Education for the Self and Community

I’ve been thinking more about what it would take to redesign an educational system to honor student agency and center the learning where it belongs…on the learner.

First, we need to have some idea of what knowledge and skills an educated person ought to possess.  I wonder how many administrators/teachers/citizens have a common picture of what that person looks like.  We could refer to the standards, but inferring from those to the real world seems hard for some, and their codification and commodification (from the outset, in terms of big business’s influence of the creation of the Common Core) is a non-starter to many.  Instead, in the face of innovation-speak and market economies, a better picture can be drawn from the tradition of a liberal education.

I was a fortunate learner.  Somehow I developed/possessed the skills necessary to win the game of school.  This allowed me the great fortune to explore the meaning and importance of a liberal education for over 25 years.  One document in that time has meant more to me in terms of getting that “picture” of an educated person than any other: “Only Connect:  The Goals of a Liberal Education” by Professor William Cronon.  I’ve studied that document and revisited it every year I’ve taught.  It is part of me.  As such, I have a  particular and, I think, historically accurate (though culturally and ethnically skewed) view of what an educated person ought to know and be able to do.

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William Cronon’s 10 Goals of a Liberal Education

Thus, at least in some part, redesigning schools necessitates designing/redesigning curricula to create modern pathways to the goals of a liberally educated person.  Further, though…schools need to have a common picture of their end and language with which to talk about the learning experiences they can design to help all learners get there.

Education as an Organic System

Still, none of that matters if the school leaders, both administrators and citizens on school boards and in other elected offices, do not view education as more than some assembly line/linear process.

“Education,” as Cronon points out, derives from a proto-Indo–European root, “rodhati”, meaning “one climbs, one grows.”  Clearly, education wasn’t originally viewed as a linear, mechanistic process, but rather as an organic/dynamic system.  Like a vine, it rises to the light, adjusts, stalls, changes, and moves up again.  It is always overcoming obstacles, making course corrections.  It does not follow rubrics or recipes. It seeks the light.

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From Patrick Cook-Deegan Wayfinding Our Purpose” in Purpose Rising: A Global Movement of Transformation and Meaning, Kuntzelman and Diperna, eds.

But linear systems are easier and more efficient for humans to create, and so we wind up with a school system that works in a linear fashion.  We know this is not the best system for education–one of the most important responsibilities of any community–and yet, here we are.  Our communities and school leaders need to create cultures where calculated/educated risk-taking is part of the environment, where such traits as courage, persistence, creativity, and risk-taking are what we look for, not only in our students but in the lead learners hired for our schools.

Get a B.S. Detector

As well, if we are to truly shift our systems of public education,  we need the same thing that Hemingway said all great writers need:  a great B.S. detector.  It’s so easy to want to jump on the new, the ed-tech, the subversive, the test-prep, the “innovative” because it seems so…shiny and data is so “objective.”  And yet,  so much of it is B.S.

At the most basic level, our understanding of human beings hasn’t grown all that much. The observations of the Progressives about the classroom environment, the efficacy of discovery learning, and (still) the work of Dewey are ever reified in the studies of more modern social scientists.  While our potential is infinite, our learning interventions need not be so.  Human beings require meaningful relationships, connection with their natural environment, and a sense of joy and purpose in what they do if they are to grow and learn.  (We do not learn through coercion unless the learning goal is how to despise learning.  I recommend William Glasser’s The Quality School and The Quality Schoolteacher for more on that point.) If we can use these needs to guide our schools past the dictates of efficiency and cost savings (a daunting task) we’ll have a more humane society, perhaps.

Human-Centered Education

Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that, at its heart, American Public Education will always be driven by three goals:  Economic, Civic, and Personal.  (Erin Raab names four…and I’d not disagree with her, though the Eudaemonic goal–Aristotle’s “Flourishing”– I’d fold into the “personal” (again, see Cronon’s “Only Connect”).)  While we’d like to think there is no hierarchy in these goals, the economic goal generally dominates and pushes the other goals behind it.  Its ends are to ensure the continuation of the free market capitalism that is the foundation for our own form of democracy and which makes our pursuit of happiness (the personal ends) possible.  While I’d rather think it otherwise, I have to believe that without a functioning economy, our government and our own pursuit of self-actualization break down.  Empirically, look to our devolution as a political society and our hunkering down with those most like ourselves post-2008 market crash as evidence. So we must always consider that the culture our schools create is geared towards feeding a hungry, (sometimes beneficient) monster…though monster nonetheless.

