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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Imagine an Education Nation: Six Leading Edges

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation

My new book is just out, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools (Jossey-Bass). You can preview it on Amazon. In it, I pose this challenge: "Imagine an Education Nation, a learning society where the education of children and adults is the highest national priority, on par with a strong economy, high employment, and national security."

The most important step in making an Education Nation a reality is not a greater investment of dollars, but a greater understanding of what this new educational system should look like. It will require bringing the many "islands of excellence" featured on Edutopia.org to the center of this nation, moving the edges of change to the middle.

So this book is my effort to "curate" the marvelous Edutopia.org collection of films, articles, and multimedia features from the past few years. I've organized this collection according to what I see as the six "edges" of innovations redefining schools, teaching, and learning. They are:

1. The Thinking Edge Changing our thinking about teaching and learning and calling a truce to the wasteful education wars that pit one school of thought against another -- from the reading wars of phonics skills vs. "whole language" and children's literature, to the debate over 21st Century skills vs. "core curriculum." Just as hybrid vehicles are an important solution for our environment, hybrid thinking -- taking the best of differing approaches -- will improve our schools.

2. The Edge of Curriculum All around the country, schools and districts, as well as afterschool programs, are redefining what is taught and how it's assessed. Importantly, through project-based learning, creative educators are relating curricula to students' lives, so their students never ask the most frequently asked question in most schools: "Why do we need to learn this?"

3. The Technology Edge From the Internet to mobile devices, online curricula and courses, technology-based content, platforms, and experiences are enabling students to learn more, earlier. And helping teachers make the learning process more visible to themselves, their students, and parents.

4. The Edge of Time and Place Learning can now truly be 24/7/365 rather than limited to what happens in a classroom 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 31 weeks a year. As my last blog post described, in many places around the country, the summer months are becoming the "third semester," advancing, rather than delaying, student learning, especially for lower-income families who cannot afford the camps, travel, and enrichment activities other parents can.

5. The Co-Teaching Edge Rather than the traditional model of one teacher in a room with 30 students, smart teachers are involving a team of "co-educators" in the learning of students, from parents -- a child's first and most important teacher -- to other teachers and content experts in the community and online.

6. The Youth Edge Today's youth are becoming the first generation to carry powerful mobile devices wherever they go. As I like to say, they are carrying this change in their pockets. They are used to instant access to information and their entire social network. They learn in a fundamentally different way than we over-40s did (and certainly those of us way-over-40) and they are teaching us how to restructure this new educational system.

Last week in Orlando, Florida, I spoke about these themes at the Florida Teacher of the Year conference, a gathering of 100 of Florida's best teachers, staff of the Florida Department of Education, and corporate sponsors, including Bank of America, the Florida Lottery, and Promethean. Florida does a spectacular job of honoring its best teachers every year. The Commissioner of Education, Dr. Eric Smith, and members of his staff travel to the schools of the five finalists and surprise them, along with a camera crew, with the announcement.

At a black-tie gala at the Hard Rock Live! event center at Universal Studios, we were all treated to a dinner and awards ceremony hosted by Deborah Norville of Inside Edition. Suspense was crackling in the air as the five finalists stood on stage waiting for Dr. Smith to pronounce the winner: high school science teachers Kelly Burnette from Yulee High School and Allan Phipps from Broward County; 8th-grade language arts teacher Cristine O'Hara of Miami-Dade, and 4th-grade teachers Zachary Champagne of Jacksonville and Cheryl Conley of Vero Beach. The room erupted as Smith named Cheryl Conley as the Florida Teacher of the Year. In film clips of their classrooms, their students testified, eloquently and enthusiastically: how these five teachers made learning fun, helped them become more persistent, and if they didn't understand a concept the first time, their teachers found another way.

Earlier that afternoon, in a media circus that riveted the entire nation, LeBron James had announced he was going to the Miami Heat. I wish the honoring of our best teachers could achieve just 1% of the air time that James received. Even better: wouldn't it be great if celebrities like James stood up and said, "I have some important news to announce, but I want to do it at the Teacher of the Year ceremony so the really important people in our nation get the recognition they deserve."

