Home, Home on the Range (School)

The second in a series exploring where we are, how we got there and what we can do next.

Some time ago in my work conducting site visits, needs assessments, and case studies, I

middle of nowhere_1129

                                   Gary Larson

had the opportunity to visit an exceptionally large school district in Nevada.

What do I mean by “large”? The district (a county district) was slightly more than 17,000 square miles, making it the 4th largest geographic district in the contiguous 48 states. I crossed a time zone to travel between schools. It was large.

In addition to the schools (22 of them) located in the county’s population centers, there were also a small number of rural or “range” schools. These were almost exclusively one-room schools serving kids in grades K-8. The smallest had a population of 3!

What did I learn there that might apply to places that, on the surface, seem nothing like Elko? I learned that their rural/range schools were not all that unique. Huh? Yup, that’s right. They were staffed by caring, hard working teachers (usually one). Teachers who looked at the kids and determined what they needed. Teachers (like the vast majority teachers I’ve met all around the country) who worked harder than heck to follow district curricula and, at the same time, give the kids what he/she determined they needed. They had minimal formal connection to the “big picture” of the district. They had minimal connection to their peers in other classrooms throughout the district.

When I visited other, more familiar schools throughout the country, I recognized that they were, too frequently, a collection of “range” classrooms. Classrooms where teachers tried to provide the best for the kids they had in their room (or class). Classrooms where teachers work incredibly hard and mostly in the same isolation that the teachers in Elko’s one room school houses did. Sure they have folks around them, but collaboration remains a rarity. As a friend once shared, our schools are most often a collection of classrooms connected by a common parking lot. People in them continue to do school much like we have been “doing school” since the early 1900’s.

So jump back now to one of our original questions… How did we get to where we are in our education system? We got to, and are continuing to get to, exactly where we are designed to get to.

Take a look at a slide shared by Will Richardson in a TED Talk he offered in Vancouver, BC.

Richardson conditions


On the left are qualities many people list when describing meaningful learning experiences. On the right is a list of things done in schools. (Will Richardson)


What is disconcerting is that at the same time we are continuing to do the things on the right of Richardson’s chart, we are seeing a startling decline in the level of student engagement in our schools. The following graph accompanied an article, published in 2013, on there Gallup site.


                 Brandon Busteed- January 2013


In his book, Why School: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, Richardson offers the following:

“What doesn’t work any longer is our education system’s stubborn focus on delivering a curriculum that’s growing increasingly irrelevant to today’s kids, the outmoded standardized assessments we use in an attempt to measure our success, and the command-and-control thinking that is wielded over the entire process. All of that must be rethought.”

So, how did we get here?  Seems kind of clear.  While education must change, it hasn’t.  Whether in the one room range school or in the the largest of our traditional schools, whether it’s 1940 or 1990 or 1016, we continue to work in a structure that almost demands that the teachers persist in curating what it is that kids should learn, how they should learn it, and how it should be measured.

One might actually ask the “how did we get here?” question a bit differently – How can we not expect to get ‘here’ – i.e., get more of what we’ve been getting – if we continue to do more of what we’ve always done?

As always, I’d love to see your thoughts on this…

  • What can we, as educators, do to reverse the slope of the Gallup findings?
  • How frequently do you see the strategies listed in Richardson’s  left-hand column used in your school/classroom?
  •  What can we do to move more of our kids’  learning experiences to the left column of his list?

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