George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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 to the center of this nation, moving the edges of change to the middle.

So this book is my effort to "curate" the marvelous 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.

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

Exactly. But I have been teaching twenty years and I don't see that national dialogue coming any time soon. If anything education is even more politicized than ever before. Everyone's an expert and everyone knows exactly how it should be and the pendulum just keeps swinging from one side to the other. This is exactly why, though it is publicly funded, it historically was strictly locally controlled. Not so anymore. You are right though, we need to see the goal in mind first. School is supposed to fill a need, not just fill up time. So how do we start that truly productive national dialogue that doesn't just lead to another swing of the pendulum?

RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry's picture

[quote]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.[/quote]
I believe that it actually goes beyond this. People don't know how to create something new because the vast majority are stuck with their current mental models of school. I hope that we actually begin to create the networked type of schooling that you propose as a parallel structure to the current systems. It need not necessarily be computerized, but technology would sure help as long as the platform(s) created allowed for input to be learner-driven and self-organizing.
Best regards,

Matthew Shapiro's picture

The question of leaping outside of current mental models was the heart of the late Bela H. Banathy's approach to "reform." (see book Systems Design of Education, 1995, and various articles). Actually, he rejected the idea of improvement, reform, and restructuring because they merely reorganized the same thing. He articulated an idealized design process wherein the stakeholders sat down, developed their vision for what they want the future of their society and community to look like, then designed the education system from scratch based on that. Much more holistic than any current process. Helping people start with a bigger picture and an idealizing process helps them break free of current thinking - if you can get them to idealize in the first place. The closest I know of in terms of implementing this process has been tried in Indiana recently, with the help of one of Banathy's former colleagues, Charles Reigeluth of Indiana University. I took this design concept to heart in the late 90's and (naively) tried to get Idaho school district interested. I later realized that there is a fundamental obstacle to this in our society that has to be addressed first. It is the same thing that prevents us from having dialogue about health care, justice, etc. etc. It is that we don't have the social skills, let alone the forums set up, to talk about things in this manner. So transforming education is fundamentally rooted in transforming grassroots consciousness. Yet it is a chicken-and-egg problem,, since education is ostensibly the crucible that can help build that consciousness and competence. The creation of open-learning networks that initially operate in parallel with the "system" might help catalyze such discussions because they would afford people natural opportunities to get together and go " do we want our kids to learn and why? And how? And where?" Such questions are currently monopolized by "professionals" and laypersons feel little competence to participate in such decisions, even though it is only the stakeholders who have the right to answer such fundamental questions.

Milton Chen's picture
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow

Thanks to all of you who've posted on this very rich conversation about how we need to redesign, rather than reform, the current school system. And how many of these ideas return us to a closer sense of community and family involvement than we have today. As I quote John Dewey quoting Horace Mann in my book, "Where anything is growing, one former is worth a thousand re-formers."

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

Matthew and Milton,

Yes, and I would add that perhaps the crucible and the grassroots have grown too big. I would really like to see a school, my school, get back to being a local creation, not a national one. I think a national debate may just be too big. In fact I think even a state or county might be too large a pool of stakeholders to call on. Now with revised state standards and more federal involvelment in schools it does not seem likely we will be moving in the direction of forming schools that are truly local creations.

Jennifer Grove's picture

You are so right! It is hard to be an educator and not try to spoon feed all the information you have to your students. The greatest gift we can give our children is the drive and ability to question and think for themselves.

Kelly Curley's picture


I am curious. How many students and their parents would take this model and take those first steps outside their comfort zone. You speak of their "emergent needs and interests", but I wonder if they will go beyond the familiar. Many probably will; however, how do you reach or encourage those others who need that extra push?

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

This discussion takes me back to my "real" teacher training that happened in graduate school. Two books and several people are brought to my mind. The books are "Reclaiming the Classroom" (Goswami & Stillman) and "The Universal Schoolhouse" (James Moffett). If the discussion on education is really going to turn into the discussion of learning these books should be standard reading - in my opinion. Moffett, Janet Emig, James Britton, Nancy Martin, and a host of others are the philosophical idealogical foundation of articulating learning as a process not a skill. That shift in understanding makes all the difference. But it's not the mainstream of educational thinking.
Conducting education in the 21st century as if its the 1950's is nonsense. Where I grew up there was a GM assembly plant, the headquarters and main factory of Parker Pen, a large window treatment products factory called Hough Shade, and a gaggle of suppliers and transporters to service these industries. For my generation it was assumed after high school you went to work at GM, or Parker, or Hough Shade, or one of the subsidiaries. A hand full of "smart kids" went to college and a handful of them became doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Once in awhile a "jock" got chance at the pros. None of those industries exist in my hometown today. On top of that pension plans, retirement agreements and early buy-outs that were contract settlements 30 or 40 years ago have disappeared sometimes partially and often completely unfulfilled. So not one generation but three or four had their world and their lives evaporate in an instant. Their education did not prepare them for that. It was inconceivable!
Experience made it conceivable.
With challenges like educating our kindergarteners for jobs that don't yet exist, it makes education for employment a nonsensical goal. Instead the discussion of education (schooling) should be "learning how to learn". What do we do to make that happen?
I love the concept of Project Based Learning. But I also come from a history of teaching experience that would not allow that idea to live. I'm more than skeptical I'm cynical. Mainstream education is designed by and controlled by economics and politics, Definitely not by educators. NCLB and Race to the Top are examples of that. Milton Chen is absolutely right and his 6 edges of education are also right.
I'd like to talk to him about how those ideas become mainstream. How do we overcome 400 years of tradition of doing something the same way? Will technology finally destroy that tradition and if it does what will fill the vacuum?
Technology and politics destroyed the GM assembly plant, Parker Pen, and Hough Shade. The vacuum was filled with poverty, violence and crime.
Project Based Learning would be a good thing to fill the void. Faced with the weight of tradition, the power of economics and the blindness of politics, can PBL become mainstream?
I'm more than just asking. I think educators must take back education!

Kala's picture

These are some really great ideas for our future classrooms! They set the standards for the classrooms of the future. Trying new ideas is also a good way to experiment how that would work in one's classroom. We must all be open-minded to different perspectives and ideas, even if we do not agree with all of them.

Miss PN's picture
Miss PN
Middle School Math Teacher

Thanks so much for writing about your new book. I would be thrilled to live in a learning society, where education was one of the highest priorities! When I read through the description of the "Edges" I paused at the one involving parents as part of the team and reflected on the gap between theory and reality at my school. We are faced with the fact that few parents have the time to be involved with their child's education. Many of the parents at my school are working several jobs and simply can't afford the break to come to a conference. Single family homes, grandparent(s) as the guardian, homeless and jailed parents are just some of the challenges that they face. Many don't have email that I can contact them through. I send personal notes home but I wonder how we can get parents more involved given the challenges they and we face? It seems like such a critical piece of the puzzle yet I haven't read much about how we can try and engage the parents more given the obstacles? Does anyone have any ideas or experience they care to share?

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