Education Opinion

Eight Great Leaps for Learning

By Contributing Blogger — March 21, 2018 9 min read
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This post is by Jeff Wetzler and Aylon Samouha, co-founders of Transcend.

It is no secret that nearly every facet of society--from technology to jobs to demographics--has transformed over the last century. With that, the skills and mindsets people need to thrive have changed, too. But as many have noted, in most schools across America, our students are sitting in classrooms that look and operate like those of a century ago.

Despite tireless efforts to squeeze every possible drop of value out of the current model, most schools fall short in preparing students sufficiently for the futures that await them. We know that many readers of this blog will affirm that in the fast-changing 21st century, our children need even more than academic skills and knowledge. They also need learning mindsets, creativity, communication and collaboration, critical consciousness, and leadership skills--deeper learning that the industrial model was not designed to foster. Together, these conditions call for the investment in developing fundamentally new learning environments--which may or may not constitute “schools” as we know them. Tweaks around the edges won’t cut it.

At Transcend, we look at this as a research and development challenge. Beyond a strong vision and desire to transform learning, innovating and replicating new models of “school” requires deep R&D capacity to build, iterate, validate, and ultimately codify models. This R&D entails a rigorous and intentional design process we believe communities must undertake to create new learning environments. As Jal Mehta points out, the 0.25 percent of total education spending that currently goes into R&D falls woefully short of what is required. And even beyond just money, there’s a capacity challenge--the sheer demands of teaching and running “schools” make it hard to step back and fundamentally rethink, design, test, and build new models. It’s no surprise that the gravitational pull of the status quo is so powerful.

A few years ago, we collaborated with two Transcend board members, Stacey Childress and Diane Tavenner, to describe a theory of change--titled Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic--for what it would take to support the design and spread of better learning environments. In that work, we don’t advocate for one single, new model of “school.” Rather, we see the need for a diversity of models that makes Eight Great Leaps in moving from old models to what the 21st century demands of education.

In future posts on this blog, we will dig deeper into each Leap and share examples of communities across the United States who are ambitious about overcoming the challenges associated in moving away from old “school” models. For now, we will focus on summarizing the Leaps themselves--in particular, characteristics of old and new models and how these characteristics manifest in learning environments. We see these Leaps not as prescriptions, but as provocations for communities to consider and as ever-evolving hypotheses that animate our approach to design.

Great Leap #1--The Focus of School

The traditional model of “school” is characterized by a focus on narrow student outcomes through academics in core disciplines. For more than a century, the emphasis has been on gaining content knowledge, developing skills within disciplines, and advancing academic levels. In this view of learning, having young people master math, science, English, and other material theoretically equips them to meet college requirements, gain employment skills, and contribute meaningfully to society.

But over the last few decades, the world has been transformed as a result of the digital revolution, advances in modern medicine, and our ever-growing knowledge of the world. As many have said, the 21st century is volatile, uncertain, changing, and ambiguous (VUCA). To this acronym, we would add the letter “U” for “unjust” to recognize the main forms of injustice that persist and fall along lines of race, class, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, ability, learning differences, and more. In such a landscape, deliberately designing learning environments that cultivate the following broader, more holistic student outcomes is critical:

  1. Academic and Career Knowledge--This includes the factual, conceptual, and procedural knowledge specific to academic disciplines and career fields that informs learners’ perspectives of the world and of themselves.
  2. Transferable Skills--Interdisciplinary, cognitive, metacognitive, and behavioral skills that allow learners to build, process, and apply knowledge in meaningful, high-impact ways alone and with others.
  3. Global Competencies--Understandings about the world, and approaches to living in and transforming it, that learners need to orient to, critically interrogate, and successfully navigate the ever-changing social, political, and economic landscape.
  4. Social Emotional Factors--The beliefs and behaviors that support learners’ abilities to engage with themselves and others in ways that drive their short- and long-term success.

You can read more here about our research to define these aims and our process of working with communities to define graduate aims. But the key choice of “new” learning environments is that they aim for the above outcomes and align everything else about what they do and assess towards these.

