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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.)


How to Balance the Art & Science of Teaching

Recently, I gave a TED talk outlining why I think we’re in the midst of the most exciting and difficult time to be a teacher in American history. These sorts of talks are always imperfect (and timed) efforts to inject new ideas into the stratosphere, but I received lots of nice comments and feedback, including some observations that only a mom – my mom, actually – would share (“Your posture was very relaxed, and you never even said ‘um’!”).

It was another thing my mother said that struck me, though. “Do you feel sure that your audience knows what to do with all you’ve said?” she wrote.

Great point, and I’m not sure. So here, as simply as I can say it, are three specific things – some big, some small – we need to do to help teachers get better at helping children learn and grow.

1. Follow the Med School Model – As any M.D. knows, different medical schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs – whether they’re traditional schools of education or alternative certification programs – give short shrift to one of the most important things a teacher needs to know: child and adolescent development.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach.

So let’s start there by urging all teacher-training programs to adapt the Med School model and establish a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Learning Sciences and Developmental Sciences.

I realize that won’t happen anytime soon (if at all). But the good news is we don’t need to wait; we can just start establishing online and/or in-person courses anywhere and everywhere, for anyone that’s interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of this new knowledge base. These courses would provide recommended reading, a forum for people to communicate with some guided facilitation, and a space for learners to self-organize with each other based on their areas of interest. And while it would be great if some accrediting body offered participants credit toward a degree or certification, we don’t need to wait for that to happen, either. What matters is identifying what we need to learn to be more effective at what we do, and then learning it. Period.

2. Study the Brain – In the same way educators need a solid foundation in how people develop, we should be equally aware of how people learn. That’s why schools and districts should incentivize any efforts on the part of their teachers to better understand the brain – regardless of whether it’s a book club or an accredited course. And once again, we can start right away in any community, alone or in groups. There are scores of recently written books that translate the latest insights in neuroscience for a lay audience. So we don’t need to wait for the schools of education to catch up. But we do need to do our homework and make sure we’re creating classroom environments that are highly tuned to our students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they see the world.

3. Craft Evaluation Programs That Honor Art & Science – One thing all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are already underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up. That’s why we should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any new evaluation system should be its effort to help teachers improve the quality of their practice via shared inquiry into what is and isn’t working in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative measures, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And we should be sure to pay attention to the illustrative efforts already underway. If you’re a policymaker, for example, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start today.


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?


How to Start a Movement

Find out all you need to know (well, maybe not all, but . . .) from this 3 minute video, courtesy of a TED talk by Derek Sivers.


Education Innovation in the Slums of Rio

Charles Leadbeater, a researcher at the UK firm Demos, spoke recently at TED about his search for radical new forms of education. What he found was remarkable innovation in the slums of Rio and Kibera, where some of the world’s poorest kids are finding transformative new ways to learn.

Among Leadbeater’s chief insights? Focus on asking questions, not providing answers; start developing strategies that pull children into learning, and stop pushing them into a single curriculum; and take a cue from Chinese restaurants, not McDonald’s, by finding models that spread, not scale.

Watch the video yourself and see what you think.

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