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Clue: Got map?

In education, the map we follow in the United States is based on a very long standing narrative of “what school looks like”. This narrative spans from the one room school house to imagined schools of the future. Everyone knows what school looks like because everyone went to school. I believe that this is at the core of our collective inability to imagine a different path for learning, even in the midst of unprecedented change outside of school.

What surprises me most is to observe how our kids buy into this narrative without question, irrespective of the complex learning they are doing outside of school. Using the technology available at their fingertips, they connect, network, collaborate and create in the most amazing and sophisticated ways. They are highly independent learners and generous in sharing what they know in these online spaces and yet we value none of that the moment they walk through the school doors. We ask them to power down both technically and mentally as we spoon-feed them a pre-prescribed, content-driven, one-size-fits-all curriculum that has gone unchallenged for decades.

I often find myself wondering why our students don’t rebell in total frustration at this learning dissonance. I’m even more perplexed by how easily they accept and step into the old narrative.

This buy-in can be observed when students use virtual worlds. Without exception, when they play with the idea of school they follow the same blueprint of students sitting in front of a teacher “teaching”. I’ve seen this when they were given the opportunity to Design a School for the Future for a project led by Christian Long:

I’ve also observed this in their free-play as they imagined and created Minecraft Institute of Technology, a summer camp run by students:

It’s not just virtual worlds that allow us to see this dissonance. Last year at the iNACOL conference, I’ve watched with fascination as two articulate 7th graders told a table of teachers about their online Spanish class. They were the epitome of what we value in the perfect student. Everyone was impressed with both their answers and their manners. When the students politely expressed a “mild” frustration regarding turnaround time for feedback, I pressed them by asking if they were to design the program, what would they do differently. They looked at me with shock. Before they could answer, another teacher at the table translated my question into a watered down version of what they thought I was asking. The students politely answered, again in an expected manner. I waited patiently until they were done to repeat my original question. Again, the same thing happened two more times. Finally, I was able to push for an honest response as the other teachers abandoned the conversation. What unfolded next amazed me. Once the students understood it was a sincere question, they let down their guard and became completely animated. They dropped the “Mams” and started to dish about what was really wrong with the class and what they would change it if they had the power. They were delightful, brilliant and their ideas were spot on! When I asked them why they didn’t push for change, they confessed they totally knew they were “playing school”. They wanted to get into a “good” college so they played the game. Wow! I was blown away by their astute honesty. Charming and articulate, those 7th graders completely accepted our narrative of learning. They did so without question even though, by their own admission, they knew that it was a game.

I think so often about that conversation. How can we address this kind of learning dissonance if we cling so desperately to our old narrative?

We talk about “Growth Mindset“, which is a great idea, but we only imagine it in terms of helping students be better “playing” school. We introduce games into the classroom, but only if we “EDU-fy” them to fit our content-driven curriculum. It’s almost impossible for us to imagine that a well designed game can actually teach us a different and more relevant ways of learning. The list goes on and on. From STEM/STEAM to Maker Spaces, we are trying many EXCELLENT ideas but never seem to truly ignite the reform we need. Why?

That old narrative is a poor map to our future. Our National policy is based on that map. Every dollar from well meaning foundations, from Gates to McCarthy, is tied to that map. No matter how desperately we try to reform the system through innovation, we fail. I believe that is because the caveat is always the same; innovate as long as we still cover the Standards and Pass the Tests. It’s kind of like trying to remodel a house to address without addressing the problem of a crumbling foundation. All the paint in the world can’t fix that!

What if we don’t need to make the old school model more innovative? What if we need to overhaul the curriculum itself? Mark Prensky raised this point in his paper, The World Needs a New Curriculum (synopsis here). It’s so basic and yet so difficult see that our content-driven curriculum no longer serves our students until they are ready to declare a professional path. I love what Pat Bassett, former President of NAIS, had to say about content;

Content should be in the service of learning, students should not to be in the service of learning content.

Again, so simple. We live in the Age of Information where we can access content at a click of a button. We need our students to learn how to learn and develop the wisdom and life skills to navigate a constantly changing world. How can they have do that if we continually spoon-feed them content? More importantly, why are we not assessing the content we choose to teach as rigorously as we test the kids ability to master it? If we did this, would we still teach it?

What if we threw out the old map and started to create a new map based on the learning students are already doing online? What if we invited students to help us create that map? They do, after all, possess competencies and literacies that we lack. I love what Anne Collier writes about the partnership between youth and adults to combine digital literacy with life literacy. Brilliant! When will we invite students to that table to help us create a new map?

Is it even possible for us to let go? Can we clear space to reimagine learning based on what is happening in the world outside of school? Can we give students the voice they deserve?

I think that is why I’m so drawn to The New Zealand Curriculum. They are letting go of the old map of what school looks in order to find a new path for learning that fits the needs of today’s students. Where we are clinching ever so tightly to the old content-driven curriculum as our map, they are shifting focus to the student and the fact that learning needs to be agile to prepare them for constant change. Where we become ever more rigid in dictating the “HOW” of teaching, they are clearing space to figure a better path based basic values and principles.

The New Zealand Curriculum makes me feel hopeful because it mirrors the same kind of work I’ve been doing in my school. I’ve been praised for that work, but also told it is unscalable. The naysayers may be correct – but I’m betting New Zealand proves otherwise.


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