Out of the Box Thinking Won’t Move Education Forward | Greg Martin | 15 Min Read

August 17, 2022

Sometimes the greatest impediment to change is trying to do it from within the structures, formats, restrictions, and histories of a system. In doing so, answers to challenges are limited to only what exists within the system, and “solutions” only utilize mindsets and tools that are already present. In this sense, thinking “outside of the box” tethers organizations and leaders to an already existing system, in this case, the box. To begin with our educational system, we need to define and address the goals, objectives, and purpose of education as a whole. This lack of clarity is one of the main obstacles to true reform and change. Education, from K-12 to university, is in dire need of reform at a time of significant societal change both in the United States and globally. 

As the world has changed, education has been unable to keep up due to mindsets fixed on what worked, not what needs to work going forward. In this sense, we have developed certain beliefs about what education is, what it is for, what it looks like, and how it is delivered, with only slight variations on the model since the early 1900s. This is partly a result of systems being built that have worked in the past for many and thus were perceived to be “successful.” Research into brain development, new ideas about pedagogy, and significant societal changes challenge the rightness and efficacy of the current model. Once a system is established, seen as valuable, noble, and good, it grows in scale and scope to a point where it becomes a standard part of society and our collective consciousness. In this piece, I will address why and how this is happening and what we might do to stop “thinking outside the box” and start building something other than a box.

The same pattern can be seen in our energy, education, transport, and healthcare systems, among others. It generally follows the same progression: a challenge or opportunity arises, a solution is defined, investment is made, policy supports and reflects the investment, the solution has a positive impact on society, it scales, and finally the solution becomes baked-in to our cultural and operational DNA. Think about why America is so reliant on oil. Think about why the American healthcare system is an outlier among OECD nations. Think about “car culture” in the U.S. In each, conditions at a certain point in time allowed for the development and growth of that industry, methodology, and/or mindset, that, once widely adopted, became a normalized part of our society. 

One might identify a number of successful boxes that could be used as positive examples, but a problem occurs when the “box” that has been created runs into a no-solution challenge. By this, I mean that the system created and the structures that go along with it are unable to adapt and shift to address new realities that cannot be solved by using what is known from the “box.” When this situation arises, people have been encouraged to “think outside the box” to create a solution. This notion simply ties people’s thinking to the structure of the “box,” and the solutions it provides, while creative, become incremental at the margins with no significant impact on enhanced results. From the current academic year model to the Carnegie Credit, to grouping students by age and not progress, to the existence of rigid department silos that inhibit real learning, we must set aside these “immoveable” objects if we are to implement meaningful change in education. 

The current structure of education in the United States is roughly 100 years old. Yes, there was education before that and yes, there are schools and colleges much older, but for the most part, what we have is an industrial model operating in a post-post-industrial nation. The main challenge we are facing in reforming education is that we are attempting to do so by working within the confines of that industrial (factory) model and not creating a new one. Schools, policymakers, parents, colleges, and businesses are all stakeholders, and often with competing goals. Unspooling or reforming an established structure will impact these stakeholders differently, with some having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (most oil company executives know that fossil fuels are destroying our environment, but they still want to maximize profits from the sale of gas and heating oil).

Educational Purpose: Why do we exist?

The first challenging question to address is that of educational purpose. What is education for? The answer has shifted significantly over the years, yet we seem to be stuck on an answer that is no longer applicable. If we use the current system of schooling in the United States that was created in the early part of the 20th century, the answer would be to provide basic literacy and numeracy to the “working class.” Look no further than the standard school schedule, use of bells, and, as Sir Ken Robinson put it, the “factory model.” Subjects are siloed into “departments”, and completion is defined via the use of Carnegie Credit Hours, and students are grouped by age. Compulsory today until age 16, the goal was to produce a citizenry that could read a newspaper, do basic math, and have a general sense of civics and civic responsibility. Today, education must be seen as a habit and mindset that allows individuals to collaborate with others to acquire and apply knowledge across disciplines in order to address the changing needs of their communities and the world.

In the late 1970s, the American economy was shifting away from manufacturing to service industries. As well, the “blue-collar” workforce was saturated, meaning that fewer plumbers, pipefitters, machinists, and the like were needed. Adding to this was a decline in the power of unions as a global economy drove down the cost of labor. At this point, education pivoted at both the secondary and higher education levels to serve the needs of the new economy. With factory jobs in less supply and a policy shift away from “vo-tech”, college became more emphasized and marketed as the pathway to a middle-class lifestyle. Fewer were the scenarios where a student would graduate on a Friday and enter the workforce the following Monday in a good-paying factory job. The impact on education was a more mainstream focus on college prep and college readiness, a marked shift in purpose.

