When Amber and I embarked on the journey of creating Pathways High, we became voracious researchers. We aren’t formally trained as educators, but we saw a need for an engaging, empowering education that enables students to acquire knowledge in personalized, real world contexts. We saw this need in both our own children and the hundreds of students we’ve coached over seven years in Destination Imagination. So when the call to the nation to reimagine public high school was made by the XQ Institute, we set to work to learn everything we could about the science of the brain and learning, human development, the history of education and the strengths and weaknesses of different educational models. Together we read hundreds of articles, research papers and books (see our recommended reading list), spoke with students and parents, business and government leaders and a myriad of experts on all facets of education. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know. We became passionate learners. Or perhaps we were always passionate learners, we just needed to find the topics to unleash that passion. Perhaps that is true of all people. The comment we hear most often from those we talk to about Pathways High is the enthusiasm we display. Comments like, “you demonstrate incredible passion,” “you’re bubbling over with enthusiasm,” or “your energy is contagious,” remind us of the excitement of learning and the natural high that accompanies it. I believe this is one of the main reasons people become teachers.
I saw this thrilled reaction in my fifth grade son yesterday when he excitedly asked me if I knew why our bodies ache when we’re sick with the flu. He proceeded to explain to me how our body sends out armies of good cells to kill pathogens (his word) that enter our body when we get a virus or bacterial illness. These good cells send messages to our brain to raise our body temperature and contract our muscles, giving us an achy feeling. “So, Mom, it’s not the pathogens that make us feel bad, but our immune system’s reaction to the pathogens,” he summarized. He was clearly enthusiastic about this newfound knowledge and eager to learn more. You couldn’t hold him back if you tried. When I asked him why he was learning about the effects of illness he said it was for his inquiry project, an enrichment activity where he was allowed to select the topic because he had tested out of the regular curriculum. My son’s level of engagement with this self selected and self directed inquiry project was higher than anything I’d seen him display with the standard curriculum. And again I found myself asking the question why this level of engagement in school couldn’t be the norm instead of the exception. It reminded me of the statement in Salman Kahn’s The One World Schoolhouse that I had just finished reading. “Nurturing this sense of wonder should be education’s highest goal; failing to nurture it is the central tragedy of our current system.”
Does this approach to education seem too idealistic or impractical to implement? Is a high level of engagement and enthusiasm for learning a luxury? I would argue it’s an imperative in today’s complex and rapidly changing society. As Kahn writes, “To be successful in a competitive and interconnected world, we need every mind we have; to solve our common problems regarding relations among people and the health of our planet, we need all the talent and imagination we can find.” We know based on the science of the brain and personal experience that a high level of engagement is necessary in order to make multiple connections to a concept and achieve deep, lasting learning. According to Kahn, “It is the connections among concepts -- or the lack of connections -- that separate the students who memorize a formula for an exam only to forget it the next month and the students who internalize the concepts and are able to apply them when they need them a decade later.”
Acknowledging the limitations of our traditional education system in fostering deep learning is the first step in the journey to improve student outcomes for all regardless of geographic location, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Many don’t move beyond this point as they believe the current education system is too entrenched, too long-standing, too enormous to change. Still others throw up their hands and complain about the lack of available resources -- money, time, talent -- to make positive change. To be sure our traditional education system is a dauntingly large and multifaceted system that won’t holistically change on a dime, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make positive changes to components of the system that directly impact students this year, not just in the distant future. Remember our current education system is a human creation. Well intentioned and intelligent people envisioned and developed the system to be relevant, rigorous and responsive to the needs of society 125 years ago. In its time our education system delivered on its goals and fueled the industrial revolution. However, the world has evolved dramatically. Evidence abounds that our traditional education model has exceeded its useful life. The vast majority of our schools don’t mirror the diversity of the real world and don’t prepare our students with critical thinking and problem solving skills.
The good news is that we have the talent, technologies and successful models to make education relevant, rigorous and responsive again. It should be noted that many of the successful education models -- personalized, project based, mastery based and apprenticeships -- have existed for a century or longer. The difference today is that these models are highly economical and scalable due to information technology. Also, students can be exposed to broad career options early in their education and empowered to own their education and pursue unique pathways to success.
We can learn a great deal from the successes of others in our state, across the country and world. Amber and I were fortunate to attend the ExcelinEd conference in Washington, D.C. in early December and heard presentation after presentation from school district, business and state government leaders who were successfully leading the efforts to improve the life outcomes of their students. Next week’s blog post will highlight some of these successes. Of the 1100 conference attendees from 49 states, only seven were from Wisconsin. We have much work to do and the time to do this work is now. This generation of children needs it.
So if the traditional education model leaves you wanting more for your student and others to better prepare them for the future, believe that you can affect change. If you want schools that create an environment where enthusiasm for learning flourishes and students become lifelong learners, you can help make this happen. Keep in mind that doing nothing is not benign inaction. It actually is detrimental as it perpetuates the status quo. When the status quo holds us back from achieving excellence on a broad scale, change must start with each one of us. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
For additional exploration:
We’ve been inspired and informed by many thought leaders in the process of developing Pathways High. Some of these thought leaders and their books will be highlighted in our blog posts. In today’s post, Salman Kahn and his book The One World Schoolhouse are highlighted because Kahn does an exceptional job distilling the key issues related to the shortcomings of our conventional education system and the positive student achievement outcomes of thousands of students who use the free and ubiquitous Kahn Academy everyday around the globe. This blog only scratches the surface of the information covered in the book. Kahn points out that many of the principles upon which the Kahn Academy was based have been around for over a century, but are now implementable on a large scale due to technology. Kahn is incredibly humble in his description of the creation and growth of the Kahn Academy and gives credit to everyone else besides himself. I never viewed this book as an advertisement for Kahn Academy. If you’ve heard Sal Kahn speak in person or on a TED talk, you’ll recognize his straightforward and humorous approach in his book. The One World Schoolhouse is easy to read with no statistics or jargon and likely you’ll find it hard to put down once you start.