Walter McKenzie

No Planned Obsolescence in Education

We are a nation of makers and consumers. And in this free market culture, value is king and the art of the bargain is most prized. It's a conundrum: you get what you pay for, but no one wants to pay full price. In every transaction, let the buyer beware!

So let me ask you this. Would you sink money into a car without dashboard displays? Would you buy a house with no electrical wiring or plumbing? How about a mobile device with no wireless capability? Yes I know; ridiculous examples. But follow me here...

How about schools? Would you build facilities for learning today that are not conducive to the kinds of learning that children need to be successful tomorrow? How about buildings that are already over capacity before the doors open for the first day? How about building schools that account for all the bricks, mortar and furniture but treat technology as a one-shot-deal afterthought? Not so ridiculous, is it? Let's take this a step further...

What about instruction itself? Would taxpayers pay for a school program that only targets certain subjects? Would they send their children to schools where every decision is driven by norm-referenced achievement scores? Would any community support a public school education that did not include the arts, physical education, and health? How about one-size-fits-all instruction that does not meet each learner at their current levels of development and ability? Not quite so far-fetched, is it?

Community by community, we make a lot of compromises when it comes to public education, usually in the name of saving dollars. You know, being good stewards of the public trust. It's another conundrum: we talk the bottom line, but we spend more money on education than any other nation. And we cut corners everywhere.

My point? If we drive a hard bargain to buy a whole car, and we pay an independent inspector to ensure we buy a whole house, and we talk to lots of people before we invest in the right mobile device, why don't we make very sure that we educate the whole child? I mean, we're talking about our future here. I know cars and houses and mobile devices are all predestined for obsolescence. But when it comes to education, should we be looking at our children the same way?

Education is not just human cognition. It's about preparing children for their future as well-adjusted global citizens: mentally, emotionally, socially, physically, and personally. They need to feel healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. They need to feel and be connected to peers, teachers, staff, and volunteers: the community as a whole. In my humble opinion, if all children felt connected within their communities, there would be a lot less disaffected, disenfranchised, and destructive behavior making the news these days.

And educating the whole child is not cost intensive; it simply requires making shifts in the allocation of the resources we have, from our instructional priorities to the community agencies that support children and families. Integrate all of our community programs, people and services within the total school program. Of course, that means we’d have to iron out the kinds of contradictions in cultural priorities I've referenced herein.

As educators, we work to develop each child's full potential; the whole child. Why should school districts, government agencies and society as a whole sustain a public institution that provides for anything less? It's time to give up cultural contradictions and the convenience of conundrums and make deliberate and strategic choices in the name of each child being educated as a whole child. Children are not born obsolescent. They're resilient, full of hopes, dreams, and promise. We owe them nothing less.

More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde famously observed, "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." In an age of abundance, it's time to shake off the resigned legacy of planned obsolescence, especially when it comes to our children and their future. Work, speak, and act to support the whole child.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at This article originally published on Actualization in June 2014.

Comments (2)

Rosemary Reilly-Chammat

June 19, 2014

Very well stated Walter!!

Ed Rozycki

November 9, 2014

Noble sentiments. But your argument overlooks both the lack of consensus which prevents them from becoming reality and the vagueness in the formulation of outcomes which promotes not much more than sloganeering.




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