As superintendents shared their districts’ contemporary learning stories on a field trip to the ConnectEd Summit in DC, our professional speech described the natural, and ancient, learning pathways of humans from field experience to tool use.
“Research and education has shown that field trips are remembered long into adulthood. Why? Because you’re experiencing something rather than simply reading it in a book…. To experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book. So why not figure out a way to turn a lesson plan into a living expression of that content. A living expression, so that sparks can be ignited and flames can be fanned within the students. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what grade they get on the exam because they are stimulated to want to learn more… And there it is. You’ve cast a learner into the world. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher.” — Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Today’s high tech research to decode the workings of the human brain tells us that natural pathways to learning (Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist and teacher) embed what we learn in our neural structures. In essence, we humans are born to move, narrate, imitate, listen, design, create, build, engineer, play, sing, dance, and apprentice our way to the learning needed to thrive, not just survive, in our homes, communities, and work.
Why did the ConnectEd Summit superintendents come to these pathways in our stories about our students’ and teachers’ most innovative work? It’s because our stories framed a context for what’s necessary to capture the potential of all children as learners, regardless of the era into which they are born.
Tools change, knowledge advances, and skills develop as generations march forward, but what our young people need as learners today is as old as stone tools the most ancient of teachers once taught children to use. Our children still need us to support them to search, connect, communicate, and make in the caves, campfires, and watering holes of today’s communities – only now both face-to-face and virtually.
At the Summit, superintendents were clear in conversations with each other, the Secretary of Education, and his staff that learning must sustain a spirit of inquiry that fosters creativity, critical and ethical reasoning, communication, and collaboration. We communicated pride in our districts’ efforts to put the factory school model behind us as we design learning spaces for today’s children.
Here’s what I heard emerge as themes from our discussions about the inspiring and inventive teaching and learning occurring across the network of school communities linking our nation:
- We chatted the new phenomenon of “make to learn and learn to make” and creative spaces in our schools for student makers of all ages.
- We described commitments to project- and problem-based learning through which young people follow their personal passions and interests to seek and create work meaningful to them through the arts, STEM/STEAM, or global action projects.
- We shared opportunities for learners of all ages to venture out of desks and chairs and into multi-age communities, coming face-to-face with the real world of interdisciplinary applications, high-and low-tech tool uses, and authentic, experiential learning – a purposeful abandonment of Carnegie’s required seat time memorizing content in de-contextualized silos to take high stakes state tests.
- We discussed freeing time for teens to experience internships, independent studies, virtual connectivity, work experiences, apprenticeships and community service.
- We pinpointed the critical need to address economic gaps and opportunity gaps so we can ensure equity and access for all young people to excellent teachers, contemporary learning spaces, broadband connectivity, mobile devices, time, and other essential resources.
- We described natural learning as transportable everywhere a child can go in a community, virtually connected – or not.
From Alaska to Florida, a tiny microcosm of America’s schools, 100+ superintendents along with a few teachers, students, and principals who also lead to educate young people (50 million of them in around 16,000 school districts spread across 3.80 million U.S. square miles/9.85 million km2) came to D.C. to hear the President.
Yet, the voices that resonate in my head are those of students – young reporters covering the Summit, a high school student seated with equal status at the table with suited superintendents from around the nation, millennials working the twittersphere. Their voices represented the agency of young people communicating a value for adults who help them figure out how to grow into their voices, find their stride as influencers, and pursue their dreams for not just the future, but also the here and now. Whether at the ConnectEd Summit or simply chatting in the #stuvoice twitter stream about what they care about, our young people affirm what engages and empowers them.
In the end, I think we all left knowing that realizing a bright future for young people really isn’t about superintendents gathering in DC for an event. It’s about unifying our communities to care for, respect, and value each child as a learner and to support those who teach. Our ancestors must have known this too as they engaged in their own version of #futureready learning work. They surely wanted similar things – children who thrive, grow up to become successful adult contributors in their own families and communities, and who are kept as safe and healthy as possible in an increasingly challenging world.
Isn’t that the best of who we are now and who we’ve always been – generations of parents and teachers committed to our children as we pay learning forward?