The Changing Role of the School

This page presents the first section of Chapter 9, “Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools,” from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, © 2001, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. This excerpt was copied from the final draft of the manuscript. The material in the book may vary slightly.

The world is inherently orderly. And fluctuation and change are part of the very process by which order is created.
—Margaret Wheatley [1]

It seems that rapid change is our only constant.
—Carl Rogers and Jerome Frieberg [2]

Shift happens.
—Rico Racosky

There’s this joke about a 5-year-old boy who confides in his classmate, “I found a condom on the patio.” His friend responds, “What’s a patio?” [3]

There’s no question that the world is changing, and that it’s changing at a speed that seems to be constantly accelerating. Children know more, and at increasingly younger ages, than ever before. Where young people once received most of what they learned from within their families and communities, they are now, for better or worse, only a mouse-click away from an entire universe of information. For grownups, keeping up with new information, new technology and new demands of the workplace has, in itself, become a full-time job. For years, the byword of corporate leadership has been “learning to love change” in what Tom Peters calls “an era of unprecedented uncertainty.” [4] Have our schools kept pace?

Old factory, assembly line We are no longer preparing students for this type of work.[/caption]

“Until now,” writes futurist Alvin Toffler, “the human race has undergone two great waves of change, each one largely obliterating earlier cultures or civilizations and replacing them with ways of life inconceivable to those who came before.” [5] For nearly a million years, humankind was primarily concerned with gaining some control over the environment. Early efforts to take care of basic survival needs eventually gave way, around 8000 B.C., to an agricultural revolution, or what Toffler calls a First Wave civilization. This way of life took thousands of years to play itself out, giving way to the Second Wave, an industrial society, sometime around 1700 A.D. [6]

It was during this Industrial era that schooling became accessible to larger numbers of children from increasingly diverse segments of society, a time when formal systems of education were broadly established. [7] Not surprisingly, the structure and curriculum reflected the needs of this era, which included, among otherold-time classroom things, the availability of a literate workforce for an industrial economy. [8] Toffler notes that in addition to the actual content taught in schools, there existed a “covert curriculum” which taught punctuality, obedience and rote, repetitive work. This made a great deal of sense at the time, as factory labor demanded workers who would show up on time, “take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. . . [and] slave away at machines or in offices, performing brutally repetitious operations.” [9]

But more change was afoot, and less than three hundred years after the industrial era started, there emerged a Third Wave, or the beginnings of an information economy. John Naisbitt pegs 1956 as the turning point, when, for the first time, American white-collar workers outnumbered laborers. This shift was cemented a year later when the Russians launched Sputnik, initiating global satellite communications. [10] Suddenly the world was a lot smaller, and for the first time in human history, workers were more involved in creating, processing and distributing information than they were in producing goods. [11] Advances in information technology and globalization throughout the last half of the 20th century occurred at a mind-boggling rate, with all signs suggesting that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

There is one small problem, however: While our schools may have made strides to accommodate technological developments in the curriculum and the equipment available to students, our thinking, attitudes, relationships, communications, language and power dynamics are pretty much mired in First and Second Wave patterns. Behavioral expectations and instructional techniques that were built into the system more than 150 years ago to compel the standardization and uniformity necessary for a factory society, have become anachronisms. [12] These patterns persist, although Toffler cautions that “old ways of thinking, old formulas, dogmas and ideologies, no matter how cherished or how useful in the past, no longer fit the facts.” He also admits that the overlap is understandable, as is the chaos, disorientation and anguish that can be traced directly to the conflict “between the dying Second Wave civilization and the emerging Third Wave civilization that is thundering in to take its place.” [13] We live in a world in transition. So it’s only natural that we’re going to run into difficulties when we attempt to educate Information Age children with methods and models suited for an industrial economy.