But that monster need not be as frightening and consumptive as I paint it.  An education that puts the human at the center, that recognizes its end as the elevation of all learners so that they may reach their own highest potential could ameliorate many of the more base effects of the economic ends.  Of course, that can only happen within a functioning democracy and that end, the civic end, of public education, cannot be overlooked.  We must understand and be driven by the sense that Jefferson noted when he wrote that “A people who seek to remain ignorant and free, expect what never was and never will be.”

It is no secret that education is Wicked Problem. We will always be at it…tweaking, pushing, pulling, and at times disrupting.  We’ll never solve it. The best we can do is hope to manage it better and seek balance among our goals.  But none of that should ever, must never, distract us from what I believe is William Cronon’s most important point in “Only Connect“:

“In the act of making us free, it [a liberal education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves…Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community” (pp 5-6).

And so, the picture we need of this learner is not intended to create a template for some standardized form of “liberally educated widget maker.”  Rather the picture will serve to show us that these learners, these children so full of freedom and potential, reveal to us our own best selves, and their education represents our own highest potential.

 

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Only Connect at Project Wayfinder: Purpose, Meaning, and Human Centered Education

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Polynesian Voyaging Society “Voyaging Canoe.”  http://www.projectwayfinder.com/why-wayfinding/

(Following is a blog post introducing a series I’m posting at plusus.org based upon my attendance at Project Wayfinder’s Summer Teacher Institute.  I’ll be posting once a day about my experiences at Proj. Wayfinder and links I find to design and design thinking as well as to education in general.)

In a few days I will be among 50 educators from around the world attending the Project Wayfinder Teacher Institute at Brown University.  Based upon the navigational techniques of ancient Polynesian sailors, Project Wayfinder’s vision is “that all people have access to tools to create lives of meaning and purpose.”

Founded by Patrick Cook-Deegan and designed through his work as a fellow at Stanford’s d.school, Project Wayfinder seeks to meet a glaring need in education:  We are turning out students who may know a great deal but lack any purpose with which to apply their knowledge. In doing so, we are denying a generation(s?) of adolescents access to a life in which they can flourish in ways beyond mere self-fulfillment or pursuit of happiness.

Indeed, if a recent survey from the National Institutes of Mental Health is correct, approximately 31.9% of adolescents age 13–18 have suffered from any type of anxiety disorder.  As Project Wayfinder points out, “while school is in session, high school students are the single most stressed out population in the US(http://www.projectwayfinder.com/our-vision/).

As an educational design consultancy, PlusUs is dedicated to a human-centered approach to our practice.  In addition to providing a full range of design solutions, we strive to keep the learners and their needs at the center of all we do. Regardless of whether we’re working with you to design a new informational mailer or to create curricular materials, we are always thinking about the learners our work will ultimately affect.

Thus, our attendance at Project Wayfinder will assist us in better understanding the needs of today’s learners.  It will also help us position our designs more firmly within a value system that recognizes the importance of meaning and purpose to a healthy, fulfilling life.

Starting on Monday, July 16, I’ll be blogging about my experience at Project Wayfinder’s Teacher Institute both here and at PlusUs.org.

Redesigning Education: Designing for Deeper Learning

 

 

What counts and what matters in learning?  Contrary to centuries of practice, it is not really the grades.

Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes.  Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation.  The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself.  While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning….

Visit my work at plusus.org to continue reading.

Redesigning Education: Iterating towards Mastery

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I recently listened to a podcast with Scott Looney, Headmaster of the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio, and also the founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  Mr. Looney discusses not only the project-based work he has introduced at Hawken, but focuses a good deal of his time on the history and philosophy around the Mastery Transcript Consortium–a group of independent and public schools devoted to shifting the high-school transcript away from meaningless letter grades, Grade Point Averages, and Carnegie Units (HS credits) to something more representative of the skills and knowledge students possess and the actual work  they can do….

Post is continued at:  http://plusus.org/redesigning-education-iterating-towards-mastery/

Ambition, Discovery: Writing, and Teaching, and Learning

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I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.”  The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.

As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery.  This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn.  It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”

I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process.  I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production.  Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.

My goal as a teacher is not to create writers.  By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing).  But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.)   That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers.  Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well.  In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” (a great article from Ed Week 2004  https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/09/08/02banner.h24.html) who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers:  watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in  manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists.  (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).

So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others.  And, of course, countless articles, etc.

To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung.  But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it.  And students know this.  They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty.  And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”

But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened.  To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take.  For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books.  My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created.  It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.