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The Learning Revolution, Circa 2012

Six years ago, a funny Englishman gave a stirring speech about how schools were stifling the creativity of their students. Today, Sir Ken Robinson is a worldwide celebrity, and his TED talk has been seen by as many as 100 million people.

How did that happen, exactly? And what is the state of the learning revolution Robinson urged us to launch?

The first answer has a lot to do with TED, and the ways it has become an unparalleled global phenomenon and idea accelerator. But it has more to do with Robinson, and the ways he was able to – clearly and cleverly– articulate our education system as it is, and as it ought to be. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” he argued. “By the time we get to be adults, most of us have lost that capacity. We have become frightened of being wrong. We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

The second answer has a lot to do with the impact of those words, and the ways in which our education systems have started to move – slowly but surely – in the direction of Robinson’s recommendations. In particular, I see three trends worth noting:

  1. Shifting Endgoals – In 2006, it would have been impossible to suggest that anything other than content knowledge was the desired endgoal of a quality education. The rest was fluff, and if you couldn’t measure it, it didn’t matter. Today, however, there is an increasing recognition that content knowledge is actually the means by which we acquire a quality education, while the endgoal is a set of life skills or habits we can rely on throughout our lives. This paradigm shift was foretold by Robinson, whose talk centered around one of those skills – creativity. It has since expanded to include a rotating cast of others, from critical thinking to collaboration. And it will continue to reshape how schools see their work, both strategically and morally, requiring a new wave of creative thinking about how we assess both student and teacher learning and growth.
  2. Growing Grassroots – Robinson was right to urge people to stop waiting for policies to change before they themselves change. The only way a learning revolution will begin is if we heed the advice of Myron Rogers, who advised us to “start anywhere, and follow it anywhere.” That means recognizing each individual school is, as Ken says, its own school system, and insisting that educators start being more proactive in how they reimagine the structure and purpose of school. Scores of networks and organizations are already doing just that – from Expeditionary Learning to the Institute for Democratic Education in America. More communities are joining every day. And eventually, the policies will have no choice but to catch up.
  3. Emerging Leaders – In schools and districts across the country, a new wave of leadership is emerging with the confidence to speak publicly against the dysfunctions of the current system and think strategically about how to transform education for the long haul. Montgomery County superintendent Josh Starr is one such example – the leader of a massive network of schools and educators, a passionate believer in working collaboratively with all stakeholders, and an astute communicator who relies on everything from podcasts to Twitter to community book clubs. “I see my work being as much about helping people understand how we learn as it is about balancing budgets or driving student growth. These are community-wide conversations we all need to be having, and my job is to help seed those – and to keep learning alongside everyone else.”

It’s instructive that the most watched TED talk in history is about public education – despite the mainstream media’s ongoing reluctance to provide anything more than cursory coverage. Sir Ken’s talk is a reminder that people everywhere recognize that there is no issue more important to our future than the education of our newest generations. And his message, fittingly, is that we are the people we’ve been waiting for all along.

(NOTE: This article also appeared on Huffington Post as part of its TED Weekend series.)

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Sir Ken’s a Cartoon! Sir Ken’s a Cartoon!

The good people at RSA Animates are at it again, and this time they’ve turned my friend and colleague Sir Ken Robinson into, well, a cartoon — and they’ve animated his core ideas all around him as he speaks. Must-see TV, and, as always, Sir Ken breaks it DOWN. Check it.

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How to Build a School System That Nurtures Creativity

In case you missed it, there’s an important new piece in Newsweek about the declining capacity of Americans to think creatively — and what we can do about it.

This is, of course, the primary issue that has driven Sir Ken Robinson’s work (if you’re among the few who haven’t yet seen his hilarious and insightful 2006 TED talk on the subject, check it out). As Ken puts it, the problem is that our current system of education is more apt to “mine our minds” of its most precious materials than it is to plant fertile seeds that can sprout new ideas and ways of seeing the world. The Newsweek piece picks up on this theme, noting that “around the world, other countries are making creativity development a national priority.” Meanwhile, our focus in the U.S. remains on clarifying what exactly we need to put into all children’s minds, rather than how we can best pull out their individual talents and passions.

