A Case for Real Learning

The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences. – John Dewey

I’ve been a teacher for six years. I’ve taught students in grades 5-12 in four cities in three countries with four distinctly different curricula and subject matter. There have been a few occasions where I have been able to act as a facilitator as my students begin to understand the world around them. Far too often, however, a teacher’s role is to uncover the world while students watch. It is troubling to me that not all education emphasizes engaging students with real issues to help them come to terms with their world and their role in it.

It is further troubling to me, particularly in the wake of Besty DeVos’s confirmation hearings, that the role of teachers has largely become helping students learn what an outside body has decided they need to know and practice the skills they will need to take a multiple choice test about that information.

This model of education is a) irrelevant to the 21st century, b) a vital misunderstanding of what students are actually capable of, and c) a detriment to developing a better and more peaceful world. We need to rethink what learning means, what our schools look like, and what we want our students to know and be able to do when they graduate.

This post aims to present a vision for education that will actually prepare students to improve the world they are living in. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Education for Problem Solving
There is little purpose in thinking about the future if we are not committed to grappling with the problems that will only grow as long as we prefer to pretend they don’t exist. Educating for the future means preparing students to solve these world problems, and even determining what the problems are can be daunting.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals, which I’ve written about before, aim to address the following:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

These goals are very broad, and a wide variety of efforts are ongoing to achieve these goals. Some initiatives are better investments than others, which Bjørn Lomborg explores in How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, a summary of research findings from the 2012 Copenhagen Consensus. Lomborg lists the following as worthy investments:

  1. Bundled interventions to reduce undernutrition in preschoolers (to fight hunger and improve education)
  2. Expanding the subsidy for malaria combination treatment
  3. Expanded childhood immunization coverage
  4. Deworming of schoolchildren, to improve educational and health outcomes
  5. Expanding tuberculosis treatment
  6. R&D to increase yield enhancements, to decrease hunger, fight biodiversity destruction, and lessen the effects of climate change
  7. Investing in effective early warning systems to protect populations against natural disaster
  8. Strengthening surgical capacity
  9. Hepatitis B immunization
  10. Using low-cost drugs in the cause of acute heart attacks in poorer nations (these are already available in developed countries
  11. Salt reduction campaign to reduce chronic disease
  12. Geoengineering R&D into the feasibility of solar radiation management
  13. Conditional cash transfers for school attendance
  14. Accelerated HIV vaccine R&D
  15. Extended field trial on information campaigns on the benefits of schooling
  16. Borehole and public hand-pump invention (Kindle Location 40)

Clearly, there is work to be done. There are problems to address and ways to go about doing so. If these are the problems we need our graduates to go out in the world and solve, schools need to provide students with the tools to do just that. They need to be aware of these problems, critically understand them, evaluate ongoing solutions, and determine how they can innovate those solutions to make them even more effective. The critical thinking, research, and interaction with others that such an education would require go far beyond anything we are doing in our schools today.

What the World Needs
In Empowering Global Citizens, which delineates the curriculum on global education followed by Avenues: The World School, the authors broadly identify environmental, technological, societal, economic, and geopolitical categories of risks that the world will be facing when today’s students leave school. To deal with these problems, the authors explain, we need a new generation of leaders:

Today’s world needs leaders who are versatile and interdisciplinary thinkers who are able to work toward finding solutions to these pernicious and entangled threats as well as informed citizens who are aware of these risks and of the way in which their own actions can minimize their impact. (Kindle Location 437)

Developing such leaders requires education that emphasizes creativity and entrepreneurship to prepare students to go out into the world and act. Therefore, we need to change what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess. We need to provide students with ample opportunity to explore the crises the world is facing and work with others to figure out how to mitigate them. According to Yong Zhao in World Class Learners:

Entrepreneurship is fundamentally about the desire to solve problems creatively. The foundation of entrepreneurship – creativity, curiosity, imagination, risk taking, and collaboration – is, just like the ideas of engineering, “in our bones and part of our human nature and experience.” Human beings are born with the desire and potential to create and innovate, to dream and imagine, and to challenge and improve the status quo. We are also born with propensity to be social, to communicate, and to collaborate. (p. 8-9)

Schools, therefore, need to acknowledge and embrace this human potential to improve the world around them. Doing so will provide students with an education that fundamentally makes all of this possible by aiming to develop the leaders who will guide innovation.

