One of my favorite paintings was created in the mid-1300’s by Laurentius de Voltolina.  It depicts a classroom at the University of Bologna.

University of Bologna, c. 1350

While many students seem to be paying attention, a casual glance will show that sleeping and talking among the students was known, even then.  Out of 21 students, I count four talking, three asleep, and others who seem to be distracted by their own thoughts.  This powerful painting shows that lecture-based instruction was known to be failing to engage some students almost 150 years before Columbus sailed to our shores.  And yet, in the face of the known failure of this instructional methodology, this model of instruction remains entrenched today.

The idea of students sitting in rows being talked to by a teacher in the front of the room is still so commonplace that many school architects (and their clients) continue to design classrooms in which the teacher in the picture above would feel quite comfortable.

Of course, our tools have changed.  Many classrooms are set up for teachers to use powerpoint, and the blackboard has turned into an interactive whiteboard, but this is just putting lipstick on a pig.

And we can’t say we’ve resisted change because we don’t have alternatives.  Read Rugg and Schumaker’s Child-Centered School (assuming you can find a copy), look into Dewey, Francis Parker, Albert G. Lane, and a host of others who built alternative schools with fantastic results, just to be marginalized on the fringes of education.  These pioneers of the 1800’s not only had new visions, they brought them to fruition with great results.  And yet, the system as a whole never changed.

Why is this?  More to the point, why do we continue to accept an educational system that is so dreadful that 25% of our students never complete high school?  And, if we care at all about repairing the economy, how can we allow the emerging brain trust hidden in these children to be squandered in the face of an educational system we’ve know to be an abysmal failure since 1350?