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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

We Can Double Teens’ Learning

By Guest Blogger — February 27, 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.

We can double what teens learn through school.

Some of you (most?) just rolled your eyes. I understand. Stagnant PISA scores, potential budget shortfalls, organizational challenges, an “incompetent” education secretary, all that. We’d be lucky to eek out a 10% gain, right?

Before I continue, I’d like to just say thanks so much, Rick, for this chance to spin some tales of unbundled learning and systemic transformation.

If you kept reading this far, you may be among the few who think the opportunity for learning growth is even more than 2x. Yet, let’s stick with that; let’s imagine it together, at least for this one week. What would we do with such a gift? How might we make choices about all that new learning? By what means will we prioritize the new knowledge and skills they’ll gain? How do we keep equity foremost in mind?

I mean in this exploration no slur on the work of today’s educators. On the contrary, they’ve already performed near magic. While constrained by outdated systems, the larger picture shows they’ve even introduced significant amounts of new learning.

My niece is now Salutatorian in her rural district, just as I was. However, she will have packed in significantly more learning. Though not particularly a lover of math, she mastered AP Calculus as a junior, while I, with state awards in geometry, struggled with anti-differentiation and other concepts well on into my sophomore year in college.

What, and how, we teach has already greatly improved. We can count, too, the increased maturity in so many ways of a present-day teen vs one of a generation ago. While not all of that added maturity came via school, much did, and we have teachers to thank.

So, what next? What gives me inspiration for such a radical prognostication as a doubling of teen learning? To explain, let me introduce you to a little buddy of mine. We’ll call him Jamal.

Jamal is not yet a teen; he’s only now in fifth grade. It’s been a year since he tried to teach me Minecraft. (Emphasis on tried. If you’re playing along, I am not your average education writer. I cut my teeth on some of the world’s most complex electronics. I redesigned an avionics system. At 45, I decided to teach myself full stack web programming, and succeeded. Minecrafting did not come easy.)

Kids, the raw material of education, retain huge capacity for more learning. Jamal has not been marked in school as a prodigy; reading gave him serious issues in third grade. We live in the sticks. And yet, in a blink, he’d set up my phone to play the game, set his to act as a server, and then, more or less, patiently led me through the block world he was creating.

“It’s a game,” you say. Yes, that’s true. But biology, U.S. history, and French can be games, as well.

Now, systemic transformation is really what we want to talk here. I don’t want to use my time to talk tech; I want to focus on #nextGenHS. I want to talk of the high school Jamal will find in just a couple more years.

To do that, we need some common perspective. While graphical gameplay is not a prerequisite for a doubling of learning, games and gamification can greatly help. Elements of the gaming mindset can step up the way learning units are presented in the classroom. We’ve met English and history teachers who have gamified their entire class. Others have used students’ game creation to change their approach to curriculum.

Other opportunities, enabled by tech, are coming. For Christmas, I bought the above-mentioned niece a virtual reality viewer. For $39, she’ll use her iPhone to drive immersive 3-D experiences. The out-of-the-box preview is of the space shuttle in a star field.

Imagine parts of the entire world, in 3-D, as writing prompts. “Your task for the next half hour is to grab a scene from one of these GoPro VR experiences, and describe it on paper. Your first two drafts can be dictated into Word. Then, edit your pieces to describe more carefully what you see.”

And imagine that every last teen in the school had been regularly portraying such experiences for the past 3-6 years. And that we begin stitching such VR experiences together into games, which allow the learning to flow even more smoothly. Not just scenes of street views and landscapes or cultural events, but of factory floors, research labs, test tracks, neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Now, imagine the impact of the same tech on younger teachers. That they’ve participated in such immersive, descriptive narration from around the world hundreds of times with their young learners. How much more will these teachers bring to their next set of teens?

Deborah Meier’s axiom that “children learn best in the company of interesting adults” suddenly takes on a whole new level. Just as more interesting adults suddenly appear in 3-D, young teachers also become far more interesting themselves as they absorb so many intriguing experiences.

These improvements are already beginning to make a statement. Place-Based Education got a lot of attention this year. Genius Hour substantially helps some of the most disengaged students. One reason it succeeds is that it puts the decision of which adults are interesting into the hands of the learner. And the MakerEd movement puts tools and physical making back in the hands of teenaged students. Done right, it will connect them with adult makers.

It’s often said that school hasn’t changed in 100 years. In reality, where we’re stuck is simply in fitting in all the incredible innovations.

Readers will know Rick’s new book Letters to a Young Education Reformer is almoooost available.

Meanwhile, it was announced last week that the U.S. Marshals Service would provide (unprecedented) guarding of the new Secretary of Education. This is insanity.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some meta-thoughts on where those with a passion for education can focus their efforts. Later, we’ll look at where there might be room for more learning, as we unbundle and #rethinkHighSchool.

—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.