Zhao continues:

To prepare global, creative, and entrepreneurial talents, that is, everyone in the future, education should at first not harm any child who aspires to do so or suppress their curiosity, imagination, and desire to be different by imposing upon him or her contents and skills judged to be good for him or her by an external agency and thus depriving of the opportunities to explore and express on their own. . . . The most desirable education, of course, is one that enhances human curiosity and creativity, encourages risk taking, and cultivates the entrepreneurial spirit in the context of globalization. (p. 17)

This truly radical shift is undoubtedly necessary if we ever hope to make our world better. Schools today are often copies of schools decades ago. The world, however, is in many ways utterly unrecognizable.

Progressive Education
The framers of the Avenues global education curriculum, which the school calls the World Course, point to the principles of progressive education as defined by the Progressive Education Network (PEN):

  • a curriculum tailored to individual learning styles, developmental needs, and intellectual interests
  • the student as an active partner in learning
  • arts, sciences, and humanities equally valued in an interdisciplinary curriculum
  • learning through direct experience and primary material
  • a focus on multicultural and global perspectives
  • the school as a model of democracy
  • the school as a humane environment
  • commitment to the community beyond school
  • commitment to a healthy body through sports and outdoor play (Kindle Locations 694-716)

It is hard to imagine anyone reading the above list and disagreeing that this is what education should look like. Schools should act as microcosms of society, a society in which stakeholders have agency, make decisions, work with others, and learn in the ways that make the most sense for them. Current education policy, however, seems completely contrary to all of the above principles. Students have no choice in what they study and no choice in how they are assessed. Funding is cut from all areas of curriculum that are not externally tested in order to spend money on expensive programs to prepare students for assessments. Many students hate school because it stops them from doing what they enjoy. Learning in school often takes away from authentic exploring outside of school, rather than guiding students to think critically about what they see and experience on a daily basis.

If we want progress, we need to lay a foundation in which progress is possible. We need deliberately reconfigure what schools are and what they are supposed to do.

Based on the list above, progressive education means educating students to become what Alex Lickerman describes as “experts at living”, or individuals who can look at the world outside of themselves and act in ways that will improve well-being for all. Reframing education through a progressive lens can provide a framework for designing schools and curricula that will help students develop the necessary capacities to work for the benefit of humanity.

Along with PEN’s “focus on multicultural and global perspectives”, we need to intentionally push our students to become globally competent individuals who are able to interact effectively with a wide variety of people in numerous contexts. World problems will remain unresolved if we are unable to bridge our bubbles and divisions and come together as people who care about our common planet and shared humanity.

The authors of the Avenues World Course curriculum define global competency in this way:

So global competency encompasses, for example, a particular capacity for empathy with people from different cultural backgrounds as well as the intercultural competency needs to collaborate with colleagues from different national, religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. It similarly includes a deep understanding of and an interest in topics that are global in nature, including, for instance, shared natural-resource challenges, concerns for global conflicts and peace, and understanding of the historical sources of such conflicts, and knowledge of international institutions. Global competency equally requires an understanding of the global risks outlined earlier, the skills needed to educate oneself on those risks, and the capacity to live in ways that contribute to the mitigation of those risks. (Kindle Location 731)

If we want progress, we need to commit to education that mirrors the world we live in today. Discrete subjects – typically English, math, science, and social studies – in separate classrooms with separate teachers do not match what students find in the real world. There are no “math projects” or “English essays” in the workplace. There are problems to solve and a myriad ways to go about doing so. There are colleagues to work with and research to do, not individual assessments based on regurgitating accumulated facts. To develop globally competent students, our schools need to reflect the reality of a global world.

