Look Kids…Big Ben!

In the cinematography world, its called a circular pan where the camera rotates 360 degrees around a fixed axis. What you see the first time around, is seared in your memory after multiple trips. As the speed increases, the scenery becomes a dizzying and repetitive blur.

The movie scene in Les Miserable comes to mind when Russell Crowe, as Javert, stands perched on a rooftop overlooking Paris at night. The panoramic view behind him becomes a frenzied and fast paced outward panning. I remember turning my eyes away momentarily as my mind struggled to adjust.

Does anyone else have this problem?

A comical scene in European Family Vacation serves as another type of example. Trapped in a London round-about, the Griswold family discovers a few important landmarks over and over and over again. Attempts to exit the circle proved unfruitful as day becomes night. Clark is at the wheel and the family is asleep. It’s a classic tale of going in circles.


I see similarities between these visual effects in the above mentioned movie scenes and the effects that circular schooling has on children. Over the years, I panned these circles thousands of times from various angles and heights. Pausing, slowing down, or exiting were not viable options. I made frequent and valiant efforts, but the pace of high stakes schooling forces propulsion.  An object in motion stays in motion as Newton explained.

The vast and dizzying views of schooling as a mass diploma-producing factory left many experiencing the illusion of learning. The scenes observed were classroom and school-wide management programs, rewards and punishments, assignments, homework, tests, and grading practices, honor roll status, tons of work sheets along the way, and a final certificate that validates completion. It’s done in a cyclical fashion, a 360 degree circle each year with increasing speed.

What they, and I have discovered, is the difference between going to school and getting an education. They are radically different. Authentic learning is unique and can never be mass produced no matter how hard we try.

Psychological studies in child and adolescent development tell us that we all learn differently and at different rates. Formulating that understanding into a mass production model of learning will inevitably result in casualties. Teachers intuitively know this as they are told to differentiate based on the needs of their students. True differentiation does not square well with a mass production model that crams way too many children into a classroom.

In my book, Learning Unleashed – Reimagining and Repurposing our Schools, I suggested several ways we might benefit children by creating a more authentic and engaging model. Since its publication, I’ve painfully come to the conclusion that schools can’t change. They can’t make real or substantive change because they lack the autonomy to do so. It’s a fixed system that requires circular movement around fixed scenery unhindered by any force that would attempt to stop it. This saddens me because I know so many great people who work tirelessly every day in schools to make them work better for children and young people. I’m glad they stay. Like Obi Wan, they’re our only hope.

Please understand that teachers, administrators, parents and children who chose not to stay offer valid and sound reasons for exiting the round-about. I can’t blame them. When all you see is Big Ben over and over, it might be time for some new scenery.