Binary Solutions to Systemic Problems

Chris McNutt
May 28, 2021
This year has highlighted that there is a continual issue with equity in education; and that there’s a serious problem with the way schooling in general is tackling the issues we face today.

Educators who stay in the field believe they can make a difference. We spend hours of our free time trying to reimagine education. This year has highlighted that there is a continual issue with equity in education; and that there’s a serious problem with the way schooling in general is tackling the issues we face today.

I’m very privileged to teach in a well-funded district. I teach in a public magnet STEM school which provides free tuition to underserved students in Springfield, Ohio. We attract students who primarily don’t do well in standardized, traditional classrooms by providing more hands-on, project-driven learning. As a result, we have 1:1 MacBooks, during the pandemic we’ve provided hotspots to every student, and we have a bunch of random lab equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters. Across Ohio, there’s other STEM schools founded on the same initiative, and you’ll find similar setups popping up both publicly and privately across practically every state.

STEM is still a relatively interesting buzzword in education. Practically every school wants to have a makerspace, everyone wants to secure career pathway funding, and many businesses are demanding “better prepared workers” through hands-on learning. There is a flipside to this. I’m not saying that any of this is bad. We need to have well-funded schools and our students deserve the opportunity to be exposed to engaging activities. But no matter what we pay for, if the pedagogy and practice of educators and students remain the same we’re simply repeating the exact same steps of the last 50 or so years in different ways. Despite A Nation at Risk, or No Child Left Behind, or Race to the Top, it seems that American students “fall further behind” and we need to go “back to basics.” Back to basics, said by these reformers, means that we need to focus on standardized testing of what have been deemed the four core subjects.

I can have a full class set of MacBooks and the whole Internet at my fingertips, and still implement some adaptive learning suite next year to quiz kids into oblivion to attempt and improve their reading ability “lost” during the pandemic. With all of this EdTech, we’ll simply make kids hate reading (even more.) Sadly, a lot of schools, including my own, do this. We showcase innovation and talk about innovation, but no one is focusing on the systemic problems. To truly reimagine education, we have to push boldly toward what we consider to be boundaries.

Pictured: Two stacked abstract cubes.

Breaking the Systemic Barrier

There is a striking similarity between capitalist realism, a term coined by Mark Fisher, and our barriers to reimagination. Fisher’s argument is essentially that the capitalist systems most of the world now reside under are never-ending. It is “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” In capitalist realism, the dystopian future isn’t a radical ultra-capitalist society where the gap between the rich and the poor has exceeded rates unheard of today, or a society where people are owned by corporations, or any kind of sci-fi-esque, Bladerunner-type stuff. Instead, it’s the world we live in right now: it’s very boring. It’s stagnant. No one makes meaningful change anymore - they can’t imagine something different.

The penultimate point of capitalist realism is no longer accepting that things can operate outside of that framework. We endlessly complain about how things should be better, we work to make the existing system better, the system makes slight alterations that ultimately don’t change underlying problems, and then the process repeats itself. After all, the “unbreakable” system has a ton of flaws.

This is connected to our schools. Politics, schooling and the economy are highly connected. There’s a reason why I can open up Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner from 1969, where the authors critique standardized testing as a one-size-fits-all-model and endless calls for accountability that don’t embrace student creativity. They stated we should change this:

The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we all must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the questing-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called “learning how to learn.” This comprises a posture of stability from which to deal fruitfully with change. The purpose is to help all students develop built-in, shockproof crap detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits.

This was written 52 years ago - half a century - and it’s the same exact battle we’re engaged in today. There have been countless books written about teaching students to “learn how to learn” or moving away from lectures/textbooks toward “real world learning.” Nothing really has drastically changed despite decades of accountability reform, technological advancements, a pandemic, or otherwise.

Again, calling back to capitalist realism, Fisher made the astute observation that the problem lies in the diffusion of power under these systems. In the education world, there isn’t one specific person or thing we can point to that causes the problem.  When talking about progressive education and adapting the idea at large, someone always exclaims, “well if I had the answer to that, then I’d be a millionaire!” But there is no silver solution, because there is not one problem nor one person calling all the shots.

The problems are diffused. We all operate within separate spaces that work within each other to prop the rest. As in the standardized testing market is driven by government data, which is driven by the market, which is also driven by college admissions and the whole host of issues going on there, and then there’s the loan industry, and then teacher pedagogy and debates for decades about content and what’s not is a huge, massive, gigantic web of problems related to the system.