When our media and celebrities devote more attention to our best educators, we will know we are becoming an Education Nation. Instead, right now, we are a sports- and entertainment-obsessed nation. Unless we want to be known as the United States of Hollywood, we need to get our priorities straight and get more obsessed with the quality of our schools. In fact, basketball has a few lessons to teach us about learning. In sports, we know it's about performance and what athletes do and not about memorizing the rules of the game. I'll say more about that in a future post.

Editor's Note: Did you miss our webinar with Milton Chen? Click here for the archive video, and to get the full list of resources that were mentioned during the show.

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cristine OHara's picture

Dear Mr. Chen,

Thank you for sharing your blog and also for replying to my email. I so thoroughly agree with your last few comments on education taking a back seat to a "Hollywood Nation" obsession. Being the finalist from Miami-Dade, you can imagine the Miami Heat discussions and therefore, lack of education talk that day. However, Florida did it right that night for those 100 teachers of excellence. The display of recognition truly made us feel like a star, maybe not the salary or news coverage L. James received, but I did feel very special for the very hard work, dedication and talent that I am bringing to Miami. If only all good teachers could feel so recognized! Again,I thank you for your signed book, your engaging presentation, and keen insight on American education. Please come visit when you are in town. My father happens to work for the National Park Service in the Everglades and I can tell you that January is a good month to visit (summer brings lots of mosquitoes). I was also so impressed with your usage of the clickers/response systems that I have proposed my school to purchase them for our SMART board hardware! Can't wait to get started.

Best Wishes,
Cristine O'Hara

Matthew Shapiro's picture

There was a time not so long ago when I was intensively studying the best of every innovative approach in the world to integrate into a charter school design. And we did end up creating a successful, progressive school. And then through doctoral coursework, I continued to advocate for an educational design process that would be based on new thinking and societal needs and vision, applying that not to niche schools but to entire systems. Gradually, however, it occurred to me that perhaps Ivan Illich was right: schooling will always, to some extent, be schooling, and not synonymous with "education." All educational systems, no matter of what stripe, produce most of the same problems that they seek to struggle against, because they work to standardize and contain. The very notion of education "systems" themselves may be outdated. Now I advocate for deschooling - not homeschooling, which is still a form of schooling - but for working toward decentralized, non-bureaucratic, network-based (not to be read as "computer-based")learning that allows any individual, of any age, and any family, to utilize every resource at their collective disposal to organize and structure learning experiences customized to their individual and collective emergent needs and interests. So long as we insist on the "scientific and techno-rational pursuit of improved professionalized education," we'll continue to perpetuate the enslavement of the mind and the spirit, no matter how well-intentioned the advocates. I haven't made friends with this view :-)

Darleen Saunders's picture

Matthew I agree with you. School by it's very nature is well "schooling". What I think you are describing is "unschooling" or reclaiming your natural ability to learn and to teach yourself. In the underground classic "The Teenage Liberation Handbook, how to quit school and get a real life education" by Grace Llewellyn, she describes how to become a self learner and take responsibility for your own learning.

I can also speak from experience. We have unschooled for years now and would never go back. My daughter has learned more out of school than in by far. We have the time to really research and to travel. We use libraries, tour companies and factories, we go to universities and get out into the real world world every day. Unschooling is more popular than you may know. We run into them often.

Merritt Helfferich's picture

Perhaps segregating children by age in high school has more to do with socialization efforts rather than academic achievement.

Darleen Saunders's picture

I work with children in many different educational settings and see a wide range of socialization skills. The most mature students are the ones who have access to all ranges of ages throughout their day.

When confined to same age grouping children are given few opportunities to learn appropriate social skills. A typical student in school comes into contact several hundred same age peers and a few adults, all of which are in a role of superior to the child.

For the children not attending an organized school setting, children will come into contact with younger children, older children and adults who are equal in ranking to the student in addition to those in a superior roll. It is in these setting that I see most emotional growth.

