Education Opinion

(More Than) Four Ways to Reverse Engineer How We Learn

By Sam Chaltain — October 02, 2013 3 min read
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As this country’s Battle of the Edu-Tribes rages on, I find myself increasingly disinterested in the slings and arrows of each side’s successive character assassination, and increasingly excited when I come upon a school, a community or an organization that is focusing all of its energies on attacking the central challenge of the day: moving away from the one-size-fits-all Industrial-era model of learning, and toward, well, something better.

Perhaps I’ve found a new ally in Daniel Coyle. Time will tell, but a recent blog post of his, “Four Lessons from the Future of Talent Development,” gives me great hope.

In the piece, Coyle highlights two very different programs - one, a Navy-Seal-like boot camp for computer coders, and the other a Brazilian-themed soccer program for youngsters. The boot camp is the brainchild of Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, and it consists of a three-month intensive project-based learning experience. What struck me, though, is the way Bitmaker “reverse engineered” their program by asking fifty software companies what skills really mattered for the folks that worked there - and then ensuring that their own program helped participants acquire those skills.

I know, crazy.

And then there’s Joy Of The People, a Minnesota-based youth soccer program that eschews the over-routinization of American soccer academies, and embraces the Brazilian approach of letting kids have lots of fun playing the game in small spaces. As founder Ted Koerten explained, “Our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.”

I know, revolutionary.

But that’s exactly the point Coyle is trying to make: programs like these are employing a self-evident logic that is, nonetheless, the exception and not the rule. So what can the rest of us learn from these sorts of learning spaces? Here’s what he came up with:

1. Great learning spaces focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.

2. Great learning spaces put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places -- rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.

3. Great learning spaces are designed to encourage lots of mixing. People aren’t segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.

4. Great learning spaces focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.

Works for me. And the good news is that these design principles work for a lot of other people, too - it’s just that you never hear about them or their work. But they’re all variations on an increasingly recurring theme, from the evergreen components of the ideal learning environment, to the latest research confirming the emotional underpinnings of learning itself.

What excites me the most, however, is that ideas like these are already informing the work of actual schools and school networks, from the aspirational habits of mind at the Mission Hill School in Boston, to the effort of every educator in the nationwide New Tech Network to identify the central characteristics of the ideal graduate of their schools - and then reverse engineer everything they do to ensure that those characteristics become embodied in the young people they serve.

As Dan says, programs like these are not merely isolated howls in the wilderness; they’re “part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.”

I know, EXACTLY.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.