Reinvent the Wheel

In the last several days, six or seven people have accused me of wanting to “reinvent the wheel” when it came to education.  Most regarded this as a bad idea, and instead advanced several ideas about how to change existing schools rather than reorganize the idea of school completely.

The first wheel was a log.  Egyptians rolled massive multi-ton stone blocks over the ground using many logs together as rollers, and used themselves as motor power for these stone age vehicles.  Usually the rollers went one way — from the quarry to the pyramid.  Workmen carried the logs back to the quarry on their shoulders, because rolling them was difficult.

The second wheel, perhaps invented in Sumeria at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates around 5500 BC, was a section of tree trunk with a hole drilled through the middle of it.  It required a lot of effort to cut a tree just right, and the resulting wheel was rarely round.  Eventually, carpenters cut planks and fitted them together into wheels around a central hole.  There were no bearings, just the wheel.

Some clever carpenter realized, probably around 4000 BC, that having just the wheel, without any center support around the hole, shortened the life of the wheel.  He (or she!) added a central boss around the hole, in order to develop the attachment point of the axle.

A group of carpenters working together cut a group of planks in a highly technical and careful way about 3500 BC, in order to shape an outer ring.  The invention of the lathe allowed the insertion of spokes between the central boss of the wheel and the rim.  The discovery of iron-smithing allowed for an iron rim to hold the joinery of the wheel together. The chariot was the tank of ancient battlefields; the wagon became house and cargo hold.

The Chinese removed the wheel from the wagons, miniaturized it, and put it to work spinning thread to make into cloth.  The silk weaving industry expanded.

In the Roman era, and then again in the medieval period, Europeans designed an off-center wheel, attached it to human, animal, and water power, and began running machines.  The cam was born.  They put two wheels together with a whole lot of buckets between them, and invented the water wheel.  They took Egyptian logs, miniaturized them, and carved them with continuous rotating grooves; the screw was born, and with it the oil press, the wine press, and the printing press.  With them, the underpinnings of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution were created, six centuries before we realized we needed them.

In the Renaissance and Enlightenment, metalsmiths and artificiers added teeth to wheels, and miniaturized them further. They built clocks, watches, orreries, armillary spheres, sextants and octants. They put grooved wheels inside blocks of wood, and re-created pulleys.Ships traveled around the world on that kind of control of tension.

In the Industrial Revolution, wagon wheels did not hold up under the force of machinery.  So they miniaturized them again, and filled the central boss with ball-bearings — three dimensional wheels — that turned any which way and reduced friction.  They cast them out of iron, and attached them to steam engines and pistons — the railroad was born.

Bicycles. Automobiles. Motorcycles. CD and DVD players. Early iPods. Each of these could warrant a paragraph of its own.  Every single one of them uses a “wheel.”  But not one of them uses a wheel in quite the same way as the things that went before them.  Each of them is an utter “reinvention of the wheel”.

Read any story you like about how newspapers are in trouble.  You are reading the future of schools without a radical overhaul, or radical reinvention, of at least half of our schools and orienting them toward new styles and forms, right now.

Higher education is expensive; the price of it has been climbing at close to double the rate of inflation for almost thirty years.  It’s utterly unsustainable, just as the housing bubble — which lasted for thirty years — is unsustainable.  Secondary and Middle schools, and to a lesser degree Primary schools, are top-heavy, paper-driven, over-regulated, and slow. They’re often also more about achieving conformity and regularity — making all wheels the same — rather than encouraging diversity — “if we built our wheels in a lot of different ways, we’d find what works faster.”

Unfortunately, wheels — like educational institutions — are usually the last part of a machine to be redesigned.  It’s only when the rest of the system is faster and more powerful and more effective and more efficient that everyone realizes how utterly terrible the interface point between machine and world really is.  Look at early engravings of cars, and you’ll see bicycle wheels supporting a car.  Look at prints of early trains, and you’ll see wagon wheels on rails.

So…. wheels get reinvented irregularly, but the reinvention always serves to blow the old society out of the water.  Schools get reinvented irregularly, usually on the tail end of the new society emerging.   Which is dumb.  Maybe we teachers should be on the forefront of the reinvention this time, instead of the back end.

If we reinvent the wheel earlier, then maybe we get a say in what the new society looks like.

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