Why Schools Can’t Be “Fixed” or What the Dewey Decimal System tells us about the Future of School

It’s not that fixing/reforming/restructuring/reinventing schools is too tough for us to do. It’s not that we have failed to recognize many of the problems that children in school are having ; it’s not that it’s too large or complex a task; it’s not that we don’t have enough people who sincerely want to achieve the goal. It just can’t be done.

I was reading the book Everything is Miscellaneous (2007, Times Book – just Google it if you want to find out more) by David Weinberger this evening and enjoying his analysis of the Dewey Decimal System. Easy target right? Weinberger was sharing his analysis of why the System is such an interesting reflection of its inventor. Here are some bio highlights of Melvil Dewey himself. Lived late 19th, early 20th century (1851-1931), graduated from a small Christian college where he received a typical classical education, was fascinated with classification systems and with the metric system. That helps you understand why the system is based on decimals, why “Philosophy” has the lowest range of numbers (the 100’s) as the basis for all knowing; why religion is next (the 200s), etc. OK, so did you know that of the ten subcategories in religion, 7 of the 10 deal with Christianity? Judaism has one number (296) and Islam shares 297 with Baha’I and Babism. And oh yes, Buddhism shares a subcategory (294) will all the other “Religions of Indic Origin”. Interesting, isn’t it? Weinberger goes on to point out that Phrenology (study of head bumps as a key to personality) has its own number (139), just like Aristotle (185) and Oriental philosophy (181).

So why not just change the Dewey Decimal System? Read Weinberger’s explanation if you can’t figure it out for yourself. My mother was a public librarian. I will not be the one volunteering to step into each of the hundreds of thousands of libraries using the system to announce that they need to pick up their razor blades and start shaving off numbers, replace them with new numbers, move hundreds or thousands of books in their collections to new spots, and oh yes, remind them that the librarians themselves will need to unlearn and relearn all those numbers! And by the way, this would be done because someone or some expert committee in 2009 had decided what the system needed to look like to reflect the state of knowing today. And then you could also mention that the decision had been made to do this again in another ten years to reflect the world at that point. Yeah, right! Oh, and don’t forget that every card catalogue card or electronically indexed reference will need to reflect the change. Go ahead and volunteer for telling that to librarians the world over.

Weinberger says that as much as folks may want it “fixed”, it can’t be done – and here’s the kicker. The reason is “The Dewey Decimal Classification system can’t be fixed because knowledge itself is unfixed.” Did you get that???? This is why “schools” and “school systems” can’t be fixed, reformed, reinvented or restructured. You can’t affix knowing or knowledge to a rigid structure. And school is certainly a rigid structure. Need an example? Let’s say “Maria” learns a math formula while taking a physics course. She even receives a grade on a test to see if she can demonstrate her understanding of the way the formula describes one dimensional motion. Where does that grade go? In the physics teachers’ grade book, of course! Her use of that formula to solve that problem never appears in the math teacher’s grade book; maybe Maria wasn’t even enrolled in a math course where the teacher was teaching a formula like that. It was affixed to her physics grade. [OK – a quick insert. I know a few people will lose focus here with a red herring of an interdisciplinary course combining two courses, like physics and math and will try to convince me that in a case like that her learning could actually count in both gradebooks. Give me a break! Do you really believe that is a solution for this example? Let’s go on.] The point is – in the system we have, the learning that goes on is affixed to a class, not to the student. The grade “belongs” to the report card in elementary school, or to the transcript in high school. And it’s a “big” grade. If you are Maria, just try breaking off the part of your physics grade that reflected your understanding of the formula and “glue it” into your math grade the next year. Can’t be done. It’s like the Dewey Decimal system. The number is associated with the system, not with what’s inside the book. That’s why each book gets one and only one number!

Weinberger urges his readers to compare that to Amazon. In a system like that, a book can belong to an unlimited number of different categories, depending on what you are looking for and how you might best use a description.

Now the good news. We can do the same thing with learning. That mastery of a math formula can serve Maria in the physics class, she can offer it as proof of understanding for a math class. If she needs it in her Spanish class (to describe a rocket launch in her advanced class) it will be of value to her there and on and on. Lesson from all this: Student learning must belong to the learner, not to the report card or the transcript!

So why does all this mean that we can’t “fix” schools? The reason is that by their very nature, schools are about ordering knowledge into subjects and courses. It’s inherent in their design. You can’t “fix” the Dewey Decimal System to reflect world knowledge and you can’t keep “fix” schools to describe student learning or the paths that students take to get there.

New national standards? I’ve got news for you – they won’t “work”. Even IF you got every state to agree upon them (and even that is not going to happen with the current effort), you’d never get every teacher in every school to help every student master them. Heavens, we didn’t even manage to do that in the last round – and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Besides that, in a minimum of ten years, you’d need to change them again to reflect new discoveries and new ideas, or new leadership.

So what do we do with schools? Nothing! Leave them. Have they torn down the public library in your community? No. In fact, I still go to the library at times. We didn’t have to shut down libraries in order to start shopping with an online bookseller. Let libraries do what libraries do best – they are a physical location where people can go when they need to, or want to, and have a reason to go there. Same for schools. BUT, Dewey no longer “owns” the classification system for books! That belongs to the readers. I can even take Weinberger’s book that I ordered on line and carry it into the library building and work with it there. But keep in mind that I didn’t find the book because I was looking in a card catalogue for books on “Miscellany” or books by Weinberger, or books on business. I found the book on an Amazon page when I was ordering another book on innovation and got the message that “People who ordered [x] also ordered Everything is Miscellaneous.

Imagine after Maria mastered that formula, this message appeared on her computer screen: “Maria, learners who enjoyed solving equations about one dimensional motion in physics with examples from space science also enjoyed . . . “ Do you see where I’m going? The learning must belong to the learner, not the transcript, and schools just can’t affix knowledge any other way. We can’t fix schools.

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