Education Opinion

Seeking Edutopia

By Milton Chen — May 16, 2001 13 min read
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“My own experience in public school was quite frustrating. I was often bored. Occasionally, I had a teacher who engaged me, who made me curious and motivated to learn. I wondered, ‘Why can't school be interesting all of the time?’” —George Lucas

Much of the contemporary education debate can be summarized as proposals to improve a current system deeply rooted in the distant past. Allen Glenn, a professor and the former dean of education at the University of Washington, may well be right when he says, “The biggest obstacle to school change is our memories.”

Creating schools for the 21st century requires less time looking in the rear-view mirror and more effort anticipating the road ahead. Filmmaker George Lucas, the chairman of the educational foundation where I work, is well known for his prescient view of the transformative effects of technology in the world of entertainment. His work in digital filmmaking is a result of his impulse to, as he puts it, “run down the path more quickly than others and come back and tell them what I’ve seen.” At the foundation that bears his name, our mission is to help educators and the larger public glimpse the future, through a World Wide Web site, films, books, and CDs. Our idealism is unabashedly reflected in the title of our newsletter: Edutopia.

Creating schools for the 21st century requires faith in the potential of technology to engage many more young learners.

The best blueprints for new schools, however, won’t emerge from gazing at the blue sky. We only have to set our sights on some courageous pioneers—teachers, principals, and educators at all levels—who are blazing trails to a new horizon. The seeds of the future are being sown in the present, if we only know where to look.

Our vision of the future starts with a story. The setting: a small town in California’s central valley. The time: the 1950s. The main character: a young boy, a daydreamer who likes to write stories. He finds most of his schooling irrelevant to his deeper interests. For instance, he asks his mother, “If there is only one God, why are there so many religions?"—a question rich with intellectual possibilities but absent from his grade school textbook.

His one passion: the technology of automobiles. Outside of school, he learns everything he can about cars, from their engines and design to the economics and history of the industry. He fixes cars, races them, and considers a career as a car mechanic. A near-fatal car crash weeks before high school graduation propels him to find a deeper meaning and to pursue further education. After taking courses in writing, philosophy, art, and photography at a nearby junior college, he enrolls in a university with a friend, thinking to continue his photography studies. The photography department turns out to be a film school. He immerses himself in another technology for recording and editing pictures, sound, and music, enabling him to realize his amazing visual imagination.

Many readers can pick up George Lucas’ story from there. In 1991, our foundation was born out of his frustration with his own schooling, as well as his faith in the potential of technology to engage many more young learners like himself who learn visually as well as verbally, who like to use their hands as well as their heads, and whose creative and artistic talents go untapped in the textbook-based classroom.

Along our own path, we received wise counsel from our national board of advisers, visionaries in their own right, such as Linda Roberts, the recent director of educational technology for the U. S. Department of Education, and Shirley Malcom, the head of education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

During our first few years, we experimented with interactive laserdisc prototypes to demonstrate how advanced technology could revolutionize teaching. But our advisers advised that many promising technologies have foundered on the shoals of school systems unprepared or unwilling to adopt them. Instead, they urged us to find those schools, perhaps only a few in each state, that were quietly innovating and creating a very different kind of future.

They urged us to do what a foundation carrying the name of George Lucas should do: make films about those schools and help the public visualize what our best classrooms and teachers look like. At least then, we could point to real schools, real teachers, and real students. Innovation would not be hypothetical. In Immanuel Kant’s famous dictum, “the actual proves the possible.”

One more thing, they added. It’s 1995. There’s this thing called the Internet. Schools and teachers are getting connected to it. If it really plays out to provide the educational content of our greatest universities, museums, and libraries, for free, any time, anywhere, it could be the technology to trump all previous technologies in permeating and transforming our schools.

So, we set out to find those unsung heroes. One of our earliest discoveries, in 1996, was a 4th and 5th grade classroom taught by Jim Dieckmann at the Clear View Charter School in Chula Vista, Calif., not far from the Mexican border. For our first documentary, we filmed his students collecting insect specimens, working in teams to obtain information on their insects from the Web, creating multimedia reports, and, with their teacher, developing an assessment rubric to evaluate their use of text, images, graphics, and sound.

