighting off the alligators that they are unable to view the larger picture. The consequence is that they struggle to envision any other way to do what they do. They spend their energy reacting to criticism rather than working proactively in their own best interests and in the interests of their students.

This is why a paradigm shift is imperative if teachers are going to utilize the power they possess to transform public education. And, yes, teachers do have the power to bring about systemic change that can transform public education even if they cannot see it. Until they break free from the encapsulation that suppresses their creativity, however, they will be doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the last half century. They will remain stuck in the swamp at the mercy of its dangers.

The solution to the problems in public education is there, right in front of teachers but they cannot see it from where they sit. Maybe the solution is too simple. Most teachers understand that some kids need more time but they do not see how they can find that time within the context of the current educational process. And that is exactly my point. Teachers cannot give students the time they need to learn, particularly the disadvantaged students, as long they are stuck in the failed education process of the last century. Every year, hundreds of thousands of students fail, unnecessarily; not because they are incapable of learning and not because teachers are incompetent. The fail because our obsolete educational process thwarts the efforts of teachers and students, alike.

So, what is the solutions?

Fixing the problems in public education is nothing more than a simple human engineering challenge. It is a matter of reinventing the education process in such a way that giving children the time they need is not only a teacher’s priority but also the basis of how their own performance will be evaluated. It is redesigning the structure to support students, empower teachers, and pull parents into the process. It is changing the nature of the game from a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, to one in which each and every child gets the help they need to learn as much as they are able at their own best speed. It is changing the game from one in which some children win and others lose, to one where we make sure every child acquires the knowledge, skills, and self-discipline necessary for them to have choices about what to do with their lives. It is changing the way we keep score because that is the only way to break from the patterns of the past. We want every child to be a winner and we want all children to enter adulthood with real and meaningful choices about what to do with their lives.

What teachers will discover after a paradigm shift is that winning is not measured against the performance of classmates. Winning and learning are synonymous. Each lesson learned is a win. Why would ever allow a child lose or fail? If they are struggling to master a given lesson how can a teacher’s job be finished?

The educational model I have developed is one example of a new idea; a new solution. Once we embrace this new paradigm, everything changes. The reader is invited to visit my website and review the education model I have developed at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/. They are also invited to read the white paper I have presented that provides the logical framework within which the education model was conceived.

Public school teachers have one of the most challenging, and at the same time, most important jobs in modern society. Society relies on our teachers to help our nation’s children acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to become productive members of society from both an economic and political perspective. We expect teachers to carry out this important function even though children arrive for their first day of school with great disparity with respect to their academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support. Similarly, our nation’s children come to us from a diverse patchwork of racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds and, more often than at any time in our history, we may not even speak the same language. Never has American society been as diverse as it is today, and never again will it be less diverse than it is in this second decade of the 21st Century. This demands new ways of thinking about the challenges we face and new patterns of behavior that produce the outcomes we are seeking.

It demands a paradigm shift. It requires that we reinvent the education process.

The refusal, on the part of teachers, to acknowledge that the education process is flawed will eventually lead to their doom; it is a dangerous and self-defeating strategy. While they sit back in denial about the failures of the process, reformers are working, unobstructed, to put them out of business.