It is a well-established fact that American public schools have not changed very much in the past 100 years. School buildings still look pretty much the same, we have retained an educational calendar that was largely designed to serve the needs of a past agrarian society, and teacher-centered lessons are still the predominant mode of instructional delivery.
What is perhaps most disappointing is that while a variety of recent historical developments such as advances in brain (learning) research, the widespread availability of mobile technologies, and a newly emerging global economy are redefining expectations for student learning across our nation, public education as an institution continues to look to its past successes for solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.
For example, how often do we hear or read about the re-emergence of the great tracking debate or whether or not class size is a true obstacle to student achievement? Similarly, will we continue worry about how often students should experience cooperative learning during a six-day cycle? The continued reduction of our present day/future challenges to such one-dimensional questions and practices as these reveals a blatant disregard for all that we have achieved as a society, what we as educators should know about the present human condition, and how significantly our world has changed in even the past 15-20 years.
Not surprisingly, the American public, our politicians and business community largely regard our present educational system as a failure. They readily point to the results of international achievement studies and criticism from corporate executives and the university elite as evidence of our scholastic anemia. While I tend to think that the current crisis in American education has, to some extent, been overstated, can everyone else be wrong? Have we not ignored much of what has been learned by professionals in other fields, and if this is true, can we really expect to produce students who are career- and college-ready into the future?
While on a recent visit to an Apple computer store in Manhattan, I was struck not by the fact that this corporate giant was providing the educational community with solutions to present-day/future challenges, but was certainly asking the right questions. As I strolled through the store, I was impressed by the manner in which structurally and organizationally the company had altered the traditional paradigm of customer service; a process very much akin to education.
For example, upon entry, the customer is immediately addressed by one of several blue-shirted personnel who are affectionately known as the Apple Geniuses. I subsequently discovered that the Genius in many ways corresponds to something that we in education has been striving to create in recent years, that of the teacher facilitator. Additionally, I noted how these facilitators had successfully “differentiated instruction” based upon customer needs and interests. For example, in one corner of the store a Genius was providing the multimedia presentation Getting Started with Cloud Computing to a group of 15 to 20 people. In another section of the store a different blue shirt was providing a senior citizen with some one-on-one “direct instruction” relative to a specific application of the iPad. Still another Genius stopped by to briefly check in on an obviously “advanced learner” who was investigating the qualities of a new notebook prior to purchase.
Although I agree with the adage that schools are not businesses, I find it somewhat ironic that an institution governed by non-educators is harnessing the (educational) wisdom of our times in order to achieve its organizational mission. Public education has much to learn from the Apple model if we are to truly do a better job of preparing our clients for the future.
Thomas J. Troisi is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Valley Stream Central High School District in Valley Stream, N.Y. He is also adjunct associate professor of teaching, literacy, and leadership at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.