What are WE missing?

I came across this TED talk last month. It’s a story I cannot get out of my head.

Meet Sharon Terry, a former college chaplain and stay-at-home mom who took the medical research world by storm when her two young children were diagnosed with a rare disease known as pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE). In this knockout talk, Terry explains how she and her husband became citizen scientists, working midnight shifts at the lab to find the gene behind PXE and establishing mandates that require researchers to share biological samples and work together.”

Why did it take an outsider to change a deeply flawed system within the medical research culture?

I asked friends who have worked in medical research if their community is self-aware that their cultural norms interfere with their mission. They explained that being the first to publish is inextricably linked to funding. Therefore, competition is a widely accepted as normal and rarely questioned. Perhaps it is just too hard to identify system failures from the inside.

This story got me reflecting about education. What are WE missing?

As the world evolves in response to unprecedented change, schools remain largely the same. We seem to stand still as the rest of the world whizzes by. Why? What are WE missing?

Unlike the medical research community, education does not have the luxury of an outsider’s perspective to illuminate what we cannot see ourselves.

There are NO outsiders because everyone has gone through the system. In fact, when it comes to education, everyone feels a certain expertise precisely because we’ve all been there, done that. Our common experience shapes a common definition of school. It also keeps us collectively blind to system flaws.

Our shared experience not only drives our perception, it has created a “school narrative” that is so deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA, it is almost impossible to imagine anything different. Even our children accept that “real” learning only happens in school. More on that conundrum in future posts.

That school narrative permeates every corner of our culture. Look for it in our media. I am amused when I watch Star Trek episodes depicting school as kids at desks with the teacher in front giving a lesson. At least their computers are cooler.

It’s likely you will see this iconic depiction in most science fiction. Personally, I cannot recall a single exception. I believe it’s because this is the model we all recognize. We understand it. We agree to it. Sigh.

In 2010, my 8th-grade students worked on Chris Long’s “Summit on Learning Space Design in PreK-12” Their mission was to build a school of the future in second life. I was stunned when all of the students built futuristic versions of today’s classroom. Given the creativity these students consistently demonstrated in other aspects of their work, I found their lack of imagination and vision, regarding this particular assignment, to be quite troubling. Sigh.

You can check the other students’ work here: Tomorrow Island’s Future Schools

Coming back to the present, we see how this narrative persists in the ways in which folks, from the outside of our profession, step in to help us.

Well-intentioned people from the business sector have been investing in charter schools. Most of the models I’ve investigated are simply streamlined, more rigorous versions of the classic narrative. Sigh.

Silicon Valley is getting involved by insisting every student learn to code. Even the tech sector see change as being delivered in packages of content to be taught. Sigh.

In working with students throughout the years, the one thing that has consistently surprised me is how strongly they hold onto the old narrative. I’ve witnessed it in their play and I’ve heard it in our conversations when they dismiss the epic things they are doing outside of school as NOT being “educational”. Sigh.

The students may be right.

Maybe the barrier to change is that we think of “educational” and “learning” as the same thing. Are they?

What are WE missing?

What we do have is an abundance of “big ideas” on how to modernize schools:

  • Integrating digital tools for learning
  • 1 on 1
  • iPads 
  • BYOD (Bring your own Device)
  • Flipped learning 
  • Game-based learning
  • Gamification
  • Makerspaces
  • STEM
  • Robotics
  • Modern learning environments
  • Modern learning practice
  • Global learning
  • Digital citizenship
  • Passion projects
  • Project-based learning
  • Hour of Code
  • Everyone learning to code
  • Computational thinking
  • Design thinking
  • Student voice/choice
  • Student-directed learning

The list is full of excellent ideas and is constantly expanding.

Still, I wonder. Are these solutions or bandages?

Can any of these “big ideas” truly fix what’s wrong?

Schools do exist that are challenging the status quo. They are taking risks and experimenting with different learning models. However, these schools are few and far between and there are no metrics in place to determine their effectiveness.

Metrics? Even I can’t seem to shake the narrative…  Sigh.

What are WE missing?


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