Prairie Schooners and Paradigm Shifts

Dennis Linthicum

Prairie Schooners and Paradigm Shifts

In our Senate Education Committee this week, Steve Buckstein of the Cascade Policy Institute shared a humorous video from a student who is currently being educated in a home school setting. The video emphasized that one size doesn’t fit all and different tools serve different purposes. You can see the video here: Shoes - success depends on having the right tools.

While this amateur Youtube video has fewer than 50 views it reminded me of another Youtube video from TED Talks. Several years back, educator and author, Ken Robinson, gave a TED Talk called, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?"

I looked for it and was surprised to find that it is the most viewed talk in TED's history, with 45.5 million views. I recommend watching it along with a couple other Ken Robinson videos. (If you only have time for one video then watch this one!)

Robinson Videos

These humorous and insightful videos all echo the same theme, namely, we are all different and our educational needs will be as different as each of us.

You and I are unique in our height, weight, size and shape. We are unique with our likes and dislikes and in our abilities, gifts and talents. We are as different as our DNA and fingerprints and we see the world differently based on our culture and family traditions, socioeconomic condition, national origin and many other things.

No one doubts the truth of these propositions. We know intuitively that each individual is unique in every way.

Across America our educational model was developed and fine-tuned during the Industrial Revolution. It mimics the factory mindset with parts following an assembly line for production and development. Oregon’s model follows the same standardized regime with standardized hours dedicated to specific subjects. With every individual exhibiting unique talent, gifts and skills this model is rigid and anachronistic.

As more people come to recognize the power of the individual our educational model will undergo transformation. This transformation will be part technological and part ideological. The millennials are the Uber-generation. They have glommed onto  technology that has spawned the sharing economy and they are intensely devoted to individual freedom while not being afraid of personal responsibility. They will want this same liberty for their kids.

The current education model will not be able to provide this flexibility because the system resembles the Conestoga wagon of yesteryear. The Conestoga, or Prairie Schooner, like the horse and buggy, had a good run but was eventually replaced. Our current educational model is also likely to get replaced.

Using hindsight, it is easy to understand the Conestoga wagon and the changes that led to its natural demise. Yet, in the day, how many fireplace discussions were focused on that newfangled, noisy and sputtering jalopy? Certainly, there were naysayers and proponents. There were those who loved their horses. Also, there were skilled craftsman with lifetimes of dedication in the leather and wood working arts. These men and women were arrayed against newbies armed only with greasy hands, rags, and their Crescent wrenches.

Wagon Train

We are at the same turning point for our current brick-and-mortar education model. The territorial monopoly of school attendance based on the neighborhood where you live will not be able to compete with up-coming technological advances. During the next decade, as new technologies burst into our classrooms and across school district boundaries, there will be a coincidental emergence of ideological freedom. Like an infant’s umbilical cord, the wires will be cut and Oregon will be required to alter its education model.

This will also happen because of the growing sense of angst over student performance and the age-old financial problems which torment the Department of Education. Everyone is aware that Oregon’s taxpayers cannot keep pace with the unprecedented growth in salary, wages and PERS costs. The gloomy prospects for sustained revenue growth combined with a massive flood of baby boomer retirees means we face a potential catastrophe.

After years of uncontested authority in their monopoly status, the heart and soul of our state’s education system has become weak. Currently, our state is ranked 49th in education and we will spend nearly $14,140 per student, including overhead and administration. That is an enormous amount of money on a per student basis. Yet, for all that money, graduation rates are dismal and below average test results are wreaking havoc in the fabric of every community, particularly among the under-privileged.

These are typical conditions setting-up what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift.”  Kuhn proposed that in any given framework an “existing paradigm” resists change while the current paradigm is strong and balanced. There is no need or incentive to look for alternatives as everything makes sense and nothing appears broken. However, as the framework becomes unbalanced (higher costs for lower scores), communities will demand more scrutiny and accountability. Their voices will be heard and this is when the “shift” will occur.

As the legislative body looks for solutions they will burden educators with more reporting and performance requirements. Goals will focus more on money over vision, tradition over innovation, form over substance, and certification over performance. These are the telltale signs that the existing paradigm is ripe for transformation.

Technology will be the key. School-choice and long-distance learning will be the agents that spawn the paradigm shift in Oregon’s education model. Then, we will create a more robust educational environment for all Oregonians.

My assessment may be uncomfortable for some and scary for others. But, just as autos, planes and trains replaced the Conestogas there will be gradual, but exciting, changes in our educational paradigm. Just like our pioneer forebears, we need to be courageous enough to embrace the possibilities – for the sake of a brighter future for every Oregon family.

 If we don't stand for rural Oregon values and common-sense – No one will!

Best Regards,

Senator Dennis Linthicum signature

Dennis Linthicum
Oregon State Senate 28

Capitol Phone: 503-986-1728

Capitol Address: 900 Court St. NE, H-415, Salem, Oregon 97301