Why Today’s Educators Have Been Unlearning the Past

Why Today’s Educators Have Been Unlearning the Past 2017-08-29T15:15:33+00:00

By Barry Eitel

Over the past century, how many fields have changed so completely that an observer from 1917 would barely recognize the modern iteration? In 1917, most cars topped out at 45 miles per hour. Information was still held in enormous libraries. Electric lights and telephones — landline telephones, that is — were still cutting edge.

Obviously, the world can change drastically in a 100-year span, but surprisingly, the classroom experience today is very similar to the classroom experience of generations ago. A teacher imparts information to a room full of students, who then complete work or tests for grades. While the substance and success of this model might range widely across the nation, the approach has remained much the same since the 1800s.

Now, a group of superintendents, teachers, researchers and other stakeholders is seeing education as a field ripe for disruption and innovation. For Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of Deerfield Public School District 109, and Nick Polyak, superintendent of Leyden High School District 212, the first step toward a 21st-century education model is to unlearn the model of the 19th century. The two superintendents, both leading districts in the Chicago suburbs, wrote The Unlearning Leader: Leading for Tomorrow’s Schools Today.

“It’s tough for people to envision a future that differs so significantly from their own past, i.e., their education ‘worked,’ so why change it?” Lubelfeld said in an interview. “Education as an industry has not changed much in nearly 200 years. It’s tough for some to be the trailblazers or pioneers.”

Polyak added that it is hard for today’s education leaders to imagine a system radically different from how they were educated.

“One of the major challenges for educators is that they remember what education looked like and felt like when they were in school,” Polyak explained. “What’s more, that education helped them find success in life. So it can be hard to imagine the future that is waiting for today’s students and the different skills and knowledge they will need for success.”

At the AASA National Conference on Education, held Feb. 15 to 17, 2018, in Nashville, understanding how the future of education should look different from the past will be a leading topic for insight. At the conference, themed “Education in the Digital Age,” keynote speakers and panel discussions will explore how to embrace a new theory of education.

Lubelfeld led his district in one-to-one computing, providing a digital device for every student in the district. The project led to some turbulent changes, but now Lubelfeld believes that students are more prepared for the careers of the future.

He said educators must unlearn the idea “that what got us here will get us there. It won’t.”

That a superintendent’s experiences are the best predictors of students’ futures is another idea that needs to be let go, Lubelfeld said.

Polyak noted that a lot of change is driven by the ubiquity of smartphones and the worlds of knowledge everyone now has at their fingertips. “There are many aspects of education that require unlearning,” Polyak said. “I would start by unlearning the idea that the teacher is the holder of all knowledge that must be imparted to students. A student’s cellphone is now the holder of all knowledge. The world is changing so fast, the teacher is now the person who helps students develop adaptive skills to be successful in the world. The teacher needs to be humble enough to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’m willing to learn with you.’”

Education 100 years from now will likely be much more engaged with the community. “Change the thought and belief that we can close the door and do whatever we want in the classroom,” Lubelfeld said. “And embrace conflict — don’t run from it. Work with the community to make change.”

Change is necessary, but it will be hard, Polyak warned. Learning from the successes of others will be crucial for any forward-thinking district, so knowledge-sharing events such as the National Conference on Education are extremely valuable. “Unlearning is not easy,” he said. “Our education system shouldn’t be designed based on what worked for adults in the past; it should be built for what will work for our kids and their futures.”

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