Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Looking for a new wrapper or an entirely new sandwich?

As some schools actually implement radically different school schedules to empower learners to become self-directed and collaborative knowledge workers, here in Oklahoma some state education leaders are suggesting we need to add more time to the school schedule each day and more days to the calendar to better compete with workers in India and China.


We don’t need just need a new wrapper on the old sandwich of “school” that we’ve had since the late 1800s, of teacher-directed instruction, worksheet dominated assignments performed in isolation, payment for schools based on student “seat time,” 50 minute bell schedules, and student mastery of learning objectives measured by multiple choice examinations. Instead we need school 2.0, a focus on authentic assessment via portfolios and other means, and fundamental changes in the ways we structure and support formal learning in schools.

Here’s a quotation from our state superintendent’s presentation yesterday in Oklahoma City:

Make no mistake. We are in a race — a race to secure a future for Oklahoma’s children in this global economy. That requires more quality time on the tasks of teaching and learning.

A focus on QUALITY time certainly would be good. Most of the media buzz about this latest proposal is on the QUANTITY of time, however. Will more time spent “sitting and getting” and filling out worksheets prepare our students and workforce for the flat world? I don’t think so. How did many Oklahoma teachers and students spend their “extra time” at the end of the 2006-2007 school year required because of snow/ice days? In many cases, they chose to watch movies at school. Was that quality time? Certainly not. Simply mandating additional time in school will not support the type of systemic changes we need to see in our educational system here in Oklahoma or elsewhere.

Much of the conversation in this current discussion over possible school reform in Oklahoma is focusing on flat-world competition. Rather than think outside the box, however, at least some of our state leaders seem trapped (understandably perhaps, but not excusably) in 19th century paradigms of educational thinking. Speaking for the Republican Caucus in the same article, Oklahoma House Speaker Lance Cargill stated:

I’m 100 percent for higher standards and more rigor in our schools. … Oklahoma’s kids are not just going to be competing against kids from Georgia and Texas in the global economy. Their competitors will be the Republic of Georgia and Taiwan.

It’s good these leaders may have read (or at least heard about) Tom Friedman’s book “The World is Flat.” It’s unfortunate (and still subject to remedy) that they apparently haven’t read or bought into ideas like those of Dan Pink in “A Whole New Mind.”

The fact that state and national leaders continue to make statements like this (“I’m for higher standards and more rigor”) reflects the wide gulf which exists between the common perceptions of leaders about education and education reform, and the 2nd order change we need to see to bring about school 2.0. We do NOT need to keep pushing for more stress, more sticks, and more rigor in schools. As I’ve said before and will continue to say, we need to “Reject Rigor: Embrace Differentiation, Flexibility, and High Expectations.”

More standards and more standardized testing WILL NOT “save us.” More rigor is exactly the OPPOSITE of what we need for school reform. It’s like these leaders are advocating for more corporal punishment in our schools. “Let’s beat the children more vigorously. And let’s beat the teachers. Everyone needs at least five licks per day, in the morning to get them started with the right attitude. They don’t seem to be enjoying themselves or acting engaged in the learning process, so let’s hit them with some paddles more frequently and see if they’ll improve their attitude.”

You know what? That approach won’t work. NPR reported last month that 75% of all high school students in Detroit Public Schools are dropping out of high school. What’s our state dropout rate in Oklahoma? What’s the drop out rate at your local high school? It’s a loaded question, dependent in large part to how the statisticians choose to label students. Whatever the numbers, I’ll argue those dropout rates are WAY too high. How are we going to change that? By changing the educational system and educational process at a fundamental level. Not by putting a new wrapper on an old sandwich. Instead, by recognizing that the educational sandwich we’ve all been handed and forced to eat for 100+ years is stale, moldy, and completely out of compliance with new OSHA standards. (For OSHA in this metaphor, substitute developmentally appropriate education in line with cognitive learning theory and aligned with the 21st century skill set our students deserve and our workforce needs demand.)

My wife actually heard our state education superintendent say on the radio today our students need to spend more time in class and take FEWER field trips. What?! We just heard Dr. Robert Marzano discuss the importance of helping students build background knowledge to improve learning and achievement. Talk about a non-sequitur?!

I’ll extend this metaphor of needing a new sandwich (educational model) a bit by making a reference to marmite and vegemite. In making this comparison, I don’t intend to offend anyone “down under” or elsewhere who are fans of those foods. I, personally, having been an exchange student to New Zealand once-upon-a-time who sampled those spreads, don’t care for the taste. I’ll also include poi, which is a food staple in some Polynesian cultures, but I personally find not very tasty.

