Thursday, May 23, 2013

4 Ways to Provoke Change In Our Education System

Guest post by Jaime R. Wood

In his most recent TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson says, “There are 3 principles on which human life flourishes, and they are contradicted by the culture of education under which most teachers have to labor and most students have to endure...diversity...curiosity...creativity.”

What does it take to infuse these principles into the education systems we build? This is a question that can’t be answered by one person alone, but in my 14 years of teaching and researching education, I’ve come to realize that 4 catalyzing actions, small steps that each of us can take fairly easily, can initiate change in positive ways from the ground up. 

Here they are.

1) Listen to the learners.
When we provide the space to listen to what students want from their education, something transformative happens. We gain great insight into how to improve our current system while honoring the ideas of young people. And students often feel empowered to actively create the change they’re seeking. If Jeff Bliss had access to Imagining Learning or Student Voice, he may have felt empowered inside the classroom instead of on his way out of it. 

Imagining Learning: A movement begun five years ago, Imagining Learning uses the power of Listening Sessions to provoke change. Each session allows a group of teens to express themselves -- through writing, discussion, and painting -- about what they envision for education. Many of these students have been so moved by the experience that they’ve gone on to become education activists in and outside their schools. Imagining Learning is running a campaign to raise $25,000 to accomplish their goal of hosting listening sessions in all 50 states before presenting their findings at an exhibit in Washington, D.C. With 20 listening sessions complete already, Imagining Learning has built a movement founded on respect for students as teachers.
Student Voice: Student Voice “strives to create an international network of empowered students by providing them with the tools they need to use their voice in policy discussions.” This organization hosts #StuVoice chats on Twitter every Monday at 8:30 Eastern, and just last month they held the first Student Voice Summit in Dell’s New York City office. They welcome and post education-related content written by students and aim to work with all stakeholders -- students, parents, teachers, policy makers, and community members  to “bring the student voice to life.” This organization was started just last year and has already started connecting people in powerful ways.   
2) Listen to the teachers.
This may be stating the obvious, but most teachers are pretty darn smart and passionate people. To put it simply, most of them really care. For the system to improve, we have to believe that teachers have better answers for the classroom than politicians and let them do their jobs. What if teachers got to structure their own evaluations? What if they wrote the policy for their schools with the help of students and parents? This is common sense, and I’m not the only one saying so. As a matter of fact, teacher cooperative schools like Avalon in Minnesota are proof that teachers make great school leaders. Even just promoting public discourse where teachers are at the center is a move in the right direction.  

Each week teachers are invited to gather and discuss topics ranging from upcoming education conferences to integrated learning to crowdfunding education. This webcast, affiliated with the National Writing Project and EdTechTalk, was started seven years ago by a committed group of teachers who saw a need for greater connectedness and voice in the teaching community. It reaches thousands of listeners and viewers each week, and any teacher with the will could share his or her voice in similar ways. The more connected we feel, the more powerful we feel. The more powerful we feel, more likely we are to take action.     
The title of this article pretty much says it all, but here’s the call to action that author, John Wilson, makes at the end when he proposes that schools would change in more productive ways if we asked teachers about their experiences in the classroom: “How can we begin to shore up our schools and the teachers in them? We can start by having every school administer the Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey and use the data to make substantive changes in the school environment. The New Teacher Center is the resource for getting that started. The Center's work is no longer mere theory, but meaningful data for school improvement and a must for those who want to improve teacher job satisfaction.”

3) Join or start programs that support what you care about.
I guarantee that no matter how small a town you live in, someone wants what you want for education, and they may have already built it. Seek out the opportunities you want for yourself and your children, and those opportunities will grow. Maybe your kids don’t have a satisfactory schooling choice available where you live. Look for after-school or summer options, or start your own program. Join the PTA and work to change or build onto just one area in your neighborhood school. If you’re a teacher, find other teachers working to facilitate change and collaborate. If you’re a student, find other students who are dissatisfied with the way schools are run, and start meeting together to enact the progress you want to see. That’s what Student Voice (above) and Julien at the Archimedes Alliance are doing, and that’s what Zoe Weil advocates in her TEDx Talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach.”

My colleague and I started IncitED, a crowdfunding community for education, to facilitate just such action. We saw teachers and students all over the place struggling to build new models of learning in their communities. They had the passion, the community had the need, but the money wasn’t there. With IncitED, that’s not the case. Open Road, Youth Voices, and Imagining Learning are good examples of programs started by committed educators who are finding the financial support they need through IncitED. Now they’re on the path to success, and much faster than they would have been if they were waiting for grants or appealing to bureaucratic systems.

Alan Burnce, a Stanford and Harvard educated high school English teacher, was fed up with a school system that thought it necessary to balance the budget by laying off English teachers. He learned about North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens and decided to build a similar model in Portland, Oregon. In a matter of months, he’s already attracted three teens to join Open Road, and in the past three weeks, he’s raised over $7,000 on IncitED and is hoping to reach $9,000 in the next week so Open Road can move into a facility in the fall and provide scholarships for students with financial need. Alan’s story is a testament to the amazing progress one determined person can make with a little support from his community.  

Started in 2003 by a group of National Writing Project teachers, Youth Voices is an online community designed for student collaboration where they can share their passions while supporting each other to become better writers, thinkers, and communicators.

This summer, Youth Voices will host a three-week summer program at Lehman College, CUNY for high school students where they’ll have the opportunity to answer the question: What if high school students could explore their passions through writing and connected learning? The NWP and similar programs are great ways to find communities of educators who are working to improve the experiences of learners. They’re raising $15,000 on IncitED over the next month, which will pay for 15 scholarships for high school students to attend this special summer experience.

4) Encourage Civil Disobedience.
If someone were discriminating against an entire class of people, institutionalizing that discrimination so that these people’s opportunities were systematically stripped away, and convincing society that this was fair and necessary, we’d be up in arms, wouldn’t we? We would strike, boycott, canvass neighborhoods for votes. We’d act. Why then are we allowing an entire generation of young people’s gifts, needs, and passions to be squandered in a game of political football?

All over the country, small, determined groups are rising up to opt out of standardized testing and insist that students and teachers be treated with the respect they deserve. People are engaging in the political fight against the slow corporate takeover of public education. Sometimes what’s required is a little civil disobedience, standing up to say, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

Throughout history, this is what it’s taken to move the mountains of oppression that have blocked progress and the outcomes will be worth the struggle. When we can look at our schools and see that they reflect our values and promote the kinds of communities we want to live in, then we may finally be satisfied.

Jaime R. Wood is co-founder of IncitED: The Crowdfunding Community for Education. She is also the author of Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom (NCTE 2006). She started her teaching career working with middle school students in an alternative charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has since taught college English at Colorado State University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Eastern Washington University. Currently, Jaime teaches writing at Clackamas Community College in Portland, Oregon, and helps run IncitED. You can learn more about IncitED here:


  1. When I spoke out against the overuse of standardized testing recently, a Common Core advocate told me we couldn't expect to change the educational system overnight. I told her that might be true on a large scale, but that I was doing it everyday! I may not change the system in place, but I am changing the lives of the kids at eLemenT! I only hope more world changers find ways to give kids options in programs like ours ( and more parents see the need and dare to let their kids find a true education.

  2. Couldn't agree more. Education is such a political football here in the UK. Successive Ministers slash and burn everything the previous cabinet introduced so children are constantly in the cross-fire of political policy. How our (policy fatigued) educators have the will to go in every day is beyond me.