I was at a district meeting tonight and we had a discussion about secondary Ed. and the structure of teaching and learning at these levels. In a dream world, here is a rough idea of my 2 cents on this
If I could design the secondary experience of my dreams, it would be something more like this. 3 courses. The Social Experience, the Political Experience and the Environmental Experience. These are broadly defined as social experiences, meaning interactions with peers, family, media, everyday interactions. The political experience, being defined as rules and laws, not just state and local, but home, work, school rules. The written and unwritten rules. This would deal with power, use, abuse, development, and other issues related to power. The main focus of this strand would be the democratic process. Student voice, choice and ownership would be a strong component as well. The environmental experience would be defined as factors relating to outside environment, personal environment (school, home, bedroom etc.), internal and external environments. All of these courses are broad in scope and sequence to allow for divergent thinking, multiple entry points and creativity development. I feel these three factors drive our world today. They are connected, overlap and stand on their own.
In a typical day a student would take all 3 of these courses, facilitated by a team of academic specialists trained in traditional disciplines such as math, science, art, etc. The students would then bring their strengths, passions and interests as they investigate a life-centered issue of their choice that they would investigate and explore over the course of a semester or longer. Students would investigate issues, topics, etc. while the teacher would facilitate, inspire, ignite. If a student needs to learn spreadsheets because it relates to their focus, then they would absolutely learn that from a math specialist. The difference here is that the intent of learning this skill is intrinsically motivated and applied to a specific project, as opposed to learning it in isolation such as a traditional math class, with no opportunity to apply the learning.
The role of failure would be built in since the students would be exploring issues of their choice. Failure would be a part of the process and seen as purposeful and meaningful since they are working towards a self-selected learning goal. Failure happens all the time when students are engaged in something they love to do outside of school, and they figure out a solution (kids rarely, if ever read directions… they play with it and learn along the way). When it is a task that is learned in isolation, in a specific class (especially if the student is not motivated by the content or approach), the desire to persevere diminishes.
Steven Johnson wrote a great book about Where Great Ideas Come From. In it, he talks about the role of coffee houses during the Enlightenment period. The purpose of these coffee houses was for brilliant, diverse minds to come together and let “hunches collide.” There is great value in getting a room full of diverse thinkers together to discuss problems. In a secondary environment such as this, the “coffee houses” would be the courses outlined above.
I think the purpose of a school designed this way, (I have many more thoughts on this, but for another time:) is to create an environment that honors all voices, talents, passions, etc. As it stands, the artist mind walks into the “math” class and has checked out before sitting down. The mathematical mind, sees little value in sharing ideas with the “free-thinking artist.” But if you create a class called, The Social Experience, all learners come in feeling confident in their abilities to contribute. The artist sits next to the scientist and the learning potential has exponentially increased. If we want to get students to focus on thinking, learning, creating, etc., we need to take the labels off of learning. I always tell my students when I am trying to get them to dig deeper with their artistic intent and their ideas, “Don’t steal the viewers thinking.” I say this when the kids are creating art that is more literal than symbolic. Aren’t we stealing students thinking when they walk in and the course is labeled “math,” or “Science?” Right or wrong, don’t some students tune out or assume a stereotypical role that accompanies that specific discipline? It is more than just the label. We need to get all students to the thinking table, bringing with them their strengths, weaknesses, talents, interests and passions, excited to learn and confident to contribute. I am not sure we have that in education yet, we are getting there though:)
Learning specific content is important, I agree, the purpose of this redesign is to make the learning meaningful, relevant and all-inclusive. I wonder about all the amazing thinking, creating, ideas, and intellectual potential we are missing because we don’t let kids use their strengths in disciplines outside of the areas they were developed in and/or valued?
What do you think?