Education Opinion

Sandals on the Ground

By Contributing Blogger — March 17, 2014 5 min read
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This post is by Bob Lenz, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Envision Education

In a recent New Yorker article, “Slow Change,” Atul Gawande describes how two 19th Century innovations radically transformed the practice of medicine, one rapidly and the other slowly. Anesthesia using ether spread quickly. Its initial use was first documented in October and November of 1846, and by June 1847, ether was being used to anesthetize patients throughout the entire world. By contrast, a Scottish surgeon determined in 1867 that surgeons could stop the spread of sepsis--the infections that often occurred following surgery--by washing their hands. Sepsis was a serious problem: it was a leading cause of death in the late 19th century. But rather than being adopted rapidly by doctors across the world like ether had been, it took over a generation for hand washing and sterility by doctors to become standard practice.

Gawande reflects: “In our era of electronic communications, we’ve come to expect that important innovations will spread quickly. Plenty do: think of in-vitro fertilization, genomics, and communications technologies themselves. But there’s an equally long list of vital innovations that have failed to catch on. The puzzle is why.”

He proposes that while both changes benefited patients, the use of anesthesia benefited doctors as well, and the positive effects were immediate: who wants to perform surgery on a screaming and writhing patient? Ether transformed the surgical process from one of chaos to one of order. By contrast, hand washing demanded that doctors radically change their practices and think differently about their profession, all for the sake of a change whose effects would not be immediately apparent. They resisted.

Sound familiar? Think about it: consider the many great ideas in education that require a shift in mindset and practice, similar to the shifts Gawande describes in medicine, if educators are to make huge and positive impacts on students. But change is slow.

If we think of deeper learning as a “treatment” for what ails education in this country, then we can start to see the challenges we face. Transforming schools using the Common Core, deeper learning, next-generation assessments, and project-based learning requires more work by educators (at least initially) and a significant change in practice at all levels, with the positive effects of this treatment not readily visible. And just like a surgeon washing her hands, this investment of time, resources, and commitment will save lives.

Interestingly, the innovations of deeper learning have been around longer than you may imagine. For the last 100 years, deeper learning ideas have been evolving, beginning with John Dewey’s advocacy for more engaged and democratic learning. In the 1980’s, Ted Sizer wrote Horace’s Compromise; since the 1990s, educators around the country, like Envision Education and my deeper learning network colleagues--High Tech High, Big Picture Learning, Expeditionary Learning, Internationals Network for Public Schools, New Tech Network, EdVisions, Asia Society, New Visions, and ConnectEd, as well as many others--have been teaching and assessing deeper learning. We have a long history, with many dedicated practitioners, of employing deeper learning strategies and achieving positive results. But these ideas are spreading at the pace of hand washing, at a time when we need them to spread like ether.

How do we make this an “ether” moment in history instead of waiting for another generation to see the change our children need?

In “Slow Change,” Gawande quotes Everett Rogers, “the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated” to describe what social innovations need: “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.” Gawande goes on: “Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

This is also at the heart of our efforts to spread deeper learning far and wide. Technology, social media, big message campaigns, incentive programs for teachers: all of these have their place in this social change movement. But real change will happen when teachers talk to teachers, and principals talk to principals, and finally when superintendents and other decision-makers talk with each other and join the conversation. When personal connections are made, personal choices follow; to transform education, the deeper learning movement needs these personal connections. As Gawande concludes, “People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change.”

This can be our starting point. I invite everyone who believes in deeper learning to start talking. Tell the story of that one student who changed the way you teach, or who you were able to help because of a deeper learning strategy you tried. Find out what your colleagues are doing: learn from them, listen to them, and engage them about the challenges they face. Ask lots of questions; develop lots of relationships. Understand that for so many teachers, our goal is the same--to give students what they need to imagine and achieve bright futures. And foster those conversations that will help you and your colleagues improve classroom practices so that students can do exactly that.

Next week, over 400 educators from around the country will be in San Diego at High Tech High doing their part--sharing practices and stories--at the Deeper Learning Annual Conference.

We live in a technology-driven age that places a high value on push-button immediacy and viral impact. We can and should use every possible opportunity to promote deeper learning using those opportunities and avenues. As Gawande puts it, we also need to put “sandals on the ground,” and remember that the greatest strategy we have for transforming education is to develop strong relationships in which we can share the deeper learning story.

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.