In addition to what Newsweek outlines as constructive steps to address the creativity crisis (hint: cognitive science and a deeper understanding of how the brain really works), I’d like to remind everyone what Finland did to become the world’s leader in public education: an intensive investment in teacher education (NOT performance pay), and a complete overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system in order to create a true “thinking curriculum” for all students.

More specifically, teachers in Finland receive 2 or 3 years of high-quality training completely at state expense. The program is extremely competitive, and it is followed by a full year of clinical experience and studying under a master teacher. All teachers also engage in critical friends group work throughout their careers, ensuring that they engage in continual self-reflection, evaluation, and proactive efforts to improve the quality of their professional practice.

The result of this deep investment in teaching, and in a curriculum that is focused on inquiry (as opposed to facts)? A learning environment that encourages both students and teachers to try new ideas and methods, learn about and through innovations, and cultivate creativity in schools. As Linda Darling-Hammond says in her excellent new book The Flat World and Education, “Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. . . . The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with the thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Why can’t we do this? WHY AREN’T WE DOING THIS?

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To What Do We Owe Our Fidelity?

Today was one of those magical work days — not so much because it was chaotic and crowded (it was), but because it was jam packed with interesting people and conversations. It began with University of Gloucestershire professor Philip Woods (an expert on democratic leadership and school governance); it ended with the fabulous Traci Fenton of WorldBLU, an organization that is identifying, and helping to create, democratic business cultures around the globe; and it featured a remarkable mid-afternoon tea with Sir Ken Robinson — yes, that Sir Ken Robinson — who is writing a new book and imagining lots of new and powerful ways to connect people to their passions.

Through all these conversations and exchanges, I’ve been reflecting on a question I’d never thought of quite so explicitly before. It surfaced during my morning conversation with Professor Woods: “In the work that we do, to what do we owe our greatest fidelity?”

I think this question gets at the heart with the issue I have with both extremes of the current education reform landscape.

On one side is the old guard, for who I think the answer to the question would be either “the children” or “democratic learning.” I think both of these are the wrong answers, but for different reasons. Regarding the idea of our fidelity being owed to “the children” — well, of course, but what good does the answer do you except allow you to feel self-righteous, because the answer doesn’t tell you anything about where to start or how to go about the work itself. And I don’t think our primary fidelity is owed to “democratic learning” either — because although it’s hugely important, it’s also often (mis)interpreted primarily as a set of structures, and strategy should always precede structure if you want a finely tuned organization.

Conversely, I think the new guard would say they owe fidelity to the concepts of “achievement” and/or “accountability.” These, too, are the wrong words, and for more easily identifiable reasons. Achievement has come to basically mean basic-skills standardized reading and math scores. How could we owe our greatest loyalty to those, unless our sole purpose is to collect some personal bonus at the end of the year (hey, wait a minute). And the idea of accountability is a little too punitive and unimaginative as a superordinate goal. We can do better.

What was reaffirmed to me this morning, and throughout the day, is how I believe we must answer the question — we owe our greatest fidelity to learning, and to helping people create the optimal environments in which it can occur.

Being clear on what we’re most loyal to ensures that, strategically, operationally, organizationally, we will ask the question that gets to the heart of what matters most: Will ______ help our students learn how to use their minds well? If yes, do it. If not, don’t. Best of all, a fidelity to learning doesn’t preclude other priorities. Our focus will still be on the children. Our community will still create multiple opportunities for democratic decision-making (it’s a great way to help people learn, after all). Our efforts will still be on measuring how well or poorly we’re helping students achieve (in the fullest sense of that word). And our intentions will still be to hold ourselves and each other accountable to what we aim to do together. But it’s only by setting our narrowest focus on the true bulls’ eye — on learning, and on the core conditions required to support and nurture it — that we can create the greatest likelihood of success.

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Sir Ken Robinson & Creativity

I’m off this morning to spend two days with Sir Ken Robinson and the Kirkpatrick Foundation, which is planning to host a World Creativity Forum this November in Oklahoma City.

If you’re unaware of Sir Ken, here’s a video preview, courtesy of a recent TED talk — and his take on why we need to move away from standardized instruction, and more towards personalized learning.

http://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html?utm_source=newsletter_weekly_2010-05-25

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