The students were connected through a fiber-optic cable connection to San Diego State University, where, through full two-way audio and video, entomologists guided them in examining their insect specimens under an electron microscope. The students’ excitement as they prepared to go online with the scientists was palpable. While many 4th graders can barely spell “electron microscope,” let alone use one, this experience magnified for us how the traditional curriculum underestimates the speed and depth of learning done by self-motivated students.

Our model teacher was the hub of his students' learning and a conductor of a symphony of learning resources.

Five years later, that classroom still stands as a model. Skeptics, however, deemed it merely a “stand alone” model, too high-tech and unique. They lamented that their own schools lacked high-speed cable connections and nearby universities with scientists and electron microscopes. Two years ago, the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology launched a National Science Foundation-funded program, Bugscope (bugscope.beckman.uiuc.edu), in which students around the country, kindergarten through high school, capture insect specimens, send them to the university, and then schedule the university’s electron microscope for an hour. Using their classroom computer and a Web browser, they remotely control the microscope, discussing their insects with the university’s entomologists. Bugscope and other projects like it are fulfilling the Internet’s promise of breaking down barriers to scientific experts and their high-tech tools.

Technology not only can provide new forms of content and connectivity, but also can transform human roles and relationships in educational systems—perhaps an even greater challenge. Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, has found that in matters of school reform, human inertia may be stronger than inertia in the physical world. “There is much more inertia in human society than there is in physics,” he says. “In physics, if you push on something enough, no matter how heavy, it moves a little bit. Time after time, talented and idealistic people try to improve our schools, instituting major projects with major effort; yet, when the projects end, the schools slide back to where they were before.”

Consider, for example, how the Web is changing the balance of power between patients and their physicians, equipping patients with better information to discuss their diagnoses. Technology is also leading schools to recast traditional roles: Teachers become learners, and students can become, in a new sense, “student teachers.”

In our film, Jim Dieckmann was portraying the new role of “the teacher-learner.” No longer the “sage on the stage,” but not merely a “guide on the side,” Mr. Dieckmann was still center stage. He was the hub of his students’ learning and the conductor of a symphony of learning resources, including books, the Internet, and other adult experts. He brought the larger world to his students, which in turn expanded his own knowledge of the subject.

Students' award-winning Web sites reveal the most revolutionary role yet: students as designers of curriculum.

Likewise, his students were also taking on new identities as more active, independent learners, assuming greater responsibility for their own learning, as well as the learning of their team members and classmates. As peer tutors and reviewers, they were helping teach one another.

In most schools, students have remarkably little voice in what they are asked to learn and how they learn it. This near-conspiracy to exclude students from a role in instructional decisions extends to the hundreds of educational conferences held each year, which rarely invite students to present their work or discuss their school experiences. While much has been said about the heavy burden of teachers faced with large class sizes, we rarely turn to an overlooked teaching resource already in our classrooms: the students themselves. Students can serve remarkably well as tutors for younger students, peer reviewers for their classmates, and “technology resource specialists” for their teachers.

“Help Wanted: Technologically literate person to create PowerPoint presentations from teachers’ lecture notes. Ability to find best Web sites for specific topics, such as the Civil War or animal behavior. Funds limited. Willingness to volunteer appreciated.” This want ad describes positions needed in every school across the country. Generation Why, begun in Olympia, Wash., trains students in grades 3-12 to be the perfect solution for overworked teachers needing to learn new technology skills. Now recognized as an exemplary technology project by the U.S. Department of Education, Generation Why has grown to more than 500 schools by placing students into a role formerly confined to graduate students in universities: the teaching assistant.

Unlike some graduate teaching assistants, however, Generation Why students first take a semester course on teaching, learning how to support teachers and effectively integrate technology into the classroom. The program’s graduates often go on to serve on school technology and curriculum committees, keep computer labs open after hours, and help train preservice teachers. They are living examples of the belief, rarely practiced among students, that “the best way to learn something is to teach it.”

The ThinkQuest competition for student-designed Web sites (thinkquest.org) carries student work to its fullest realization. The award-winning sites, ranging from the history and appreciation of music, complete with a virtual concert hall, to a comprehensive review of global energy issues, are astonishing in their professional quality, depth of content, and beauty of design. Their sites reveal the most revolutionary role yet: students as designers of curriculum.

