Two kinds of schools tend to hire my services as a consultant: traditional schools taking tentative steps towards project- and competency-based learning, and special pilot programs that need to justify their value to the state, prospective parents, or others to whom they are accountable. Each type of school is attempting to address the core problem of the typical “factory model,” teacher-centered classroom that privileges memorization and recall. Such classrooms usually fail to engage young people in learning higher-order skills like critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving.
Traditional schools tend to face what I’ve dubbed “the Penguin Problem,” in honor of a veteran teacher whom I once tried to help enhance a research project she had taught for decades.
What was the greater purpose of the project?
“For the students to learn about penguins,” she told me.
Penguins are admittedly pretty cool. But since several minutes with Wikipedia can reveal anything students would ever want to know about them, what larger topics or themes could we plug into the project? Animal life cycles? Food webs? Humanity’s impact on other species?
“They need to know about penguins,” she maintained, pointing to the relevant learning standard.
Certainly, critical thinking and problem-solving require that students possess some base of factual knowledge. But facts can seem meaningless unless they are somehow contextualized.
Even more concerning is when I see students pursue creative projects that produce products, but no clear learning."
Yet, too many traditional education models seem built specifically to prevent connections to other topics, subjects, and students’ own lived experiences. Even a simple field trip like a walk around the neighborhood (to teach cartography by mapping familiar places, for instance) requires overcoming tremendous scheduling and permission hurdles.
Some teachers find the idea of crossing subject-area borders even more challenging than crossing a busy intersection. (“We can’t include any math concepts. It’s designated English/language arts time!”) I’ve consulted with some wonderful educators who are bravely moving from the role of director to facilitator of learning, employing cooperative and personalized structures to engage all of their students. But I hear these teachers loud and clear when they say it’s a tall order with 30 students and 45-minute class periods. I take them seriously when they tell me they lack time to have students learn math or science through actual experimentation, because they have 20 more standards to “cover” that month. (Read: Write on the whiteboard, give a quick lesson and a quiz, then move on.)
Those are traditional schooling’s challenges: Each individual class is its own small iceberg, and it’s too hard to connect to the other icebergs floating out there. The Penguin Problem.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve worked with educators at pilot, innovative, and private schools and programs that are frequently willing to rethink age-grouping or eliminate classrooms in favor of design studios or outdoor explorations. In their zeal to shield themselves from the corrupting influences of tradition, however, educators at such schools too often throw out best practices with the bathwater.
One teacher I worked with struggled for a whole year to figure out ways to get her chaotic class on task. We spent hours discussing strategies like setting clear expectations, developing classroom norms and procedures, and enlisting disruptive students in generative classroom roles. It was classroom management 101, and she wished she’d had it from the outset.
Even more concerning is when I see students pursue creative projects that produce products, but no clear learning. I recall a student proudly showing me a gorgeous red-tailed hawk wire-and-cloth sculpture she had worked on for weeks.
What had she learned about red-tailed hawks—their biology, their behavior, their role in the ecosystem?
What had she learned about design?
“It was really hard to make and took a lot of time.”
Despite its presentation as “documentation of learning,” this sculpture seemed to be merely a documentation of effort.
Innovative schools can seem allergic to the idea of “learning standards,” as if to mention their name would be to summon the drudgery of lecture and fill-in-the-bubble tests. The irony is that the Red-Tailed Hawk Problem is, in its own way, just one more version of the factory model: Instead of reproducing the work of Wikipedia, students reproduce the work of a 3D printer.
What needs to happen is a mating between the penguin and the red-tailed hawk.
Leaders of traditional schools need to rethink “coverage models” and allow teachers to sacrifice some particular content in order to help students learn overarching concepts and skills deeply. They need to be brave enough to make significant structural changes. They cannot just ask their teachers to start using project-based learning, without lengthening block times, for instance.
Pilot, charter, and private schools have a responsibility to prove they can actually educate, as well as engage young people. They should provide their staff professional development in core teacher competencies, including lesson planning, assessment, and classroom management. Teachers should at least be conversant in time-tested traditions for creating well-functioning learning environments before breaking with them.
Students need teachers who will not circumscribe their learning according to inflexible curriculum timetables, but who will also not just let them run loose without helping them progress towards defined learning goals—and, when necessary, hold them to those goals and demand excellence.
Without these sorts of structures, our most innovative schools risk forever remaining boutique options, as opposed to workable visions of what education could and should look like: not penguin, not hawk, but some third kind of bird, that could both endure and soar.