The potential of education

I wrote this piece as an op-ed but got feedback that it is too vague and doesn’t have a clear policy change articulated.  But I still like it, and it felt like the right tone with which to kick off this site.  Welcome to The Third Rail Blog!

It is that time of year when those of us tapped into the world of schools and education feel the frenzy and mixed emotions that herald the start of a new school year.  Harassed parents (like me) finish back to school shopping.  Students enjoy the last days of summer before homework, afterschool activities and the social dynamics of school engulf them.  School leaders and teachers prepare for new content, new tests, new demands and new opportunities.  It is that time of year when we would ideally pause and focus intentionally on what should be at the center of the upcoming academic year:  the joys, the challenges and the excitement of learning.

Ironically, a group of teachers (with me tagging along) had to go to the heart of Las Vegas weaving through miles of casino floors and the tourists that inhabit them to find an oasis of tranquility where they could renew and center themselves on the work of education.  In newspapers, op-eds, TV shows and communities around the country there is a relentless cacophony of righteous and indignant adult voices arguing about common core standards, accountability of students, teachers, schools, races to the top and who cares more about not leaving kids behind.  But for a few hours at a time over three days in Las Vegas that noise was muted by the reflective spirit that followed two central questions:  Why is the purpose of education?  How can educators work with students and the larger community to design learning experiences that best address those purposes?

This was the Big Bang conference, an annual gathering of educators from across and beyond the Big Picture Learning network of schools. The network is the manifestation of the learning philosophy of its two founders, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  It is a rich and complex philosophy that embraces some powerful principles:  Education is about nurturing the growth of human beings.  Human beings learn from the moment of birth and continue to do so all of their lives.  Real learning can take place within classrooms but is also powerfully supported by taking students outside of classrooms and into communities of practitioners. Learners thrive when exploring the passions and interests that drive them.  Relationships between students and the adults who advise them along their learning journey are not a means to an educational end; rather, they are a critical component of human growth and learning.

Most important, Big Picture schools embrace the reality that learning is a dynamic, messy, inefficient, subtle and unique process for each individual and thus hard to reduce into set content and curricula, hard to quantify, and impossible to standardize.

It was refreshing to me that the answer to the question of purpose during the Big Bang did not involve some combination of the words college- and career- readiness, 21st century skills or competitiveness in a global economy.  These are the answers that have been given by the last generation of leaders in a system designed for the industrial age in America.  For those answers to be the same today as they were 10, 50, or 150 years ago shows a lack of vision on the part of those driving educational leadership.

It has led us to pretend that the world can fit neatly into content areas and standards.  It has led to fetishizing easily measurable and quantifiable outcomes in the name of being data-driven.  It has led to calls for efficiency and sameness – every student achieving artificially-defined levels of proficiency in all of the same content areas that a small group of adults has decided are critical for success in life.  It has led to billions of dollars being spent to build systems that define educators, schools and systems as efficient or not based on their success in achieving these artificial levels of sameness.

The word “vision” means to see. It is easy to see what is already there and build on it.  It is powerful and transformative to see what could be there.  The words spoken in those Las Vegas rooms reflected a vision of what could be for our children, especially those in high school:  trusting students, with the guidance of their families and extended communities, to identify their unique passions, interests and talents; providing Advisors (as opposed to teachers) who work as equals with students and Mentors in the civic and business community to craft authentic ways in which to pursue those unique passions and cultivate those unique talents; allowing students to take risks and fail knowing that risk and failure are good; elevating the value placed on self-assessmentWe embrace the fact that learning cannot be standardized because the messiness of a person’s interaction with knowledge is impossible to reduce into single numbers, percentages and normative statements of success.

In short, these are the sorts of visionary conversations about education that are glaringly absent from public dialogues about American education “reform” right now.  Debates about things like standards, accountability, data, blended learning, charters and school funding are about the whats and the hows of education.  Transformative and visionary conversations must start with the why of education.  As in Las Vegas, there are quiet pockets of transformational conversations taking place within individual schools and networks.  But these are conversations that all students, parents, funders, business people and policy advocates should be having – loudly and publicly.  Because the truth is that the vision many of our educational leaders are holding at this moment is small.  And if those who are currently defining and doing the work of education cannot lift up to see the big picture then they should move over to make room for those of us who can.


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