School is Out—Learning is In
Terry O'Banion
League for Innovation in the Community College

April 26, 1983, became one of the most important dates in the modern history of education when A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was published. Ted Bell, then U. S. Commissioner of Education and Chair of the commission that published the report, said American education was experiencing "a rising tide of mediocrity," and if we did not address the issues facing American education, the system would be totally overwhelmed.
         A Nation at Risk elicited a massive reform movement to improve standards (e.g., require more courses in high school, develop national certification standards for teachers, develop national standards for every major job category), apply innovations (e.g., expand use of computers, interactive learning, distance education, and work-based learning opportunities), revise structures (e.g., create year-round schools, allocate decision-making to the local level, use total quality management and continuous quality improvement processes), and develop alternatives to the existing system (e.g., create a voucher system, privatize public schools, and create middle schools, cluster schools, and schools managed by universities).
         These reform efforts have resulted in a great deal of change, but very little improvement. In a 1993 national study of adult literacy, for example, students were asked, "If you had three dollars, bought a sandwich for $1.95 and a bowl of soup for $0.60, how much would you have left?" More than 56% of the respondents polled could not calculate the remaining change ($0.45). The reform movement has just been pruning the branches of a dead tree.
         Why is this? Why has a decade of reform produced so little? Perhaps it is, in part, because our current educational practices are bound by time, place, efficiency, and teachers themselves. For example:

  1. The system is time-bound by credit hours and semester courses. College students are learning in blocks of time that are artificial. Excellent teachers know that learning is not constrained to one-hour meetings held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they have been frustrated in teaching within these prescribed boundaries.
  2. The system is place-bound. Learning is initiated, nurtured, monitored, and certified primarily by teachers in classrooms on a campus. We have experimented with distance education that takes courses off campus, but while it has increased student access, it retains the old model of education: distance education is a nontraditional delivery system for traditional education. Work-based learning was supposed to break up that model, but it doesn't—it extends the model, but it is still controlled by it, because work-based learning is built around the structure of the school. It still binds the student to a place.
  3. The system is efficiency-bound. Our model of education reflects in great part the adjustment to an agricultural economy. Public school students needed to be home early enough in the afternoon to milk the cows and feed the chickens. In the summer, they needed to be free for three to four months—to work in the fields, to pick the cotton in the South, to pick the peaches in California, and to harvest the corn in the Midwest. When the country changed to the industrial economy, education responded by creating a lock-step, put-them-in-boxes, factory model—the basis of American education today. Academic credit, based on time in class, makes learning appear orderly. This model creates an efficient system to award credentials. The college structure of Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes in a 16-week semester, while plowing through a specified body of material, makes teachers feel as if they have accomplished their goals. But what does 64 credit hours worth of learning mean to Student A compared to Student B, especially when the credit is based on grades? According to Paul Dressel, the course grade is "an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by biased and variable judges of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material." Yet the entire system of schooling is based on grades accumulated as credits.
  4. Finally, this system is teacher-bound, which may be its greatest weakness. In education, we make the assumption that one human being, the teacher, can ensure that 30 very different human beings, one hour a day, three or more days a week for 16 weeks, can learn enough to become enlightened citizens, productive workers and joyful lifelong learners. Then we assume that this one human being can repeat this miracle three more times in the same 16-week period for 90 additional individuals. Furthermore, we have saddled teachers with expectations that they must be experts in rapidly-expanding fields of knowledge and gifted lecturers to deliver their knowledge. And we provide little comfort and support when they fail to live up to the myth.

         In the last decade we have spent great amounts of energy and resources redesigning, reengineering, revising, reforming, recycling, and reordering a system that no longer works.
         We have been busy trying to make a coal-burning locomotive our major mode of transportation when across the tarmac there are options such as the Concorde and the space shuttle.
         Thus we need to replace the current educational system with a system designed for the kind of society in which we live today, designed for the kinds of students who attend school today, and designed to take advantage of what we know about learning and what we know about technology today.

The Emerging Transformation To Place Learning First
The emerging transformation in education places learning first, before teaching. A new concept is evolving: School is out, learning is in. The new transformation is based on the following guidelines:

  1. The purpose of school is to improve and expand student learning. Students want to learn. Students learn differently. They learn from each other. They need customized learning, learning that offers many options, including stand-alone technology and opportunities to learn outside as well as inside "school." Postsecondary students need schools that allow them to exit and reenter. All students need a K-90 system, for learning is lifelong and continuous. They need a system that allows them to enter 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system must provide road maps, itineraries, optional routes, tours, rest stops for feedback, opportunities to make new connections, and access to major databases and expert systems throughout the world. They must be allowed to change directions, to move back and forth, to make U-turns for remediation, and to call for assistance when they hit roadblocks.
  2. Student assessment is critical. Teachers, staff, and administrators must pay more attention to assessing student abilities, achievements, values, goals, expectations, and environmental limitations. Students need learning portfolios about what they know, what they don't know, what they want to know, and what they need to know. Standards for initial entry into and exit from all formal learning activities must be clearly articulated. Learning outcomes must focus on "What does this student know?" and "What can this student do?"
  3. Faculty and staff roles must change. Teachers must design and manage, not deliver, learning experiences. They must be evaluated on how well they implement new learning opportunities for students in a system that is not time-bound, place-bound, efficiency-bound, or teacher-bound. The entire staff of the college must be involved in placing learning first.

