When Stephanie Pace Marshall helped create the Illinois Math and Science Academy about 25 years ago, the idea of teaching students with a specialized focus on science, technology, engineering and math was not widespread.

But something different needed to happen, she said.

That is the mantra of many states, including Illinois and Iowa, which are talking a lot lately about education reform. But Marshall said reform tends to mean “improving on what is,” instead of what she would rather hear.

Education reform is a good conversation, she said, but she wishes more people would ask, “How do we fundamentally alter and redesign and make something new?”

“Adding more graduation requirements or more regulatory mandates or even creating a multiplicity of new institutions like charter schools, if they’re essentially the same structure and same set of assumptions, isn’t effective because they’re really no different,” Marshall said.

She advocates “problem-based and inquiry-based learning,” which is the model used at the Illinois Math and Science Academy. This helps children become “thoughtful inquirers, ethical leaders, complex problem-solvers, risk-taking entrepreneurs,” she said.

Marshall said the traditional model of schooling is based on a dysfunctional model of leadership, instead of creating learning conditions that develop “habits of mind, ways of thinking that kids need to be successful in the future.”

She compares schools to living organisms and ecosystems.

“You don’t fix a spider web, a network. You connect it, you reweave it,” Marshall said. “I’m not opposed to reform, but the more important conversation would be, if we want kids to be change agents, we have to fundamentally look at their relationships in places called schools.”