Real Learning
Young people are fascinated with the world around them. We hardly teach the word “why?” because it comes up constantly. We all ask questions about what we experience, and we all have our own ways of making sense of it. When we come across questions as adults, we do a quick Google search, solicit advice or opinions from friends, and form our own conclusions. We read what interests us and ask for help when we come across something we do not understand. Our interests change over time as we interact with different ideas. We are constantly learning, and probably remembering more than we ever did when expected to prove it on a test. Because we have fallen into this learning on our own, out of interest and based on experience, we better understand because we’ve had to seek out our own answers to our questions.

Why should we want anything different for our students?

As Zhao explains:

[A]llowing students the freedom to choose what to do in school helps children learn to take initiatives, a necessary quality of the entrepreneurial spirit. When children are given the freedom, they have to take the initiative to decide what to do. And when they do what they want to do, they have commitment. In contrast, when asked to follow a prescribed routine, they simply follow directions. The more prescribed the work, the less opportunity children have to exercise their own will. And the more prescribed, the less risk is involved. As a result, children simply become followers who learn to conform, to find the correct answers expected by adults. (p. 173)

It is difficult for many parents (and likely for many teachers) to imagine students learning different topics than their classmates and at a different pace. It is difficult to imagine different assessments and modalities of learning, and providing feedback without a grade. We worry about how we’ll know if our students are doing as well as their peers, or whether colleges will understand transcripts comprised of comments on student growth and development.

But we also worry about whether there will even be a planet because of climate change, or whether today’s students will be able to afford higher education. We worry about what jobs will be available and how to prepare students for them.

We may talk about these worries, but anyone looking into most schools wouldn’t know it. Schools have remained fundamentally the same even though the world is completely different. If we truly want to prepare students for the world they live in today and the unknown world of the future, changing the way we think about schools is imperative and requires immediate attention.

When students graduate at age 18, we expect them to know what they want to do, how they want to do it, have a plan to pay for it, and suddenly behave as independent adults. But we don’t spend their school years preparing them for this future. Moving forward, we can choose a model of creative entrepreneurship for our schools in which students are able to learn as adults do, based on talents, interests, and collaboration. Zhao explains:

Creative entrepreneurs are passionate individuals who capitalize on their strengths rather than spending time making up for their weaknesses. Driven by passion and given the freedom, they can construct their resources to enhance what they are good at instead of wasting efforts to become like others. As discussed earlier, successful entrepreneurs need to offer something unique, something different than what is already in existence. That uniqueness does not come from standardized experiences. Instead, it comes from the freedom to be individuals. (p. 175)

We want to develop passionate leaders who have a vision and experience in making decisions, delegating tasks, problem-solving, and troubleshooting. It is necessary to change the way we think about schools in order to graduate students who are able to do this. Providing students with the freedom to explore and to choose their own paths, while clearly benefitting students because it capitalizes on their interests and strengths, also prepares them to make a difference in the very real world that needs their efforts.

The World Course authors relate their view of global competency to specifically this idea of giving students the freedom to make choices and affect change:

Central to our conception of global competency is the notion of human agency – of empowerment – and we therefore sought to cultivate the mind-set that individuals can make a difference, the desire to take initiative, the ability to act in leadership roles, and an understanding of responsibility. (Kindle Location 770)

Thus, we need to build learning environments in which students interact with current world problems, have the freedom to make choices and guide their own learning, and work with those around them, including peers, teachers, families, and community members. Interdisciplinary projects, designing products, and service learning are all easy ways to make this possible.

We cannot hope to improve the world if our education systems look nothing like what we want our students to do once out in the world. Schools, rather than being siloed and distinctly separate from the world, need to be at the center of how we collectively work to make the world a better place.

Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time. – Rabindranath Tagore

Further Reading

6 thoughts on “A Case for Real Learning”

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