Forces of Resistance
As these tentative guidelines are translated into action, there will be resistance from the bureaucracies created to fund and manage schools,from school personnel, and from students themselves.
         Bureaucratic resistance. Federal and state programs are difficult to dismantle, as every newly-elected politician soon learns. The education code for California, for example, is contained in 7,000 pages in 11 volumes. All American colleges and schools have developed cumbersome and often politically-structured systems. While these are designed for effective, efficient, and fair management, they frequently inhibit rather than encourage creative ventures that differ from the established norms.
         Although many educational leaders are aware of the regulatory policies' restrictive potential and try to encourage new ideas, innovators do not outnumber the safe-haven traditionalists. In California, one of the most regulated environments in the nation, the chancellor of the community colleges system has issued a challenge to community college leaders to request waivers from state regulations that keep the colleges from innovating and experimenting. Requests for such waivers have not been overwhelming.
         Personnel resistance. Most educators understand the old saw "It is easier to move a cemetery than change the curriculum." Fortunately, there are always small groups of maverick faculty who will try any new idea, the early adopters of innovations. But the faculty as a whole is highly resistant to change. Their allegiance to the discipline guilds and the protective mantle of academic freedom are twin pillars of conservatism. Educators, themselves "schooled" first as students, then as gatekeepers in the traditions of education, do not embrace alternative ideas with enthusiasm, despite their own deep cynicism about the current system.
         Administrators, especially first-line administrators (e.g., department and division heads who interact directly with faculty), are most resistant to change. Their position is particularly stressful as they attempt to negotiate between the faculty and the administration, a land in which first-line administrators can find no safe haven or affiliative group. Negotiating the selection of textbooks and constructing the class schedule is challenge enough for the brave souls who carry one of the major burdens in an educational organization. They are not likely to lead the charge to place learning first, even though they may be the key staff members who understand best the need for such change.
         There will also be resistance from custodians, secretaries, bookstore clerks, and other support staff who operate key components of the school's infrastructure. Placing learning first may change the roles of support staff, making them more visible partners with the professional staff. Support staff will be required to help manage and coordinate learning activities as faculty are freed to share their expertise and skills in new ways with students and each other. Some support staff will feel unprepared to take on these new assignments and will need encouragement, training, and recognition to overcome the natural resistance that will emerge.
         Student resistance. The greatest resistance to placing learning first may come from students (and their parents). Students know classes. They know schedules. They have spent their whole lives trying to get As. Placing learning first would mean taking responsibility for learning and navigating their own pathway. Students will need a great deal of orientation to this new paradigm, and they will need early success experiences.

The Future
Can the transformational model outlined above reach fruition anytime soon or even in our lifetimes? Are we capable of creating and adapting to that much change?
         We are beginning to see small islands of innovation. New models of the paradigm are percolating to the top. A handful of colleges have launched the transformation and provide some direction for the greater revolution to follow:

Lane Community College provides a quality learning experience in a caring environment. Lane is centered on learning and will assume new responsibilities only when they involve learning. Everyone at Lane-students, staff-must be dedicated to learning. The organization must be a learning organization...change must be built into our organization.

         Lane is providing a new direction for community colleges in the language of its vision statement, which reflects the heart, mission, and values of the institution. Note that the goals of traditional schools and colleges have historically been to provide instruction, not to cause learning. The community college itself is known as the teaching college and has deans of instruction, not deans of learning. Lane is changing their language to place learning first. As the language changes, the values and practices also begin to change.

         These five institutions are examples of community colleges struggling to find a new way to place learning first. They share strong and effective leadership at the top, faculty mavericks who are not afraid to innovate, a diversity of students, and an understanding of and experimentation with technology as a key element in transforming learning. In addition, they are healthy institutions with resources and experience in leading change. These institutions will serve as crucibles of innovation for transforming colleges into learning organizations. They bear watching, for they are engaged in a process of change that will turn education upside down if they are successful in placing learning first.
         In a future issue I will describe what is included in placing learning first and will use these exemplary institutions as illustrations. I welcome your comments on the concept briefly presented here.

[Editor's note: This article is modified from an address by Dr. O'Banion at Beyond 2000: Visioning the Future of Community Colleges, The 1995 Inaugural Futures Assembly, February 26-28, 1995, in Orlando, Fla.. The article is posted in the conference section, Horizon Home Page (URL address:, along with other presentations and proceedings of this conference. Please write or e-mail your responses to this and other articles in this issue; we will post your messages on Horizon Home Page for continuing comment and review.]

Bibliographic citation for the paper copy of this article:

O'Banion, T. "School Is Out—Learning Is In." On the Horizon, 1995, 3(5), 1-2, 5-6.