A mentor once said to me that he had never seen a kindergartener arrive at school with the idea that he or she was not a learner. During my professional years spent as an elementary principal, I cherished the opportunity to “kid-watch” kindergarteners on a daily basis. The block area served as a favorite space of the kindergarteners and me. Here the fantastical imaginations and risky behaviors of five-year olds led them to design and construct post-modern expressionist structures reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s most interesting work.
I learned kindergarteners aren’t afraid to explore the intersection of disparate materials that leads them to create whimsical, sometimes even absurd architectural spaces – towers, homes, castles, even whole cities – combining Legos, wooden blocks, aluminum foil, cardboard – whatever they could find in the kindergarten co-laboratory. Turned loose, kindergartners epitomize the dispositions of lifelong learning. They are adaptable, flexible thinkers who will play in the sandbox for hours, despite their short attention span in circle time. They love math and science and writing and painting and music and mythical stories and non-fiction information and chasing each other and dancing – all in the name of learning.
Educators’ Tower Building
Taking a page from the MIT kindergarten playbook and the design focus of Parsons School Institute of Play, I wrestle with how we can grow the passion for learning inherent in kindergarteners in our own work as educators. What it means to educate and be educated takes on new meaning in today’s technology-driven world. The task of educating young people who will graduate from our high schools with the capability to add value to our communities and workforce presents a challenge unique to these times. Our country’s democratic survival depends upon our educational community doing its best work ever in the history of public education.
We educators have watched Shift Happens (Mcleod and Fisch) on YouTube, read Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students and listened to Tony Wagner push us to not just focus upon the national achievement gap but also the global one. Yet, the momentum necessary to make necessary changes never quite gets us off the ground. In fact, as Larry Cuban noted in 1992 in the article, “Computers Meet Classroom. Classroom Wins”, reforms do not change schools, but rather schools change reforms and, in such a way that little change ever occurs in schools.
A lifelong quest as an educator has been to figure out why we educators are less likely to change, indeed to incorporate new learning into our work, than almost any other field. I have come to believe that the potential for“deep change” in which knowledge, practices and processes shift is a function of the availability of substantial time for our own adult learning – something that is in little supply in America’s Pk-12 schools.
We educators have little time to play in the sandbox; to explore the intersections of disparate ideas, disciplines, and cultures that would lead us to create, design, and invent the curricula, assessments and instruction necessary to provide learning sustenance to contemporary learners. Instead, teachers work long hours during a 200 day school year, using what daily planning time is available to accomplish clerical and administrative tasks related to operational details of the job. Little to no time exists for a typical Pk-12 educator to read, think, reflect, collaborate, write, study, listen, converse, create, problem-solve; indeed, simply learn. This situation is inconsistent with other professions in this country and with the professional life of educators who work in high performing educational communities around the world.
I have come to the distinctly simplistic perspective that our educators need more unencumbered professional time dedicated to learning and that if they had access to such time, education would be transformative for learners and learning. However, expecting educators to acquire and use skills and then assimilate rapidly shifting technologies into their work with students, means coming to terms with the fact that integration of new technologies, new pedagogies, and new content demands far more time than our teaching educators are obligated to work in traditional contracts and on traditional calendars which do not serve us well in the twenty-first century.
Time to work together
On the other hand, some aspects of educating young people well in today’s world aren’t a lot different from 10,000 years ago. I suspect the best tribal teachers knew the value of team learning, hands-on approaches, practice, coaching and high levels of Bloom’s. For early Homo sapiens, teaching well surely meant the difference between the life and death of a tribe’s young people. Our earliest teachers knew that neither they nor their pupils could afford to rest as learners, but rather that they all had to constantly adapt and flex as they acquired new knowledge and skills essential to survival. Tony Wagner describes the skills that teenagers need in this century’s colleges, workforce, and communities as survival skills, too. These skills include Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence, Agility and Adaptability, Initiative and Entrepreneurship, Effective Oral and Written Communication, Accessing and Analyzing Information, and Curiosity and Imagination.
Opportunities to develop and use Wagner’s skills don’t typically emerge as a result of traditional curricula, instruction or assessments used in most of America’s public schools. If Tyack and Cuban are correct, not much will change as a result of any of our ghosts of reform – past, present or future. So what will it take to drive home the deep change needed so that our digital learners get the learning spaces they need today? And, if educators have little opportunity to engage in and assimilate new professional learning, why would they not remain closed and resistant to change?
Lifelong learning is essential to practitioners in the field of education. We must provide time for our teachers to continue learning if we expect them to embrace meaningful and necessary changes to transform schools of our past into schools for the future. This means providing significant time to try out new strategies and tools, to build relationships with each other as learners, and find the value inherent in participating in both virtual and face-to-face learning communities, including social learning media such as Twitter chats.
Time should not be either a luxury or an excuse for educators to do the hard work and play essential to their own learning. Just as in kindergarten, creative and inventive ideas in the block area or sandbox come with the time to think, to collaborate, to try out different construction materials and strategies, to analyze, and decide what to do next. Expert kindergarten teachers purposefully schedule the time needed for young children to do the messy work of learning. School calendars and contracts that reflect the time needed for educators to engage in their own learning work are a must. The biggest challenge is finding the funding, and, even more important and scarce, the will to make the necessary changes in structures leftover from the agrarian and industrial ages of public education.
Perhaps, if our communities and educators believed our survival depended upon it, change would happen tomorrow.