Professional Development Opinion

The Three Great Truths at the Root of Next Gen Learning

By Andy Calkins — June 13, 2018 7 min read
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It may be the central challenge--and opportunity--of the 21st century: How can the complex systems we create to organize and manage our lives and our society better reflect simple truths that each of us already knows?

A vast ocean of commentary is grappling with that question in the context of national politics and governing. In a public education context, I mean truths like these:

  • About what people and society need: Ask any room of adults what today’s students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school. You’ll hear a chorus of 21st-century skills: problem-solving, critical thinking, communicating, collaborating, lifelong learning. To lead fulfilling, contributing lives in an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing world, children and young adults need the opportunity to develop wholly--as emotionally secure, capable thinkers and doers and learners who can handle complexity and appreciate the value of differentness.

  • About how public schools can help: Ask any room of adults to describe their most powerful, enduring learning experiences as children or young adults. You’ll hear stories of learning that was engaging, relevant, active, ‘real-life,’ challenging, productive, frequently team-based, and, most often, extracurricular or done outside of school. To provide students with the opportunity to develop wholly, public schools in the U.S. need to put those kinds of learning experiences at their center, rather than the fringe. Schools need to enable powerful learning in the many forms it can take, individually and within communities, and including, but without being limited to, academic proficiency (especially as measured by tests created for accountability).

  • About how schools can accomplish that change: Ask any room of adults about what works best in eliciting their most exceptional work. You’ll hear about understanding and embracing purpose, about feeling emotionally safe yet professionally challenged, about being part of a team but with a measure of autonomy. To become more about powerful learning and whole-child development than about teaching and fits-all curriculum, the structures, policies, and change processes of public education must ‘walk the talk’ of the goals and methods--the two truths articulated above--so that the ways it brings about this change align with the change itself. Traditional structures, policies and operating habits marked by hierarchy, mandates, compliance, and ‘does-this-count?’ mindsets are too contradictory with the goals and the methods to be successful.

Just think about how many times in the past year you’ve heard someone involved at any level in public education rue the system. If every such comment generated a dollar for public schools, the budget crises facing so many states (and sparking so much teacher protest) would disappear. The system is our favorite punching bag and all-encompassing explainer for dysfunction and inertia in public education, and perhaps deservedly so.

And yet.

The past several years have seen some significant advances in the first two of the three dimensions of change described above. We’ve seen the emergence of broader consensus on 21st-century, whole-child learning goals, with no less than 25 major research-based frameworks expressing mostly overlapping versions of that goal-set. (Next Generation Learning Challenges distilled and consolidated all 25 frameworks in its MyWays Project, released in late 2017.)

At the same time, a growing cloud of innovative educators, including NGLC’s breakthrough school design grantees and others supported by Gates, Dell, Broad, Hewlett, Carnegie Corporation, Chan-Zuckerberg, the Charter Schools Growth Fund and the NewSchools Venture Fund have been creating an increasingly rich landscape of schools designed in some fashion around next gen learning principles. There might be 500 to 1,000 of these schools now serving students, nationwide, with many completely rethinking their goals for students and showing some promising results.

But the hard part--and the part that we tend to get almost entirely wrong in public education--is how to move these new approaches, mindsets, success definitions, and measurement benchmarks into everyday use without losing the power, promise, complexity, and depth of the original ideas. So that tens of millions of schoolchildren, not just tens of thousands, can benefit and emerge from high school fully prepared to meet the challenges of 21st-century life.

This scaling-up of innovation has proved so difficult because the management and change processes we use in public education tend to reflect industrial-age thinking and methodologies. Even the verbs we use--to ‘implement,’ ‘adopt,’ ‘scale up'--imply a set of practices that have more to do with instruction-following than agency- and purpose-building. For agency-driven, personal efficacy-building, next gen forms of learning to advance broadly, the change processes we use to make that happen must reflect those same core tenets.

Enter a new term for a new era of educational change: ‘innodoption.

Next gen innodoption strategies incorporate change management processes that reflect the settled science of what motivates people of all ages to do their best work. Innodoption, as we’ve learned from NGLC’s grantees, can advance within policy environments that encourage and enable--and at least do not obstruct--the next gen goal lines and learning models.

Innodoption: The Cube and the Core

NGLC is launching a Next Gen Adoption Strategies initiative that will connect and integrate a number of strands of the organization’s work over the past seven years and co-develop, with several high-capacity grantees and partners, a new set of strategies, resources and capacities (see ‘The Cube,’ below) that incorporate the central tenet of post-industrial, 21st-century learning and social organizing (‘The Core’).

The Core is embedded within the Cube. The image is deliberate, as a counter to the prevailing tendency in K-12 education to see things as opposite ends of a continuum--in this case, with classic ‘best practice adoption at scale’ at one end, and ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ at the other. These two ideas need not oppose each other. Indeed, next gen learning demands that they do not.

School districts moving towards next gen goals and learning models need all of the supports represented by the Cube. That’s how change becomes more efficient and more productive over time--it builds on the lessons learned and capacities developed through earlier iterations. But the heart that beats within the Cube and that shapes everything it generates: that’s the Core, the settled social science on what motivates people to do their best work. The Core is as essential to the ultimate goal--the realization of the three as-yet-unfulfilled truths of next gen learning--as its companion, the Cube.

Together with educators who are deeply involved in precisely this kind of work, and partners (in particular, our friends at Transcend Education) who are entirely aligned with this thinking, NGLC plans to explore what all of this looks like in practice, and to build a foundational set of innodoption constructs, strategies, tools, and resources for local school and community leaders to use.

This work builds on, and in a way completes, the strands of next gen learning field-development that NGLC was founded seven years ago to advance. Our theory of change from the beginning has been that this time around, it is the educators who must lead this change--beginning with impatient, visionary pioneers gripped by the conviction that we can, and must, expect much, much more from our public schools if their graduates are going to thrive in a world of unprecedented, high-velocity change. That’s why we have focused, these seven years, on enabling these innovators to create new school and learning models and on connecting them with each other to protect and improve their work. We learn from them incessantly--and who better to learn from than these leaders on the ground who are grappling with the challenge of reinventing public education every minute of every day?

From them, we have learned that a system of education focused on enabling self-actualization, a strong sense of agency, and reflective practice in lifelong learning will not and cannot be obtained through this industry’s traditional, rule-and-compliance-oriented change management processes. Without immediate build-out of a new set of change management practices and capacities in public education, the movement to fundamentally alter the goals and the learning experiences offered by our public schools is destined to fail.

Andy Calkins is Director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, an initiative of the nonprofit organization EDUCAUSE.

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