Twenty-two years ago [now 25], while analyzing why so little of what is known to work gets applied in practice, Lisbeth Schorr wrote of “traditions which segregate bodies of information by professional, academic, political, and bureaucratic boundaries” and a world in which “complex intertwined problems are sliced into manageable but trivial parts.” Around the same time, Sid Gardner wrote that “we end up contributing our money, and more important, our political and spiritual energy, to building a fragmented ‘non-system’ of well-meaning, specialized programs.” Sadly, both observations are still true today.
When I talk to people, it is highly likely that I will end up sharing something that I have been contemplating and studying for years. I just can’t help it. It usually emerges in, at least, one of two forms…
If school is supposed to prepare kids for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?
School, in its current form, is a profound interruption from our natural ways of learning as humans.
Think of how children tend to learn before formalized schooling. Picture the events of childhood learning – to crawl, to walk, to talk, to play, etc. Now, picture “school.” In what ways do your two mental-imagery exercises match and differ?
Repeat for the learning that typically happens after formalized schooling, during our adult lives. How do your mental images compare?
I’ve shared here before that my own sons did not “disaggregate” their explorations and learnings about the world until they started formalized schooling. In other words, it wasn’t until school that PJ started to say things like, “Oh, that’s math.” Or, “that’s language arts – that’s not math.” Before school, all of the learning was more integrated and holistic. When he could start to put it in rooms, some doors closed.
Two posts caught my eye just moments ago – one on Twitter and one on Edutopia’s blog. I think they help illustrate the idea of re-blending ways of knowing and integrating various capabilities. I think they provide elements on a mood board for re-imagining school and how to blur the lines between school and real life.
Here’s the first – a tweet from SciencePorn:
Here’s the second – a post from Shawn Cornally (@ThinkThankThunk) on Edutopia. To whet the appetite for a full click on that link, I offer a few quotes that resonated with me.
As the media coverage and administrative spotlight is turned on these new benchmarks, I’d like us all to keep the following in mind: Engagement trumps all.
we have millions of children in schools learning things on narrative arcs that they had no part in authoring.
As more and more references to STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Math) flood my Twitter feed, I can’t help but wonder how long until we all realize that lessons go where they will, which results in unplannable but reflectable STEHALM (Science, Tech, Engineering, History, Arts, Language and Math) experiences.
Isn’t that great! STEHALM could be letter labels in that photo of the PDA + the video camera + the laptop + the watch + the beeper + the cell phone + the Polaroid + the Walkman. Just two representations of the same overarching idea(l).
When will we act to make “school” more like that iPhone, instead of carrying around the discreet elements as separate and disaggregated pieces? Even if we subdivided the day and did some of each – integrated project-based learning where challenges and issues drive the agenda, as well as some time for exercising the disciplinary lenses sparked by those authentic explorations – I believe we would be moving in a right direction to help make school more life like.
= = =
Thanks to those who inspired with those posts!
… one question I have for the audience today is, on the gravel roads of Limpopo, with an allowance of 50 rand a week, I came up with a way for the world not to bathe. What’s stopping you? (Applause)
What is stopping us? Ludwick Marishane did so much more than just come up with a way for the world not to bathe. He figured out a way to battle trachoma and fight disease-based blindness in under-resourced areas.
I believe strongly that school should be more community-issue-problem-solving based. As Daniel Pink explained in Drive, we are motivated most strongly when we feel higher degrees of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Purpose has long been a question driver in schools. “When will I ever use this?” “Why are we learning this?” School could live more deliberately at this nexus of desired relevance and purpose and problems craving solutions. Learners want to maintain choice at pursuing things that matter to and interest them. By pursuing such passions, while the hard work can often feel playful, we develop deep mastery.
If you watched the five-minute TED talk from Ludwick Marishane, do you think he got the following:
- growing understanding of science, perhaps in the integrated fields of chemistry and biology
- increased cultural thoughtfulness and empathy
- strengthening communication skills in writing business plans, patents, grant proposals, etc., as well as enhancing oral communications with presentations, sales pitches, etc.
