Debate Magazine

The 20th Century Was About “mass.” The 21st Century is Not.

By Stevemiranda

In response to yesterday’s post, I received this comment from Johnathan: “Pretending there are no obstacles in the way, ‘draw’ me a picture of what a re-invented school would look like.”

In my experience, this is no one right way to design a school. The school where I work now, PSCS, is really, really good. It’s not for everyone, but I believe the overwhelming majority of kids in society would thrive in a program like this because it’s personalized. PSCS founder Andy Smallman describes it as helping kids become more of who they already are instead of trying to turn them into something they’re not. In this sense, it scales: everyone has the capacity for self-actualization.

If you want top-notch traditional education, the Lakeside School in Seattle is, by most accounts, excellent. It is, however, not scalable since it thrives on an exclusive admissions program and a huge endowment. A major problem with society’s fundamental beliefs about school is that, instead of seeing it through the lens of human development, we see school narrowly as being primarily about academic achievement. We create public schools in the image of Lakeside, but without the luxury of being able to screen out applicants for whom this particular model of Ivy League prep is not a good fit.

So public school classroom teachers are forced to take future entrepreneurs, photographers, musicians, bed-and-breakfast hosts, computer programmers, and social activists and run them through a curriculum that is designed, as Sir Ken Robinson dryly observed, to train university professors. This doesn’t make any sense, and it’s why school is a source of pain in the lives of so many kids.

We need different kinds of schools for different kids. There is no one right way. The 20th century was about “mass”—mass transit, mass movements, mass marketing, mass entertainment, and mass education. The 21st century is about personalization: Chris Anderson’s famous “long tail,” customizing your own cell phone ring tone, and—increasingly—personalized education.

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