As students operate in these new arrangements with each other and with adults, they will need well-developed social and emotional skills. These skills will stand them in good stead as they prepare for the digital workplace, whose job descriptions are constantly evolving and require “just-in-time learning.” Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Working With Emotional Intelligence, describes how successful workplaces, including high-tech firms, organize employees in teams and place a premium on their ability to communicate and manage relationships.

Only teachers can provide the human nurturing and mentoring needed for students to develop their social and emotional skills. No machine ever will.

Our best schools are emphasizing this undervalued part of the “invisible curriculum.” New York City’s Public School 15 in Brooklyn uses the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program developed by the school system and Educators for Social Responsibility. We observed two 5th grade girls role-playing an argument when one of them was not invited to the other’s birthday party. One girl calls the other a “lousy” friend: “I have you over to my house all the time, and you couldn’t even invite me to your stupid party?” In a second version of the same encounter, she learns to use “I-messages” in expressing her feelings: “I felt hurt and angry when you didn’t invite me, because I thought we were good friends.” Her friend responds, “My mother told me I could only invite two friends because my cousins were coming. I hope we can keep on being friends.”

Such programs reveal a well-kept secret. Emotionally intelligent students perform better on tests and other measures of learning, because they are more equipped to concentrate, persist, and think independently. Common sense and the recent wave of school shootings tell us that schooling must embrace students’ hearts, as well as their minds, that “high tech” must be accompanied by “high touch.” Only teachers, counselors, and administrators can provide the human nurturing and mentoring needed for students to develop their social and emotional skills. No machine ever will.

This new decade presents opportunities to redesign not only human relationships within schools, but also the very brick and mortar that surround them. Schools have become remarkably isolated from the rest of society, in physical as well as human terms. As Lee Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has observed, “Teaching has been an activity undertaken behind closed doors between moderately consenting participants.”

The coming wave of school construction presents a historic opportunity to rethink the buildings we call “schools,” in architectural design, physical location, and virtual connections.Some schools are modeling a new paradigm, morphing into more broadly based “community-learning centers” and using their facilities in partnership with colleges, science centers, and community organizations.

One boy told me how technology should not be a machine you <i>go to</i>, but a machine that <i>goes with you</i>.

At the School of Environmental Studies outside of Minneapolis, the border between school and community has vanished. At the “Zoo School,” as it is popularly known, high schoolers attend classes at—the zoo! With access to 2,700 animal species and 500 acres of wetlands and woods, students work alongside the zoo’s staff, studying, for instance, the zoo’s endangered species, such as the Komodo dragon or trumpeter swan, and accessing professional tools, such as a database on Siberian-tiger genetics. Instead of the game of musical desks played by most high school students every 45 minutes, these students return from their field work to their own cubicles and workstations, arrayed around a central open space used for lectures and group activities. There are now 10 similar “zoo schools” around the country.

For these innovations to spread further, educators and parents, as well as business and community leaders, must first see them and understand them. The public is well known for its attention deficit when it comes to education, but its needs as a visual learner have been largely unmet. Technology itself can help visualize these innovations. We are encouraged by the growing number of our colleagues in school reform groups and foundations who are using video and the Web to share the images, voices, and work of our most inspiring teachers and students.

In working toward greater public understanding of education, we do have one small request. On the front of our staff T-shirt is the word “JARGON” inside a big red circle with a slash through it. The walls erected by “educationese” are high and obstruct the view of many noneducators. One example: “Constructivist pedagogy” should be replaced by “teaching for deep understanding.”

Recently, I met some middle school students who carry laptops in their backpacks. One boy told me how technology should not be a machine you go to, but a machine that goes with you. He said, somewhat impatiently, “It’s a part of my brain. Why would I want to leave it behind in a computer lab?” These students are young explorers in this brave new world of technology. But they might be considered middle-aged.

Even younger students are standing in tidal marshes and at intersections, using palm-size devices to collect and analyze weather and traffic data. Portable computing is already opening up new possibilities for students to learn in and outside of classrooms, nights, weekends, and summers. And then there’s this thing called Internet 2.

These developments will continue to force our human institutions of schools to respond. They will raise the most fundamental questions of educational identity and demand more thoughtful answers: What does it mean to be a teacher? How do we define a student? And how should we design our schools?

Our best schools are already providing answers to these questions and demonstrating that our students, not our computers, are the most marvelous learning machines. Children are born wired to learn. Their brighter future is now, right in front of us, if we can only grasp it.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Seeking Edutopia


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