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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia: "The Actual Proves the Possible"

Edutopia, defined.
By Milton Chen

Milton Chen, executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation, and founder George Lucas share a belief in the power of technology to transform education.

Credit: Edutopia

Edutopia. The word conjures up images of some far-off, unreachable land, where students are motivated to learn, study subjects in-depth and over time, and display initiative and independence in organizing their time and work. The quality of their work is astonishing, often several years ahead of current definitions of being "on grade level." Similarly, their teachers are energized by the excitement of teaching. As professionals, they possess strong mastery of their subjects and how to teach them. They have the time and commitment to attend to the academic and social needs of their students as individuals. They regularly plan, analyze, and reflect on their teaching with other teaching colleagues.

These schools do not resemble the bastions that most of us attended, sealed off from contact with the outside community. As Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has observed, "Teaching has been an activity undertaken behind closed doors between moderately consenting participants."

Instead, these schools seem more like welcoming community centers, where parents, artists, architects, physicians, and other members of the community flow through the school, contributing their expertise and resources. Technology enables students, teachers, and administrators to reach out beyond the school building. Sources of knowledge and experts as far away as the Library of Congress or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are as close as a student's computer screen, offering a window on a genuinely worldwide web of learning possibilities.

Such a vision of powerful teaching and learning is real. It exists today in pockets of innovation around our country. This book and CD tell the stories of dedicated teachers, administrators, students, and communities that have made the concept of an Edutopia a reality across our nation. They have shown what can be done, often with the same resources as other schools and sometimes, with fewer. In Immanuel Kant's famous dictum, "The actual proves the possible."

Celebrating Unsung Educational Heroes

The most precious resources these innovators have are their vision, their daily dedication to providing the best education students deserve, and their ability to persuade others to follow. From principal Tony Bencivenga's commitment to social and emotional learning in his Ridgewood, New Jersey, middle school to Peggy Bryan's courageous stand on bilingual education in her San Jose, California, grade school, these educational pioneers have set out on a different path from the one charted by most public discourse about our schools these days, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing and accountability. They realize that the stakes in that game reward only superficial learning and cannot lead to the types of schools we will need in this century. They understand that there is no such thing as "mandatory education" and that true learning must voluntarily engage students' minds and hearts.

Unfortunately, these extraordinary individuals -- and others like them -- are largely unsung heroes. By telling their stories of success, imagination, and perseverance, we hope this book and CD will share the good news in our schools and help others to learn from their examples.

Engaging the Public Through Media

At The George Lucas Educational Foundation, our mission is to help educators and the larger public envision this brighter future, through our Web site, films, books, videocassettes, and CDs. Readers who know our work recognize our belief in the power of technology to fundamentally change the nature of the education enterprise, just as it has done in other fields of business, medicine, manufacturing, and the arts. With schools, it just takes a lot longer.

However, sometimes the progress can be rapid. In our 1997 video Learn & Live, we profiled a class taught by Jim Dieckmann at the Clear View Charter School, in Chula Vista, California, not far from the Mexican border. His students, in grades 4-5, were engaged in project learning about insects, collecting insect specimens, working in teams to obtain information from the Web, creating multimedia reports, and developing an assessment rubric to evaluate their use of text, images, graphics, and sound.

The class was connected through a fiber-optic cable to San Diego State University, in San Diego, California, where, through full two-way audio and video, entomologists helped the students examine their insect specimens under an electron microscope. The students' excitement as they prepared to go online with the scientists was palpable. Though many fourth graders can barely spell "electron microscope," let alone use the device, these students showed us how the traditional curriculum underestimates the speed and depth of learning done by self-motivated students.

An Internet Solution Places Scientific Tools in Students' Hands

Five years later, Jim Dieckmann's classroom still stands as a model. However, some skeptics found it too high tech and too unique, perhaps too utopian a view. They argued that most schools did not have high-speed-cable connections and nearby universities with scientists and electron microscopes. However, just two years later, the Internet provided a solution. In this book, you will find the story of Bugscope, a project of the University of Illinois's Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, which developed special Web-based software to make an electron microscope available via the Internet to K-12 students anywhere in the country.