Ultimately, the majority of our focus is on binary solutions. If we introduce a new platform, or new tech tool, or teach virtually for a year, or whatever - we’ll “solve” the education system, or at least make it that much better. There are people making hundreds of thousands a year marketing themselves as education consultants who feed on quick solutions for districts to address whatever the mandate is that year: opportunity gap, learning loss gap, standardized test scores, the list goes on.

Post-pandemic schooling shouldn’t be a time for us to start to consider some minor changes in curriculum or how we can somewhat adjust our classrooms, it should be for us to consider the underlying systemic faults that have plagued us for decades and centuries. The problems we faced this year aren’t out of nowhere, they’ve been there - we just see them more. Systems-based change involves understanding the world, recognizing systemic problems, doing our due diligence, and fighting back. It’s a bit more revolutionary than, say, buying a book and reading it or sending a Tweet. It’s a lot of work, and it’s important to emphasize that a lot of this work feels pointless, as again the systems are so far reaching and massive - and the problems are so non-binary - that it’s difficult for us to process what exactly we’re doing.

Also, I am not saying that I have any solution to this problem, or that HRP or anyone specifically does. I can offer suggestions based on what I’ve experienced in my own teaching practice and from seeing non-traditional frameworks work at schools; both in practice and from history.

We often hear educators and educator-adjacent folks say they don't want to get political, but we aren't going to see systemic change if we're apolitical. That doesn't mean we have to preach a specific ideology to our students, but it does mean we need to stand with students against intolerance and systems that damage them. Sometimes that will take a political stance: social justice, funding for schools, funding and caring for ignored communities, and more.

Connected Systems

When Derek Chauvin’s murder verdict was read off by the jury, about 20 or so miles from me, a 16-year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police. The Democrat mayor of Columbus initially defended the police force as doing their jobs - Bryant had a knife and therefore, it was justified. Now, there are calls for racial sensitivity training and anti-bias coursework.

This is obviously a cyclical systemic problem. There have been various, horrific, now commonplace displays of systemic racism driven by police departments across the United States for a long time, which have lasted long before the media gave increased coverage, and every single time, since about the 1970s or so, there have been implicit measures taken for anti-bias, sensitivity training, and oversight commissions. We always do this, yet the same thing happens every single time. As Alex Vitale explains in The End of Policing,

Diversity and multicultural training is not a new idea, nor is it terribly effective. Most officers have already been through some form of diversity training and tend to describe it as politically motived, feel-good programming divorced from the realities of street policing. Researchers have found no impact on problems like racial disparities in traffic stops or marijuana arrests; both implicit and explicit bias remain, even after targeted and intensive training. This is not necessarily because officers remain committed to their racial biases, though this can be true, but because institutional pressures remain intact.

We cannot have both our current system of policing and prisons and simultaneously solve systemic racism, they are inherently built into each other. In many ways, they are intentional facets of each other. Yet, it is difficult for us to counteract this diffused system. It’s difficult for many (arguably most) to imagine a abolitionist world without police or prisons.

Yet, these problems will continue to occur until we truly reimagine the base of what’s going on. This call for social justice carries into the classroom. Black and Brown students are disproportionately suspended, placed into juvenile detention centers, not placed on honor rolls and extracurricular activities, and discriminated against in schools. The curriculum of schools is historically centered on White students’ cultures and backgrounds. There are extensive research studies citing thousands of instances of microaggressions against students of color.

Despite the best efforts of educators, administrators, and oversight committees, we still have massive issues with how grades are given, how students are admitted to college, how we qualify what students know and don’t know, and how we determine what students should know and what they shouldn’t know.

None of this is the specific fault of individuals acting with best intentions within these systems. There are plenty of people working to change things, they just don’t know where to start. And, there are plenty of people pushing a boulder uphill like Sisyphus becoming more and more disillusioned with education who will eventually burn out.