With the growth of the “college for all” mentality, the percentage of students attending four-year colleges increased dramatically. This shift was less about education and more about attracting customers. From new departments and the creation of majors such as marketing, sports management, and communications, to the need for additional and more attractive dorms, better and more diverse food options, and nicely furnished classroom buildings, higher education became a lucrative growth industry. Consequently, high school education became more focused on college preparation and the average “prep schools” were no longer offering a product that was significantly different than high-performing public schools. Undergraduate degrees became the norm for mainstream success, just as a high school diploma sufficed a few years earlier. That meant that prep school students would have to enter graduate programs or attend professional schools in order to distinguish their education careers from the mainstream higher education audience. It worked well that most college classrooms resembled those of the prep school classroom, giving prep schoolers an edge over their affluent public school counterparts.

More recently the discussion among business leaders and colleges surrounds the skills graduates are expected to have by companies hiring them and what schools are teaching. There exists a gap between what colleges and universities are teaching and what employers of today require. Critical thinking, problem-solving, ability to collaborate, ability to communicate in writing and speech and a broad base of knowledge are the key traits companies are looking for according to Forbes. Sadly, for the high cost of a college education, employers state that very few recent graduates come to work with those skills. The blame for this can be spread around, but the bottom line is that the workplace and our system of education (grades 9-16) were built for a different time with different needs. The solution is not thinking outside of the box. The solution is getting rid of the box via an authentic and meaningful discussion addressing the purpose of both secondary and higher education.

Educational Goals: Where did we come from and where are we going?

Are we educating students in grades 9-12 with the goal of preparing them for higher education? If yes, we are forced to address the elephant in the educational policy room: What is higher education for? Is it for career training? Is it a “credential” to demonstrate mastery of higher-level academic work and skills? Or, is it for a broader and deeper understanding of knowledge, as it was in the past? Until the purpose of college is defined, the purpose of secondary school is also undefined. In the world of independent schools, attending college is seen as being the value proposition used to justify high tuition. But who sees it that way, and are independent schools producing a “product” aimed at parents and not focused on students? Who is actually the customer? One who pays for the services or one who benefits from the services rendered?

It may be time to revisit the goals of secondary schools as the culture changes and there are more pathways for acquiring knowledge and skills. Certainly “100% college placement” is an independent school badge of honor even though nearly all schools have students who, for various reasons, do not enroll in college right after senior year (gap year, professional sports, military service, etc.). Additionally, nearly every teacher recalls students who graduate and enroll in a college for which they are unprepared or would fit better in another setting. In this sense, the “box” keeps educators from truly offering sound advice to students due to their strict adherence to the myth that college (immediately after high school) is the best option for every student. It has to be or it would erode the current value proposition of an independent school. And what is that goal or proposition? Research, writing, math skills, language acquisition, study habits, and social-emotional learning are all key elements of preparing for college, but how do we measure the value of these skills and attributes when higher education has not revealed its goals?

Education Objectives: How do we get there?

Viewing change in education from the “box” perspective limits a school’s options. What that education looks like, how it is delivered, and what the objectives are for each organization need to be broadened as we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. A first step in getting away from the “box” mentality is doing away with the view that education is purely academic, currently meaning college preparatory, and can only take place in a school or college/university. We intuitively know this to be true but we tend to utilize the “box” mentality when trying to articulate ideas or foment educational change. That’s why the phrase “lifelong learning” has become a cliche.

Education takes many forms and occurs in many venues. Athletics and the arts are prime examples of what education might look like. Observation, adjustment, individualization, and repetition occur in athletics and the arts, yet the notion of “mastery” does not exist because you never stop striving for improvement, broadening skills, or seeking marginal gains. As well, athletics and the arts can occur in both formal and informal settings, with both being viewed as legitimate and authentic. Observe anyone who has innate skills in any of these areas. Were they taught? I marvel at the untrained “expert” who can paint or sing or run at a level most can never achieve. Why do we see more parents insisting on their child’s outside participation in club sports or the existence of a world-class dance program? It is their subconscious understanding that these activities may be the best forms of learning today. How then do we think more broadly about education in a way that starts afresh by blowing up the “box” mindset?

The Next Paradigm: Life Without Boxes

As mentioned previously, the biggest impediments to educational change are mindsets and embedded structures. Both present challenges when thinking about doing things differently, as one challenges people’s beliefs and assumptions, and the other challenges systems, organizations, and the people that benefit from the current system. The established mindset regarding education at the independent school secondary level is to prepare students for college, and if one is lucky, for life. If so, then much of the system has failed to meet the future needs of our current students. Siloed subjects, test-driven curriculum, lack of topical connections with the real world, grade inflation, and the hyper-focused narrative on college as the singular pathway to a good life, all contribute to an education process that has not prepared students for a world many of us will not be part of. How might rethinking higher education alter the current mindset?