Traditional school is like someone offering me a sandwich slathered with marmite, vegemite, or poi. Could I eat that sandwich and survive to blog another day? Certainly. Would that be an enjoyable experience I’d wish to repeat again, and choose to engage in voluntarily? Almost certainly not. In seeking to reform our educational system, I’m not looking to keep serving a marmite, vegemite, or poi sandwich to every learner who is coming to school. If some learners want that sandwich, great! Let them have it. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re talking about “school reform” when all we’re really trying to do is serve the same sandwich that MANY find distasteful and unsatisfactory, and simply put a new ziplock bag (or a Glad bag with a special locking seal) on that sandwich. We don’t need window dressing, and we don’t need mayonnaise or any other sandwich spread merely added to the marmite, vegemite, or poi sandwich that is being served.

We need a NEW SANDWICH. The buffet of learning should have diverse and differentiated options, and those should include multiple ways for learners to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of both content and skills. It’s high time we demanded a differentiated menu for learning in our schools. The day of “you must eat this sandwich because it’s the only one we’re serving in our school system” should be declared officially over.

Too many people are “drinking the Kool-aid” offered by leaders who are educational reform pretenders. Would the real educational leaders please step forward? And would the mainstream press please step forward and put their spotlight within our attention economy on the message of those leaders, rather than amplifying the voices of those clamoring for more seat time, more standards, and more rigor?

We’re living in a moment of opportunity. It’s time for the real leaders to step forward and be heard. The futures of our children demand nothing less than our best efforts in this campaign. My children and yours are counting on us to speak out and be heard. We (in the United States and many other nations around the world) live in democratic republics in which we all have both rights of free speech and responsibilities for civic participation. Let’s act like we understand and embrace what that means.

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4 responses to “Looking for a new wrapper or an entirely new sandwich?”

  1. Paul Wilkinson Avatar

    For your readers unfamiliar with vegemite or marmite it is a thick black sandwich spread looking (and some say tasting) a bit like axle grease. The mistake many make when eating it is to spread it on like peanut butter or honey. If you have just a thin film of it on top of your toast it is actually quite nice (OK I am from New Zealand and I was brought up eating the stuff). A bit like school really. Instead of more seat time let’s encourage children to get out into the toast of the real world via mentoring, coaching, apprenticeships, field trips, work experience, real projects, community involvement etc etc and just spread a vegemite thin film of school on top.

  2. Chris/Topher Avatar

    Have enjoyed your blog for some time, and I recently noticed your presentation at NECC with Katie Beedon with whom I have the opportunity to work on a regular basis in Houston 😉

    I agree entirely. I think one underlying issue is that there are tremendous segments of the education industry which do not fully comprehend the concept of experiential, authentic learning. And, when those concepts are understood, the skills necessary to implement them successfully are often absent. My soapbox in that discussion is that Educational Technology is “still in the library.” Originally, ed tech was a matter of providing audio-visual equipment and the training necessary to use it – from a corner office of the library. Since then, and the last 15-20 years in particular, the field of educational technology has evolved dramatically as have the tools available; the technology currently available is more inextricably linked with pedagogy than the VCR/TV combos that surfaced in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, many institutions K-20 do not realize that change in educational technology and still believe integrating technology is “as simple” as training faculty how to use a technology. That, of course, is distinctly different from training faculty how to teach with the technology. How many institutions employ “instructional technologists” that have degrees – undergraduate or graduate – in computer science or information systems, as opposed to instructional design or educational psychology?

    One example of this issue is at:

    Look forward to meeting you at some point!


  3. Matthew K. Tabor Avatar

    I don’t like the sandwich metaphor, but if you’re going to use it, use it wisely. More hours in the school day = more meat in the sandwich. It has nothing to do with the wrapper.

  4. Sandy Wagner Avatar
    Sandy Wagner

    More meat on the sandwich is fine, however if the meat is still stale and moldy, the sandwich is no better. To take the metaphor further, lots of what we fed our kids 30 years ago we now realize is not good for them, therefore we do not feed it to them anymore, let alone feed them MORE of it!

    The difficulty is simply that we all have some fear of trying something new, be it a sandwich or a teaching structure. It is easier to continue eating the sandwich we know and like than to try the one we have not even heard of. Doing this on a grand scale is even more difficult. We are talking about changing schools into something we cannot put a solid definition on, to teach kids to live in a world we cannot predict. This takes vision and planning. I have seen and heard the visions, just not a solid plan. Where do we take all this once we “know”? How do we conince those that do not? The gap here between knowing and doing is HUGE.