Therefore, we must recognize that there are meaningful, authentic ways to reimagine education systems from the classroom outward; where we don’t need to wait for bureaucracy to catch up with us, nor wait for a savior to come along and give us all the answers. We should start by considering concepts such as:

  1. Is it important that we rank and sort students? Can we build a classroom with grades or competition? What kind of society do we manifest when we use high-stakes testing to frame what it means to be intelligent? Or, what kind of society do we manifest when we simply tell some students, “hey you’re an “A” student” and others “and you’re a “D” student”? What would a system look like that entirely removes judgement from the assessment process - where no labels or marks are given?
  2. Do detentions, suspensions, and expulsions lessen the chance that students cause a problem? Was there a problem to begin with? What defines what a “problem” is? What ways can we build a discipline system where we learn and grow as opposed to are demeaned and hurt?
  3. Why do we prioritize the subjects that we do in school? Why do we consistently have so many problems of Americans understanding history, or the voting process, or reading for pleasure if these are the subjects we focus on in school? Are there other important subjects? Are the ways we’re teaching these subjects beneficial?

There are many more questions to consider. Ultimately, though, we must also discuss: who’s asking questions about the education system? Is the entire reimagination process centered around adults? Policy-makers? Educators? What about the students and young adults whom the school system is centered on? Inviting young people into this process isn’t just a nice aside, it’s a quintessential piece to systems reform. We can start this process by just stopping for a second, forgetting what we assume about school, and collectively questioning with students in the room.

Reimagining Systems in the Classroom

A couple years back, we were surveying students and almost uniformly, students were obsessed with video games. Everyone was gaming, and the incoming 9th graders were keen on learning about gaming, gaming culture, and video game design. So, a co-teacher and I set off on figuring out: how do we create a video game design unit that would fit into social studies? We can’t entirely change our standards and keep our jobs, but we can at least try our best to reimagine it.

We randomly stumbled upon a nonprofit organization called StackUp, which connects young veterans to video game tournaments, building a support community centered around games. We met with one of their organizers and co-developed a plan: students would tell the stories of young veterans through video games they made.

We had a lot of questions. Neither of us had ever made a video game, nor were we sure how these stories would be told. The veterans stated that they wanted more people to know about PTSD, or about reentering the community, and the many struggles they faced. Collectively, we decided it wasn’t appropriate to deal with combat; this was all about the return to domestic life. We did our best to research some initial ideas and presented it to the students, and they were totally in.

From there, the co-teacher and I generated a bunch of guides on video game making using many free online resources. Students generated their own lists of questions and created guides themselves to help inform the class on what to do next. They interviewed and spoke with different veterans to learn their stories; and eventually we produced a series of games which we sold to raise money for their charity - about $2,500.

Pictured: A still from a student-made video game featuring a character at a graveyard.

In my class, all of this was done with no grade attached. Students were told from the onset they were going to receive an A in the course. Only one group of students did not produce a final product, out of about 50 games; and three groups chose something else to work on. All-in-all, it was a raging success: students not only developed something they were proud of, but were incredibly knowledgeable of veterans affairs, foreign policy, and domestic policy. And almost all of this was driven by student-inquiry. After all, one can’t feasibly tell a good story about Iraq/Afghanistan veterans if they don’t know why we are involved with Iraq/Afghanistan.

I was afforded space to think about these things, people let me run with it, and I had some strokes of good luck. Any teacher can do this, we just have to actually follow through on our promise that teachers are experts and students can drive the curriculum. When we remove the stipulations of standardized testing and that constant anxiety of “someone always looking over our shoulder”, teachers and students can do great things. Despite barely covering much of our curriculum, avoiding tests and grades, and leaving more than 50% of our class time centered on self-guided projects, our social studies standardized test scores were some of the highest in the state that year.

What’s most interesting to me about this project is that the Ohio Department of Education interviewed us about the project and were overjoyed by it. There’s a video floating around somewhere of us talking about what we co-developed...hosted by the same people who press for state report cards, standardized testing, curriculum planning PLNs, and more. This is case-in-point to show that the issue we’re running into isn’t some magical person who wants to destroy education through meaningless standardized drivel, but simply a lack of questioning the system itself. We can build better if we start thinking differently.

This, in conjunction with looking at the research surrounding systems reform in schools will be the driving force for lasting change toward the betterment of schools: asking questions about engagement, motivation, and well-being to create better environments for everyone.

Yet, first and foremost, this is political labor. It’s incredibly important to state that catalyzing momentous change is done through getting involved in politics and having uncomfortable conversations. One can’t have fantastic projects if they’ve living in ignored communities without basic access to needs in the richest country in the world. There’s a lot of groundwork to be laid on many different fronts to develop a reimagined education system. But, when we incorporate students and educators into these discussions, we can at least start that journey with our classrooms and families; and begin to build anew by questioning the system itself.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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