Trapped in the High School OS Kernel

Why does high school resist transformation? What’s the key to re-imagining school?

Yesterday, XQ: The Super School Project launched. Backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, XQ offers $50 million to rethink high school.

I’m glad; I know how to effectively use a small chunk of that. Will they focus on the right area? It’s not clear.

(XQ participation comes with a design kit. “It includes inspirational posters, worksheets for your team, tips on interviewing youth, and more booklets to guide you along the way.”)

Yes, we desperately need re-thought high school. No, another prototype super-school won’t change much of anything. Like all the other models, it will be a model on a shelf. Change a couple localities and leave the nation’s teens mostly un-affected. If they just pick school models.

But if they pick a change to the system? That’s another story. One I’ve explored for the past five years.

How do we really transform high school for all students? From Bakersfield to Malvern, PA, to South Boston to the Gulf Shores? How do we bring in the kind of innovation and talent that characterizes movies, games, smartphones, and the larger, transformed world?

Grant Lichtman posed this week a tighter question:

How might we design a new Operating System for the education field?

He followed up with a trenchant summary of why that metaphor:

When Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak created the first operating systems for personal computers, they created a radical expansion and accessibility of opportunities for tailored, customized computing. These OS’s did not limit how computers could be used; they radically opened up opportunities for people with an enormous diversity of needs and desires to develop hardware and software that met those needs and desires. A dramatically more flexible, permeable K-12 OS will do the same.

A dramatically more flexible, permeable K-12 OS. That’s exactly what’s needed. Or, more specifically, a dramatically more intelligent high school kernel.

What does the high school OS Kernel do? Basically, this:

It tells teens where to go.

In high school, it’s customized for each student. It takes the resources (teachers, board-purchased curricula, technology, classrooms) and feeds students through them as best it can.

It looks not unlike the old IBM 360 mainframe OS where you took the software IBM gave you, paid a fortune for it, and took your time at the job queue waiting to be grudgingly serviced. You could choose from a few software packages. In high school, you can choose from maybe a dozen courses. If you’re fortunate. If you’re really fortunate, you can choose a year’s teacher or two.

If you’re a teacher in this system, you have a tad more flexibility than students. You get to mod the curriculum, somewhat. You get to choose fast or slow on a given day. You get to focus on this or that. But time is so tight, the resources the OS gives you so thin, most of your innovation potential comes way after that 3:00 bell.

Teens and teachers alike are trapped in the high school kernel. So, too, is anyone else who aims to bring innovation to schools.

There is no getting around the limitation of a finite number of teachers. What we can do is dramatically increase the efficiency with which teens use the live teachers they’re given, and dramatically increase teens’ access to remote or recorded or outside-the-walls teachers who bring specialized knowledge or a talent for delivery or innovative means of engagement.

We can give teens far more voice in what they learn, and far more options in how they learn.

Through both, a new high school OS will increase teens’ investment in their own learning.

We can allow teens to work when their brains are working (say, 10pm) and recharge when they’re not so much (say 7am).

A new high school OS will, like iOS, attract far more resources than the old OS. It will have, like App Store, a bottom threshold for safety, and a constant, demand-driven push upward on innovation and quality.

A new high school OS will change, too, how teachers learn, and make teacher learning more constant, more fun, and deeper than ever before.

A new high school OS kernel is also not, it turns out, all that hard to introduce.

Ed Jones is author of the forthcoming book Hacking High School: Making School Work for All Teens. He is bootstrapping A Statewide Laboratory for Student-Driven Learning, and looking to test a new High School OS.