Great Leap #2--Expectations for Children

Expectations matter. Old “schools” were rooted in an era when expectations for children were inequitably distributed and unchanging. Researchers point out that teacher expectations were modest for most students, high for a few, and disproportionately low for low-income and students of color.

To be relevant and important, new learning models must include high expectations for every child. Learning environments should be designed to leave as many doors open, for as long as possible, for every learner, regardless of demographics, learning differences, or starting levels. Learning environments demonstrate high expectations for children when those environments include strong and customized supports for each child to fulfill their highest potential in their own way.

Great Leap #3--Learner’s Role

In the old “school” model, learners were more positioned as obedient, passive recipients. Adults would set the direction, while students would comply or face punishment. Students moved in fixed, age-based “batches” through the same content and at the same pace.

In new models, young people have opportunities to be active drivers of their learning and leaders within their community. Learners drive their unique paths--moving at their own pace (based on mastery) and modalities through learning goals that matter to them, while shaping the broader learning community.

Great Leap #4--Learning Modes and Pathways

In traditional learning models, learning modes were fixed and classroom-based. Students were assigned to classrooms, while instruction was provided by a teacher using a consistent set of resources for all students.

The future, however, demands learning modalities that are flexible, personalized, and obtainable anywhere. In new models, learners can access whatever learning experiences best meet their unique goals, needs, and learning preferences--regardless of location or time.

Great Leap #5--Adults’ Roles

In old “school” models, educators usually worked alone and wore many hats. A classroom teacher inherited a pre-set role, and was typically responsible for everything. They were often isolated as professionals. All of this made the role hard to succeed in and sustain.

New models expand children’s web of supports through having multiple relationships with many caring adults in different roles. In these models, adults work together--many people, each wearing a unique hat--and take collective responsibility for the success of all learners. When many caring adults (in and out of “school”) collaborate, they can leverage specialized expertise based on their strengths and skills.

Great Leap #6--Families’ Roles

The traditional model of “school” was designed with parents and guardians at the periphery, as passive customers. Parents were inadvertently kept at a distance, making it hard for them to know how their students were doing, what they needed, and how to help.

New models treat families and caregivers as active partners in their child’s learning. They are deeply and regularly plugged into their children’s goals, choices, progress, and needs. They are also clear on how to partner with educators to support the learning community. Importantly, they contribute to the evolving design and ongoing running of their child’s learning environment.

Great Leap #7--School Community

The old “school” community model was fragmented and inequitable. There were separate classrooms, desks, and lockers. Often, there were homogenous racial and/or economic populations. Student breaches of adult expectations were disciplined punitively. And there were fewer relationships across lines of difference.

New learning environments are characterized by a community of stakeholders that is equitable and interconnected. There is an unapologetic focus on love, collaboration, and shared ownership for community, with logical consequences and restoration if breached. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the heart of community practices. And the boundaries of the learning community are permeable to enable a broad and diverse set of relationships with others inside and out of “school.”

Great Leap #8--Technology Use

Lastly, the old “school” model used technology haphazardly, if at all. Either technology was used as a tool for limited tasks that did not require a human touch, or it was employed as a poor substitute for relationships.

In new learning environments, technology is embedded in ways that enhance human connections (among learners, educators, and parents) and that enable widespread personalization. In addition, technology becomes a form of literacy and a tool for creative expression that learners can master.

Taking the Leaps

In our descriptions of the Eight Great Leaps above, likely you’ll have noticed that we used the past tense to describe old “schools,” as if those models were squarely in the past. Unfortunately, most mainstream learning environments still derive from a model designed a century ago. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

While naming the Leaps is much easier than taking them, there are trailblazing communities casting vision and marshalling the deep R&D capacity needed to build, iterate, validate, and ultimately codify new learning environments aimed at fostering breakthrough results for all children. In the coming months on this blog, we look forward to sharing examples from some of those communities who are making the leaps.

We also invite you to share your feedback, as well as your own examples of ways we can overcome barriers to making the Leaps so that ultimately all children have the opportunity to learn in environments that prepare them to thrive in--and transform--the 21st century.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.