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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A SpaceX Moment for High School

By Guest Blogger — March 02, 2017 5 min read
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This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Ed Jones, head of the Hackable High Schools initiative, will be guest-blogging.

They’ve re-purposed my old office in Hawthorne, CA.

As I write this morn, SpaceX’s Mission Control team is therein conducting operations. Where I plotted fighter dogfights, they’re carefully docking the Dragon cargo module to International Space Station (ISS). Half a globe away, 249 miles over Kazakhstan, ISS and Dragon have closed to 11 meters, with the station’s robotic arm in waiting. Home in Houston, NASA guides ISS itself via the iconic Mission Control we came to know when Apollo went to the moon.

Thanks, once more, Rick, for the chance to talk unbundled learning.

What was the most incredible video you’ve seen this year? For me, it was, hands down, landing a rocket on a platform bouncing in the sea. To really get this, check out the earlier failure and explosion by SpaceX. This is really hard stuff.

We’re squeezing in a lightning discussion of systemic transformation of high school. Like returning to the moon and beyond, transforming high school is, well, you know... To get from here to there in that task, we most need a new coherent value network.

Say what?

To many in education, systemic transformation has long implied new, larger sources of funding. For others, it’s meant the right combination of laws and regulations to prod districts forward or to turn students over (voluntarily) to non-district schools. For still others, it means we do essentially the old stuff in new ways, adding blended and competency-based learning approaches to teaching the traditional content arrangements. Each of these must be part of the mix.

But these do not truly offer a new, coherent value network (CVN). What will?

In transforming high school, curriculum matters. A new CVN for teens would first reimagine curriculum. That is, we must stop thinking of algebra II, history, or civics as a single, take-or-don’t-take year-long course and start thinking of them unbundled—as ten to thirty chunks, which can be selected and combined to meet very different needs.

Remember how we observed yesterday that school is working much better for girls than for boys? If we’re to truly serve non-college-matriculating teens, we can’t go wrong in thinking how we can better serve grade six to twelve boys.

“People. Passion. Production. Purpose.” Last week I again joined the staff of LRNG, the spinoff of the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Alliance and Mozilla’s Open Badges network. “People. Passion. Production. Purpose.” captures their four pillars: connecting young people to adults and like-interested peers; showing teens paths to learn things they can love; enabling them to enjoy the satisfaction of making things that will last; and helping them find a purpose to pull them forward.

Some of the faces in a new CVN for teens would be an off-duty nurse, a volunteer programmer, a retired machinist, a between-jobs carpenter, retired teachers, and educated moms. On a given day, it may be the carpenter who helps them learn world geography. While certified teachers focus even more on the needs, aspirations, and literacy of each learner.

Did you think just now that I’ve waffled on curriculum? Become an advocate for all-project-based-learning schools? I’ve not. I simply propose that curriculum design for 2020 cannot look like curriculum design for 2010. We cannot think of “course selection” as an annual spring rite that is the only decision about learning that teens will make all year.

On curriculum, I stand should-to-shoulder with Robert Pondiscio and the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Yet, if we’re to transform high school, we need a 1984 moment. One where curriculum is completely unbundled, made transparent to all, opened to the creativity of crowds, and iterated to new and higher forms. GitHub can guide us.

In 1979, the Department of Defense took the unprecedented step of turning over systems integration of an entire aircraft to the private sector. In 2014, NASA contracted with SpaceX to provide not just a rocket, but complete space transportation service. Neerav Kingsland might call this relinquishment. I prefer “laser-like refinement of government’s core competencies.”

When chunks of learning become the focal point of the work going forward—instead of the course—perspectives will change. When Uber created its new CVN, it wasn’t just with drivers. A whole lot of smart engineers worked behind the scenes to assure the best possible ride. The ride became the center of everyone’s attention. Perspective changed.

For 2020, states and districts need to part ways with traditional curriculum designs and approvals. (Teachers don’t use them anyway.) They need curricula more than ever—just unbundled and rethought as to its entire life cycle.

While there must be millions of SpaceX moments for high school, one might go like this:

In a previously empty factory building in Cleveland, a group of teens is just selecting from an impressive array of tools, electronics, and machines. Their public school just let out. Yet many of them are getting to the best part of their formal school day. A number of them slept in, and joined history, biology, civics, or chemistry class at a more reasonable 9am.

The ‘makerspace’ they’ve arrived at is owned by Lubrizol, a nearby, community-minded, 90 year old company. It’s staffed from 2-6 pm on school days by two youth ministers from nearby congregations, both of whom have secondary education degrees. Several other adults come in and out; this is also a membership space where adults work on projects of their own.

Formal curricula continue to guide students; they’ll learn today toward credits for graduation. All have accomplished first aid and OSHA awareness training, most have certifications with equipment such as band saws, drill press, and a nice CNC machine.

Javon is actually working through an Internet-of-Things curriculum. His capstone project will require a number of the tools and resources here, but today he’s focused on a communications controller. Emilio is somewhat of his partner in this; he works with a robot (it started life as a Roomba floor vacuum) that will interact with Javon’s IoT configuration. Others will contribute pieces to the overall installation.

We’ll round out this vision tomorrow.

—Ed Jones

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.