That story and others in this book demonstrate how technology is not only providing new forms of content and connectivity but also assisting in transforming human roles and relationships in school systems -- perhaps the greater challenge. An analogy can be found in the world of medicine, where the Web has changed the balance of power between patients and physicians, equipping patients with new sources of information to discuss their diagnoses. Similarly, our best schools, in part through technology, are recasting traditional roles and shifting the balance of power between teachers and students.

Now teachers must spend more time as learners, continually sharpening their professional knowledge and craft. Students must take greater responsibility for their own learning -- even, at times, tutoring each other. Some schools are taking advantage of students'; fluency with technology and placing them in positions as technology teaching assistants, a new and powerful type of teacher-student relationship. Students as productive team members, insightful peer tutors, supportive teaching assistants, and even creative curriculum designers -- these are the new roles our students will play in the digital age.

Emotional Intelligence More Important Than IQ

As students work in teams and communicate with each other and manage relationships, they will need well-developed social and emotional skills. These skills will stand them in good stead as they prepare for the digital workplace, where job descriptions are constantly evolving and require just-in-time learning. Employers are placing greater emphasis on social and communication skills, in addition to the types of technical knowledge required.

This book also profiles how our best schools are emphasizing this undervalued part of the "invisible curriculum," what well-known author Daniel Goleman has called emotional intelligence. They are showing how high tech needs to be accompanied by high touch. Such programs reveal a well-kept secret: Emotionally intelligent students often perform better on tests and other measures of learning because they are better equipped to concentrate, persist, and think independently. Only teachers, school counselors, and school administrators can provide the human nurturing and mentoring needed for students to develop their social and emotional skills. No machine ever will.

The Need to Visualize Our Best Classrooms

For these innovations to spread further, educators and parents, as well as business and community leaders, must first see them and understand them. Technology itself can help visualize what these innovations look like at their most basic level -- in the classroom, in the words and behaviors of teachers and students. As a Web-based foundation, a dot-org instead of a dot-com, we endeavor to practice what we preach. Our Web site uses the latest in Internet technology to present numerous videos and expert interviews, as well as related articles and resources, so that users can "see" into these classrooms.

We also acknowledge that the challenges of locating and accessing this content, especially video, from our Web archive remain daunting for many. Our colleagues at Jossey-Bass Publishers have been invaluable in helping us assemble this book and CD as a best-of collection of our Web content during the past year, along with newly commissioned material. With their encouragement, we have included a CD with more than an hour of film segments showing the schools and classrooms described in the book, up close and personal.

We hope that this book and CD pique your interest so that you will want to know more. We have included Web sites for these model projects and a resource list of additional materials. Our Web site contains more short documentary films and interviews, articles, and resources related to the topics addressed here. The three sections of this book mirror the categories of our site: Innovative Classrooms, Involved Communities, and Skillful Educators. The site also includes more extensive "Starting Points" for parents, school board members, university faculty, and members of business and community organizations -- the groups whose joint efforts are needed to create our best schools. We invite you to take a closer look at our site.

"This Computer is a Part of My Brain"

Recently, I met some middle school students who carry laptops in their backpacks. One boy told me how technology should not be a machine you go to, but a machine that goes with you. He said, somewhat impatiently, "It's a part of my brain. Why would I want to leave it behind in a computer lab?"

These students are young explorers in new educational terrain. Even younger students are standing in tidal marshes and at intersections, using handheld devices to collect and analyze weather and traffic data. Portable computing is already opening up new possibilities for students to learn in and outside of classrooms, and in the nighttime, weekends, and summers, as well as by day. And, on the not-too-distant horizon, new technologies promise to deliver swifter access and new forms of multimedia content to our schools, homes, and communities.

These developments will continue to force our human institutions of schools to respond. They raise the most fundamental questions of educational identity and demand more thoughtful answers: What does it mean to be a teacher? How do we define a student? And how should we design our schools? Our best schools are already providing answers to these questions and demonstrating that our students, not our computers, are the most marvelous learning machines. Children are born wired to learn. Their brighter future is now, right in front of us, if we can only grasp it. Welcome to Edutopia!

An adaption of this article is published in the George Lucas Educational Foundation's book Edutopia: Success Stories for Learning in the Digital Age.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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