In our last blog post, we talked about the need to reinvent our educational system to better meet the needs of staff and students. We are at a crisis point in education. There needs to be an urgency to reinvent our system. So now let’s have some fun. Let’s ask ourselves a dangerous question: If we had the chance to start over completely and build a new educational system from scratch, what would we build? Or to put it another way, if aliens landed on our planet and needed to devise a system to teach their young, would they create our current educational system? I think not.
What educational system would we build if we could start from scratch?
We would be well served to consider what our friends in Silicon Valley do when they create a new piece of software. When they are building new software, they talk to the end-user. They gather information about the problems that they are trying to solve, the way they use current products, the experiences they have had with similar products, etc. Then, they go about designing and developing from the end-user backward into the bigger system.
Often in education, we do the exact opposite. We start with the centralized system or process. By the time it gets to the end-user (our students) it is no longer meeting their needs. It is important for us to talk to our students about their experience and to understand what their day-to-day looks like in our schools. I encourage all teachers, administrators, school board members, and other decision-makers to shadow a student for a day to truly understand what it looks and feels like in their shoes. This lens will help us to make better decisions.
Here are some concepts that need to be part of redesigning our educational system.
This has become a buzzword in education. Just to make sure we are on the same page, what I mean by this term is the ability to flex and adapt our educational system to meet the needs of individual students. Honestly, most schools create their system first and then try to fit students into the system. We need to create flexible systems that are able to mold and adapt to individual needs.
Fish with a pole instead of a net.
When you fish with a net, you end up catching things you didn’t intend to catch. With a pole, you have to be strategic to land that one fish, which takes understanding and strategy.
Most things in a student’s life are personalized except for when they come to school. When I was a teenager, you had to buy an album for your one favorite song. Today, our students can create personalized playlists with all their favorite music. I remember going to buy basketball shoes and my only choices were the colors they had in stock at the store. Today, kids can order a pair of shoes in their favorite colors and with their name on them. Yet, they come to school and we tell them, sorry – you get what you get.
In Colorado, we give the SAT and PSAT to all 9th-11th grade students. This year, one of our 9th graders took the opportunity to share her thoughts about testing with the department of education by writing some important messages all over her test booklet. She wrote, “Life is not standardized.” I thought it was quite brilliant. She is right. Life is messy and about adaptations to new conditions. Life is anything but standardized.
As a teacher, I can’t create 25 different lesson plans or curriculum paths for my students unless I have a digital platform that can manage that for me. In most schools, we make kids run the curriculum race as a group: don’t go too fast or go too slow. What if we let students run their own race and go through curriculum as fast or as slow as they would like to?
In many schools, the power of digital tools/curriculum has been location. Students are able to complete online work at home, on the beach, in the mountains, etc. If we harness the real power of online learning to create personalized experiences for each student, we allow them to run their own race.
Rich Elective Experiences:
Speaking of curriculum, what should be the role of core course curriculum?
… science more important than foreign language?
… knowing math more important than knowing how to take care of yourself physically?
… understanding Shakespeare more important than personal finance?
In many ways, we have elevated core curriculum in our educational system at the expense of electives. I had a student tour our school a few weeks back and we really emphasize our amazing elective experiences. The student stopped me at the end of the tour and said the electives sounded great. She was really excited about them, but she also wondered about English because that was more important than the electives. My response to her was, “Who told you that English was more important than electives?” She stopped for a moment, got a smirk on her face, and announced that it was actually her English teacher who had made that comment. I just smiled and we moved on.
While I am not anti-English or any other core subject, we need to be careful. The elective experience for many students can be life-changing. This can be a place where students find areas of passion or skills that they did not know they had. These opportunities may lead to a hobby or career later on. Electives are where we can truly focus on the soft skills needed in the adult world to be healthy and happy in family life and in the workplace.
In construction, these provide the structure needed for the weight of the rest of the house. We asked ourselves, what are the most important skills our students need for success in life? Or, in a more snarky and cynical conversation, what does it take to not live in your parents’ basement? We landed on a list of independence, collaboration, communication, literacy, wellness, and passion. These are the “load-bearing walls” for our students. All of our elective courses are tied to one or more of these load-bearing walls.
Ultimately, shouldn’t our electives teach our students how to be good humans? In the midst of learning Math, English, and other subjects, we miss out on the fact that our goal as educators should be to help develop great human beings. That can be the primary focus of many of our electives.
In order to become better at a sport, instrument, or any other endeavor, it takes practice. I am an old coach and so I often see the world through that lens. One of my goals as a coach was always to make my practice harder than a game. I wanted to put students in situations in practice where they were bound to make mistakes so that they would learn and grow and not make that same mistake in a competition.
How do we become better adults? We actually have to practice. Shouldn’t schools be a place where students make mistakes often so they can learn from those mistakes and not make them later on in their adult lives?
Giving students more autonomy over how they spend their time:
For many high school students transitioning to college, they go from having 35-40 hours of their week structured for them to having 15 hours a week if they take a full load. How do they learn how to structure and manage the other 20-25 hours of time? This could be done in a classroom setting on a small scale or on a larger scale by reimagining the master schedule of when students are in class vs. having flexible work time.
Teaching vs. Learning:
We also must move away from the idea of teaching to the idea of learning. In educational systems, much of our time, resources, and focus are on the adult in the room. I watch many young children learn without a teacher. In fact, I have two teenagers in my home that spend a great deal of time every day learning, even when they are not in school. My son watches YouTube videos about all sorts of topics and my daughter is cruising Instagram. Both are learning a great deal, not always what I want them to learn but learning nonetheless. As an educational system, our job should be to harness learning, not just to develop teaching.
So as an adult, how do you learn?
Follow the 3 R’s. Not reading, writing and arithmetic, but relevant, required, and rabbit holes.
- Things you find interesting: magazines, books, websites, links from social media, etc.
- Safety manuals, training documents, driving tests, medical information, etc.
Rabbit Hole Learning:
- Places you never expected to find yourself – following one link after another until you end up in a very different place.
Most of our school model is still built on the delivery of information and content, not on “natural” learning. This generation of students does not need more content. They are surrounded by content. This generation needs to be able to make meaning of content.
I saw a school that was advertising if your student enrolled at their school, you got a free set of encyclopedias. If that was your school, I apologize, because I am about to offend you. That may be the dumbest thing I have heard in my life. Our students have more access to information than any generation in the history of the world. We don’t need to spend time giving them more information. Instead, we need to find ways to teach them what to do with the information. How do they procure the information, sort it, use it for decision making, question it, etc.?
As you think about transitioning your school’s educational system, here are some guiding questions:
How can we reimagine schools to be more like the adult workplace?
How do we continue to shift from a system of teaching to a system of learning?
What role can digital tools play in this transition to personalize learning for all students?
How can your school operate more like adult practice?
How can you leverage the 3 R’s of learning to better align with adult learning?
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