Ann Booth's picture
Ann Booth
6th Grade Social Studies and Language Arts TX

My own children were ready to begin school before the state would "allow" them to begin. An education should be tailored to fit the student. If a 5 year old is ready for first grade, he/she should be allowed to start.

Don Litton's picture
Don Litton
Sixth Grade Math and Science, Chatsworth, California.

I have often thought that children who grew up in a one-room schoolhouse had a richer education and grew to be adults more ready, willing and able to set goals and take on new challenges at any stage in life, but I have no data to back that up. I have often wondered if we could recreate that in a school setting where all classrooms are one room schoolhouses. At first blush I might balk at 20 different lesson plans, but then again the students themselves would have more responsibility for their own learning, and would be motivated to do so. I doubt seriously that the model of having all students in a classroom the same age has to do with socialization; it just seems to be a factory model of convenience that we limp along with. Ironically, I have never been able to have a classroom that matched the experience I saw that inspired me to be a teacher in the first place. It may seem strange to hear from a teacher, but the classroom as commonly configured, cannot, by its nature, play a very large role in the education of a child. Yet we place on it the burden of the majority, if not entirety, of a child's learning.

Darleen Saunders's picture

I agree with you Don. My father grew up in rural Arkansas and attended a one room school house with his eleven siblings. His memories of school were delightful. He recalls every student learning at their own rate, older children helping the younger ones, and the days being flexible according to the work schedule at home. Back then learning your trade at home took precedents over the what they called "book learning" yet they manage to do both. The teacher also knew that for families to survive bringing in the crop and tending to the animals was paramount. Lunch was cooked in a kettle with contributions from the everyone's home gardens. My father always wondered why we did not continue this tradition he so fondly remembered. He said their priorities were more practical then but also based on the individual and their circumstance. Children were expected to learn a skill or trade so that they could support themselves and hopefully a family as early as age 16. Every child had a jobs to do on the farm, increasing in responsibility each year. By the time he went to school my father could drive the tractor. By fourteen he ran the farm in his fathers absence. While many of those early skills are not necessary today, we still need skills in running the household and should be looking towards our independence at an earlier age than we do now.

Don Litton's picture
Don Litton
Sixth Grade Math and Science, Chatsworth, California.

Darleen,
I think the key is purposefulness, if that is a word. That is, a person's life and education are not two separate things and when there is a sense of purpose in one's life and education, get out of the way, amazing things will happen. When you spoke of your father, look how much emphasis he placed on the crucial roles children played in the lives of their families, of their farms and communities as a whole. In this context book learning is important especially insofar as they help a child help the family and community. So often we have to contrive the motivation and rationale for students to succeed that is often too abstract: "so you can have a good job, go to college, etc." We have to try to contrive the the idea that the students' lives have purpose, they don't come to us already knowing that. And it sometimes rings hollow. So the independence you mention coming at an earlier age occurs when the child knows he or she is a valuable and contributing member of something. To a child's heart, that takes precedence over an abstract future success in an academic pursuit. And your story of your father's experiences and his cherished memories exemplify this perfectly. So often in education I feel there is so little I can do about the things that would make the most difference, i.e. the sense of purpose. Oh, I make my efforts within the confines of my classroom but they are like a sterile desert in comparison to the kind of rich, meaningful integration of life, education and family/community that your father's memories recall for us. My point is that "education" must not be separate from one's source of purpose either in space or time, if that is possible.

Darleen Saunders's picture

Exactly, purposefulness. There is something to the "whole child" education movement. Not separating life from education.

Albeit our purposes have changed our need for a purpose has not. No longer agrarian, and leaning away from being industrial, we must reassess what our nation's direction will be. There is a disconnect between our ideals and our reality.

When children see a relationship to what they are learning to the real world, reality sets in. Teaching personal finance to middle school aged students is not only practical but a necessary skill of survival. (So is civics and ethics and so on...)

I'd love to see a national dialogue, not on how to "fix" our current system, but on what it is we feel an educated citizen of the future will need to know. Kind of turning the equation upside down and starting from the end and working backwards. If we don't have the goal in mind how can we possibly hit the target. I feel like right now we are reading a single page of the map and guessing where to turn next.

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