A disconnect between what the world needs and what colleges and universities are supplying couldn’t be more clear. The number one complaint of employers when hiring recent college graduates is that they arrive unprepared for the job. And maybe the simple answer to that question rests in defining the purpose of higher education; is it about developing workplace/life skills or gaining knowledge or meeting the needs of students who are paying high tuition? As an example, I think of a good friend of mine. He never graduated from high school and sees himself as “dumb” as a result. However, he worked in a business, eventually owning it, and has achieved far more than 90% of the people I know. Yet, the stigma of not going to college lingers for him. He knows more about business, market analysis, supply chains, etc. than the vast majority of people with degrees in business. Recently he expanded his company with a 50 million dollar addition. Yet, according to our system of education, he is a failure. Corroborating evidence would be examples of major corporations like Apple and Amazon dropping the college degree requirement for many positions that both pay well and allow for growth. Thus, we see examples of secondary education misaligned with future trends. So how then do we reform these systems, structures, and mindsets, for the coming decades?

To begin, think about creating a system from scratch rather than building a new box. Schedules should be examined in a way that takes into account the needs of students (including their sleep habits and requirements) and not the lingering 8-4 factory schedule of today. Can classes be held in the later afternoon or evening? Can athletics be shifted to accommodate both the athlete and non-athlete, allowing elite athletes to take time off during their season? Does a quarter system make sense so it can provide enrichment, remediation, special programs, or alternative schedules and offerings? Can a financial model be constructed whereby tuition is not annually driven, but tied to the awarding of a diploma or completing a program? Does it make sense to look toward the “European model” of athletics that decouples school and sport but allows for the growth of club teams that support high-level athletes? Might we use a similar model for the arts? Offering micro-credentials and high-level certifications in anything from coding to phlebotomy to financial licensure would allow students to exit their secondary experience with both academic and professional knowledge. As in Germany, Finland, and other educationally high-performing countries, a robust internship program coupled with academic training would be the connection between what students learn in classes and what is necessary knowledge in a specific industry. 

With the global focus on climate change and sustainable design, full interdisciplinary problem-solving programs linking ideas with implementation could be created around urban planning, architecture, energy systems, transportation, battery technology, and the like. Partnerships between secondary schools, colleges and universities, communities, and businesses could provide both funding and visibility for these programs, as well as access to expertise and equipment that would likely be out of the financial reach of most schools. Imagine a course on sustainable design with a project-based focus that is taught at a given independent school, then expanded to an internship period, and finally wrapped into a community-based initiative that sees the project come to fruition. In this scenario, an independent school would leverage its curricular freedom to design a multi-disciplinary course, then partner with a higher education program and/or an industry partner, then via local policy, work to enact the final project: design-focused, using internships, collaboration, multi-disciplinary, community connection, and real-world application. 

If you were given the assignment to build an independent school from scratch, what would it look like? What if you were told that there are no restraints, requirements, or rules in doing so? What elements from the present system would you retain? What elements would you jettison? What would be the focus and who would be the “customer?” What would you need to start such a school? What if the phrase “you can’t do that because” was not in the lexicon while you are designing this new system? In many ways, using a form of “design thinking” or an entrepreneurial mentality is what is needed. Identify the problem or area of need, create plans to address the challenge, iterate, and finally, scale. Fresh ideas are paramount, and the ability to look at education from the viewpoint of a researcher or engineer, and not an educator, helps remove the built-in bias that exists in reforming the system from the inside out and not the outside in. Is there a way to ensure that your school can undertake this challenge and experience success? It depends on what you do with the box.

You may be interested in reading more articles written by Greg Martin for Intrepid Ed News.

Greg Martin

Greg grew up in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, and attended the Peddie School, playing football and lacrosse. Greg graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, with a BA in Political Science. He then earned his MA in European History from Western Connecticut State University and his Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy from Drexel University. Greg continues to research, write, and present on staffing models in American boarding schools. His work has been featured in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine. Greg is a regular presenter at the annual The Association of Boarding Schools Conference. Greg has also been a guest on the Enrollment Management Association's podcast several times and has contributed to The Trustees Letter on two occasions. Greg serves on the advisory board for the Independent School MA program at Mount Holyoke College. Greg currently serves as the Humanities Chair at Vermont Academy.

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