It was an interesting — albeit hectic — week in Radical Nation, y'all. You see, Dell Computers paid my way to MIT to participate in a Social Think Tank event focused on Innovation in Education.
Not only was I rolling like a big-shot on a college campus that I could only DREAM about attending, I was hanging out with some pretty bright minds including Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class – a book that changed the way that I think about the role that technology will play in school reform.
The conversation was pretty darn engaging from start to finish — and as a guy who really digs engaging conversations, that turned the event into a much-needed intellectual pick-me-up for a professionally exhausted full-time classroom teacher.
What I loved the most about the event was seeing first-hand the level of consensus that exists around the changes that have to happen to move our schools forward.
EVERYONE sitting at the table — representatives from businesses, central office and higher education staffers, community leaders from organizations like the PTA and the Boys and Girls Clubs, student leaders — knew that our buildings needed to move towards places where students learned to experiment and imagine INSTEAD of remaining places where students spend their days listening and memorizing.
And EVERYONE sitting at the table knew that doing so would require the efforts of broad groups of committed stakeholders working together.
Each panelist listened with the intent of finding ways that the groups THEY represented could affect change INSTEAD of with the intent of finding ways that they could point the finger at other groups that were dropping the ball.
That's reason for celebration, y'all. It's a tangible reminder of the fact that we DO know a thing or two about what needs to change in our schools — and we DO have partners willing to do some of the heavy lifting with us.
But all-in-all, I left the conversation with reasons to be pessimistic, too.
Despite my own willingness to create meaningful learning environments, I
know that I haven't got the tools to make those environments a reality for my students.
Perhaps my favorite voice in Thursday's conversations belonged to Mitch Resnick — LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab.
Mitch talked passionately about the fact that schools need to become more like kindergartens — places where kids are encouraged to imagine and to create. He talked about the joy he gets in watching his own students ask and answer powerful questions.
"We've got students around here who are trying to develop cameras that can see around corners," he said, "and other kids who are trying to develop innovative player pianos — and while they are designing and creating, they're learning. We need to give students in our schools more chances to do that."
Now, I couldn't AGREE MORE with Mitch's central premise that designing and creating need to play a larger role in our schools.
But as a public school science teacher, I'm not sure Mitch — who works in a building that has 8 floors of top-level engineering labs stocked with a seemingly unlimited amount of supplies — realizes what's possible in the typical K-12 classroom.
Seriously, y'all: The ENTIRE supply budget for our sixth grade science program this year was $600. That's for a department of four teachers serving nearly 400 students.
Every time a beaker breaks in one of my classrooms, I worry because I don't know that I'm going to have any extra money to replace it. Every time we do a lab activity, I have to beg the parents of my students to send in consumables and hope that I get everything that I need — or go out and buy materials out of my own pocket.
Talk about design on a dime, huh?
The truth is that teachers aren't OPPOSED to creating the kinds of learning environments that Mitch imagines. We just don't have the resources necessary to make that kind of creative experimentation happen on a regular basis.
Despite the obvious willingness of stakeholders outside of the classroom to get involved, few people understand just what TEACHERS can do given the professional context that we work in.
Another barrier to creating the kinds of spaces that Mitch described is the fact that NO ONE is holding teachers accountable for encouraging kids to "design and create."
Instead, we continue to develop content-heavy curricula that we test with content-heavy end-of-grade exams that carry incredibly high stakes for both students AND teachers.
Don't believe me?
Go and ask any high schooler taking AP classes how much "designing and creating" they do before their final exams. Chances are, you'll hear a WHOLE lot more about the "memorizing and cramming."
What worried me during the course of our conversations on Thursday was that other participants — who were all passionate, intelligent, capable and aware people — seemed to believe that the content-heavy worlds our kids live in was the fault of classroom teachers.
"Teachers need to stop protecting their roles as content leaders," one participant argued.
"Instead, they need to start seeing themselves as people responsible for
developing skills. In today's connected world, content is less
important than skills."
"We hire teachers to be risk takers, right?" said another. "We want them to model that
kind of behavior for our children. They need to make risky choices about what to work on
in their classrooms."
But here's the thing, y'all: Teachers are responding to YOUR system.
We're not encouraging kids to design and create because we have massive, content-heavy curricula to churn our way through before the end of the school year. Designing and creating takes time that we just don't have.
What's more, we're not taking instructional risks because there's NO reward — and increasingly severe consequences — for failure in a high-stakes world. That's certainly not a culture that supports the kind of "fail quickly and fail cheaply" behaviors that define the most innovative businesses.
you REALLY want risk-taking teachers who spend their days showing kids
how to design and create, then start DEMANDING that your elected officials
— who are the real power players in conversations about what's
happening in our classrooms — rethink what we're holding schools
Despite the obvious awareness of the need for change from the other panel members, members of the general public seemed to have a poorly-developed sense for what change really looks like in action.
One of the most revealing moments of the entire experience happened when the moderator of an Education Nation panel discussion on change in schools — who happened to be an MSNBC anchor — commented on what she thought the classrooms of the future would look like.
"So what will teachers be doing," she asked panelists,"when students are all working quietly behind their own computers getting lessons delivered based on their own ability?"
Her comments caught me off-guard and I was jazzed that Jim Shelton of the Department of Education corrected her, explaining that digital tools should create MORE collaborative workspaces instead of MORE kids working "quietly behind their own computers."
But her comments are also indicative of the real problem that we face in reimagining our schools: The average community member doesn't have a clear view of the kind of schools and classrooms that we need to create.
Instead, they still imagine classrooms that look a lot like the classrooms that they sat through decades ago, with students working quietly on individual tasks.
That DOESN'T make them bad people, y'all.
But it DOES serve as a reminder that educating the general public — helping them to understand that today's students CAN'T succeed if they're sitting in yesterday's classrooms — is a critical first step towards driving productive change for tomorrow's schools.
Long story short: I'm jazzed to have been involved in Dell's conversation — and jazzed that Dell is committed to bringing stakeholders together to wrestle with important ideas no matter where the conversation leads.
But I walk away realizing that the fight to change our schools is STILL just starting — and while there are more people who are willing to lower their shoulders and push, we're fooling ourselves if we think the work is going to be quick and easy.
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