- heightening proficiency in mathematics, quantitative and qualitative statistics, and application of mathematical reasoning
- developing sense that he is a creative and critical-thinking problem solver, with agency to make a difference in the world now
- expanding appreciation for socio-economic and psychological dimensions of getting a solution to market
- understanding the necessity of genuine collaboration to combat big, audacious goals
I think he got all of the above and so much more. And what he is giving may far outweigh what he is getting. I think he might help more than 8 million people affected by trachoma. And he developed DryBath because he wanted to figure out a way that he would not have to take a bath himself.
I can imagine elementary, middle, and high schoolers engaging in such starts-as-a-selfish-and-seemingly-ridiculous project. I can see them spending time in more time-concentrated laboratories of integrated learning, rather than interrupting their flow because of bells set to 50 minutes and disciplines sub-divided by cinderblock walls. I can see them solving big problems and growing as engaged, empathetic, empowered citizens. I can see them practicing the skills and learning the content that will serve them, and the world, most dearly in the coming decades.
Some schools might want to make wholesale change to such a model. Others might want to revamp their curriculum and instruction so that “lab” problem solving represents 50% of the day and more traditional classes represent the other 50%. Still others may want to discern how to incorporate such community-issues-problem-solving courses into just 20-25% of the school day or week. Whatever the ration, I believe the students and the world would benefit from the increased and enhanced concentration on dealing with real community issues – issues within one’s school, wider neighborhood, city, state, nation, or world.
As I’ve written this post, in less than 15 minutes, I’ve imagined a sort of “kit” that could help a school get started…
- Alan November’s book, Who Owns the Learning?
- Suzie Boss’s book, Bringing Innovation to Schools
- Will Richardson’s e-book, Why School?
- frog design’s Collective Action Toolkit
In fact, if you are already convinced that schools are, or should be, doing such community-issues-problem-solving based learning, then you could use just #4 to help you get started.
As Marishane challenged us all, “What’s stopping you?”
Reviewing the Duke Forward website, home base for Duke’s $3.25 billion capital campaign, I was most struck by two statements:
But we cannot be satisfied with methods of teaching, or learning, that were born out of different needs and different realities. In a world where technology is reshaping the very definitions of communication, education, and knowledge, universities must adapt, preserving the best of our traditions but also transforming inherited approaches to education and research to meet today’s challenges.
The university of the future will be defined as much by collaboration as it is by individual accomplishment, and as much by the opportunity to engage with problems as it is by the accumulation of knowledge.Deeply constructive partnerships across areas of expertise, between researchers and practitioners, and among students and faculty of diverse perspectives must be the norm rather than the exception.
In such an environment, the walls are low and the aspirations high, the solutions nimble and the breakthroughs profound. (emphasis added)
Through the campaign, we’re seeking support to strengthen curricular and co-curricular programs that give students throughout Duke’s 10 schools the opportunity to develop their talents by solving real problems. (emphasis added)
- from Boundaries Not Included page
If schools declare that we work to prepare students for college and for life, then how are we studying and implementing such innovations ourselves? How are we lowering walls, crossing borders and boundaries of subject and expertise, and engaging real-life problems?
What if a content-centric curriculum and silo-ed departments and walled philosophies disadvantage student and faculty learners for the future at our doorsteps?
[Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Blue Devil, undergraduate class of 1993. Duke was the only undergraduate school to which I applied because it was the only place I wanted to go since I was 7 years old. Go Duke!
Of course, I would love to see Duke's "pedagogical master plan" for all of this - those plans with the equivalent, intricate detail of analogous architectural plans and engineering schema.]
Do you know about Innocentive? They match innovation needs with innovation providers – that whole demand and supply thing. In addition to doing great work, they also make a great metaphor for what school could be.
I believe schools could be structured this way.
Adolescent energy, resourcefulness, and desire to engage relevance
Issues of the world
Engaging curriculum that positively influences the world
Imagine the F=ma implications, in a social justice application of Newton’s Law, if a majority of schools employed the collective mass of our students…in integrated studies, project-based learning formats…to make huge dents in world issues. The size of that “additive amoeba” (think collecting broken up play-dough into one mass), could really make a difference. [Yes, I want to embed Kiran Bir Sethi's TED talk right here, but I'm not gonna do it. Gonna use Jamie Drummond's instead.]
I dream a school that crowd-sources with myriad other schools to impact the world now. Imagine the power of that!