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Future of Learning

Moving from an Industrial to a Postindustrial Model

By Julie Wilson
Moving from an Industrial to a Postindustrial Model

When I first embarked on this work, I was in search of an airtight model for change—a model I could bring to any community and say, “Here is the model that will help your school get from here to there—here are the guaranteed outcomes of using this model.”

I researched; I read; I constructed logic model after logic model—convinced the answer was out there. The irony of what I was doing dawned on me gradually. By searching for THE model, I was still keeping myself bound by industrial-model thinking. I discovered there is no single model out there that is THE model for school change. There is no model you can take off the shelf and implement with 100 percent fidelity. It is back to us being messy human beings and the fact that schools are not all the same in terms of both starting and end points in the change process.

Changing a system is one of the most challenging things to do. If we are saying that we want to support more creativity, collaboration, and appetite for risk in schools, then the organizational structure, systems, and processes must change—and change significantly—in order to support and reflect that pedagogy.

And those changes fly in the face of how a school is typically structured. The majority of school structures take the form of the industrial-era hierarchy, where decision making is consolidated at the top of the organization, with reduced autonomy regarding outcomes as we get closer to the classroom.

If we want students to be collaborative, creative, and self-directed learners, the system in which this work happens must reflect a collaborative, creative, autonomous culture. Learning is an inherently risk-oriented enterprise. We learn most deeply when given the opportunity to try, fail, learn, and try again.

I believe an appetite for failure and “not knowing” is the heart of systems’ change and helps to explain why so many school and district change initiatives fail. The system does not tolerate failure. It does not tolerate learning and, for the most part, it does not give autonomy and the role of change leadership to the people doing the actual work—that is, teachers. It is also very unforgiving to leaders who have a vision for change and who undertake the hard work of its implementation.

Having coached leaders bringing this level of change, I have noticed several shifts that need to take place when moving from the industrial model of education to a postindustrial model. These shifts are not check-the-box items to be completed, but rather elements that speak to the depth of the culture change that is required and to the scope of the work ahead. Figure 2.1 highlights these elements.

In reality, many of our schools do not fall solidly on one side or another—they are somewhere in between, with a growing number making the move toward the right. Think of Figure 2.1 as a continuum: Where is your school or district today and where would you like it to be in the future? Grab a pen and mark where your school currently falls in a given category with a check mark and then mark where you would like your school to be in the future with an asterisk. When you reflect on your school’s North Star, and the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind with which you would like your students to graduate, which of the above shifts are required in order to support that learning? Are there elements you would add or change in this continuum?

These elements are not stand-alone and they are not the kind of changes that can be mandated. They are interrelated and interdependent, and they require deep culture change. For example, making the transition from traditional tests to mastery-based assessment of skills requires that all teachers are given the autonomy, support, and professional development required to assess student mastery across multiple content areas, multiple audiences, multiple demonstrations of student performance—AND to have a shared understanding and practice among peers of what different levels of mastery looks like. When a school commits to assessing skills and habits of mind, in addition to content, it has embarked on a journey of change that requires the people who will implement the change to be the architects and designers of that change.

Julie Margretta Wilson is a coach and advisor to school leaders, educational institutions, and foundations whose mission is to shape the future of K–12 education. She is the founder and executive director of the Institute for the Future of Learning.

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