Teacher asking questionsIf one of the primary roles of schools is to prepare children to successfully enter the workforce, schools are going to have to deliver kids with the skills the work place demands. As recently as the sixties, about half of the people entering the workforce in America came with only 6 – 8 years of schooling behind them. Where this background may have been adequate for a manufacturing-based economy, today, even a solid high-school education won’t go far in the 21st century market place. [14]

The Information Age has its own set of requirements in terms of content knowledge, technological competence and behavioral values. A 1997 survey of the Business Advisory Council in the Dayton area asked businesses to identify which core employment-related competencies were most in demand. The survey was intended to help area school districts in preparing students for real-world work expectations. Interestingly, the skills on the low end of the list included basic math and writing skills, an understanding of business economics and basic computer skills. These competencies fell below attributes such as the ability to follow directions, literacy, ambition and flexibility. Skills most in demand included oral communications, people skills, telephone skills and character attributes such as honesty, cooperation, positive attitude and punctuality. [15]

“Factory model procedures in schools rarely work,” write William Purkey and David Strahan. “Not only is production a poor metaphor for schooling, there is a growing recognition among leaders in business and industry that traditional ‘assembly line thinking’ does not work in the Students working togetherprivate sector either.” [16] Information Age businesses want people who can think—not just perform tasks well. David Thielen, a former senior software developer for Microsoft, describes the interviewing process at that company as one designed to identify people with competence in this area. “People who just perform tasks well often become a hindrance when their tasks change,” he claims. [17] These companies are looking for knowledgeable people with high levels of creativity, curiosity and organizational skills, as well as a drive to grow and improve their abilities. They want employees who are willing to take risks, and who are willing to fail. And they want people whose intuition and judgment they can trust. [18] Where businesses once looked primarily for education degrees when considering prospective employees, they’re now looking for vision and attitude. [19] But can a young person with “vision and attitude” survive in today’s schools? Sure, sometimes, or in some classes, maybe. But schools, like all long-established institutions, can be notoriously obstinate in resisting change, and those that cling to factory-era values like uniformity and obedience probably won’t feel welcoming, encouraging or safe to any child who doesn’t fit that mold.

[1] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1994), 18.
[2] Rogers and Frieberg, 152.
[3] I first heard this joke told by educator and motivational speaker, Gail Dusa.
[4] Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 7.
[5] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave. (New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1980), 26.
[6] Toffler, 26, 30; also Arthur W. Combs, “Humanistic Education: Too Tender for a Tough World?” Phi Delta Kappan. Vol. 62, No. 6 (Feb. 1981): 446.
[7] James D. Pulliam and James Van Patten, History of Education in America, Sixth Edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995).
[8] Debra Sugar, “Social Skills Instruction in Albuquerque Public Schools: An intervention Proposal.” Research paper submitted to New Mexico Highlands University School of Social Work, Spring, 1999.
[9] Toffler, 45.
[10] John Naisbitt, Megatrends (New York: Warner Books, 1982), 12.
[11] Ibid, 12-14.
[12] Greenspan, The Growth of the Mind, 218; also, Naisbitt, 13; Pulliam and Van Patten.
[13] Toffler, 18, 29.
[14] “BASRC 1997 Annual Report,” (1997). Available: Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, [Internet, WWW], Address:, 6.
[15] “Survey of Education Needs,” Final Reportof the South Metro Chanber of Commerce Business Advisory Council. Dayton, OH: Paragon Opinion Research, Inc., June 19, 1997. Similar skills were also listed in John O’Neill, “Building Schools as Communities: A Conservation with James Comer,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 54, No. 9 (May 1997): 7; also Joe Hoff, “Avoiding the Cold Within: Instructional Relationships Systematically Applied,” Schools in the Middle,Vol. 8, No. 2 (October, 1998), 36.
[16] William Watson Purkey and David Strahan, “School Transformation Through Invitational Education,” Research in the Schools, Vol. 2, No 2 (1995): 4.
[17] David Thielen, “Management Secrets from Former Microsoft Superstar,” Bottom Line/Personal (July 1, 1999): 7-8.
[18] “MIT’s Lester Thurow Welcomes You to the Brainpower Era,” Bottom Line/Personal(Oct. 15, 1999): 7-8; also Thielen, 7-8.
[19] Rico Racosky, “Shift Happens: Making Sense of Changing Times,” presentation materials and handouts, 1998.

This page presents the first section of Chapter 9, “Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools,” from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, © 2001, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. This excerpt was copied from the final draft of the manuscript. The material in the book may vary slightly.

The complete bibliography of this book is available online.

Other excerpts from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools:

Pretty and Popular: Discrimination and Belonging
Spare the Rod
 (Problems with Corporal Punishment)
Testing, Testing…
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis
Stressful or Painful School Events and Experiences that Can Compromise Emotional Safety

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