George Lucas Educational Foundation

Snapshots of Innovation: Travels With Chen (After Steinbeck's Travels with Charley)

Edutopia's executive director emeritus offers some glimpses into some exciting developments in public education.

    One of my favorite books in high school was John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, his account of his road trip around the U. S., late in his career, accompanied only by his French poodle Charley. Not having traveled much as a boy beyond my home state of Illinois, into Wisconsin and Indiana, I was mesmerized by his stories of the vastness and diversity of our country.

    I've been on the road much of the fall, giving talks related to my Education Nation book. So I'll follow in Steinbeck's footsteps and tell you what I'm seeing and hearing. To start, I'm amazed at the range of initiatives, organizations, and local leaders banding together to reinvent our school system. Innovations such as distance learning, 1:1 personal computing programs, and project-based learning are continuing to gain ground and supplant the old system.

    Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

    America's Best Idea

    Many of you will recall Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan's marvelous series on the history of the National Parks, named after Wallace Stegner's phrase, "America's Best Idea." Our public parks, libraries, and schools are unique, complementary institutions in our democracy. Together with public broadcasting, I refer to these four systems as the cornerstones of the American nation. Yet all of them are severely underfunded for their missions and the value they create for our society.

    In September, I participated in the first meeting of the new National Park Service Advisory Board, a group of 12 distinguished citizens appointed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to serve as advisors and sounding boards to the NPS. The committee is chaired by former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles. Secretary Salazer and NPS director Jon Jarvis addressed the group and spoke of this pivotal moment in the history of the Parks and the need to reinvent the National Park system as it approaches its second century in 2016.

    Based on last year's recommendations of the National Parks Second Century Commission, on which a number of us also served, the NPS is implementing a number of groundbreaking changes. These include a greatly elevated and more visible education mission, to help students understand our nation's most significant places -- environmentally and historically. There are 392 National Park sites in our country, from Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Everglades to Civil War battlefields, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the laboratory and home of Thomas Edison. The Flight 93 National Memorial is one of the newest additions this system. Our goal is to use these places to provide authentic learning experiences for American students and our millions of international visitors, both in person and online. Already, many NPS sites offer videoconferences and virtual field trips to students.

    Edutopia has covered a number of partnerships between schools and National Park sites, such as how the Ferryway School in Malden, Massachusetts incorporated a trip to the Saugus Iron Works to help students design their own waterwheels. Just search on "National Parks" in the Edutopia search bar to see the wealth of Edutopia's coverage, including how students at the Crissy Field Center, part of the Golden Gate National Parks, studied the effects of an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay here in my home town.

    I'd be interested in hearing from Edutopia users on projects you have done with students using National Park curricula, field trips, online content, or virtual field trips. Have you incorporated NPS web content into classroom lessons or taken students on a trip to a National Park site? Have your students had a chance to learn from National Park Rangers? Just add a comment below.

    Innovations in Ohio

    On that trip, I stopped in Columbus to speak to a group of three Ohio districts who are part of a Next Generation Learning project, supported by the Stupski Foundation here in the Bay Area, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Ohio Department of Education. The Cincinnati, Upper Arlington, and Orange City school districts are building on new approaches already in place to expand 21st Century assessments, technology use, and learning time and places, precisely the "edges of innovation" I discuss in Education Nation.

    Improving assessments for classroom, district, and national accountability is the most important change we can make, among all of the proposals for reinventing schools. As we all have learned the hard way, what gets tested is what gets taught. When assessments are narrow and based on memorization of facts, the curriculum narrows to focus on memorization. How are you designing new assessments to measure deeper learning? Can these assessments be shared to compare across classrooms and schools and improve teaching and learning?