Designing for Learning

Turns out, we who live in western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies are actually as WEIRD as the acronym for that group spells out.

According to research by University of British Columbia professor Joe Henrich (now of Harvard,) “Members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.” And therefore, Henrich argues, we have to be really careful to apply behavioral or psychological (or other) types of research done on WEIRD populations to humans in general, in short because we are not the norm in the world.

In fact, we are at the far end of the outlier spectrum when it comes to our behavior.

That point is raised at the beginning of a presentation by Carol Black that I came across this week. Black, the creator and early producer of the TV show “The Wonder Years,” is also a powerful writer about learning and schools (and “unschooling”), and one of her blog posts was the topic of our 45th podcast earlier this year. But in this video, she makes what I think is a powerful argument for reimagining education, in no small part because what we do in schools here in the U.S. and elsewhere is WEIRD. If you want a taste, here you go:

In Weird societies, we are so habituated to this appalling lack of personal freedom that it has become functionally invisible to us, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many people now consider it a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what somebody in authority says they have to learn.

I’d urge you to watch it now:

(And if you want the full on argument, check out her post “A Thousand Rivers.”)

Since November’s theme in our Modern Learners Community is “Design,” I want to use that video as a jumping off point for some conversations about the weird approaches we take to design in our schools and classrooms, and especially in our systems.

The Unnatural for the Natural

First, this: Why when we consider how to improve learning experiences for kids do we start those conversations almost exclusively around how that might happen in school? Or to put it another way, why would we situate a conversation about the wholly natural act of learning within the wholly unnatural context of a school? As Black points out, we make broad generalizations about how kids learn in school while missing the fundamental nature of learning. And here’s her money quote on that:

But making generalizations about how children learn based on their behavior in school is like making generalizations about killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

Yeah. That.

If we really want to design powerful learning environments in schools, we should start with honoring the most powerful learning environments outside of schools.

If we were really intent on improving learning inside the school walls, we would pay a lot more attention to how learning happens outside the school walls in the natural world and then build our practice based on that. So, at the risk of being repetitive, we know that outside of school kids learn with other kids and adults of all different ages. We know that they don’t learn in 45-minute chunks. We know that learning occurs without any contrived tests. And more.

By not using those “generalizations” about learning in the natural world in our designs around the experience of school, we miss the forest for the trees. Why again would we think that kids trained to succeed at learning in an unnatural environment would be better prepared to succeed at learning in the natural, agency-filled, connected world that we’re sending them out into?

If we really want to design powerful learning environments in schools, we should start with honoring the most powerful learning environments outside of schools. Those are built around passion and interest, around flow and making and fun. Around freedom. Around how we truly believe and know that learning happens which is by doing and emulating others.

Design Thinking: Just Words?

It is, I think, a positive development that we have been talking more about design of late in education. Design thinking as a problem solving approach in classrooms is having, in some places, profound affects on student engagement and on learning that sticks. But from a more meta perspective, I wonder how much we in schools actually use the first principle of design thinking, “empathy” to ground our work. As in do we have real empathy for the ways in which our students currently experience school?

Too often when I ask school leaders if they have shadowed a student within the last year or so, few hands go up. In fact, to some it comes as a “great idea” which in and of itself is troubling. Few schools that I’ve visited invite students to participate in every meeting that has to do with students. As I’ve said before, as much as we want to promote our goal of preparing our kids to flourish in a democracy, we attempt to do that in what may be the most undemocratic environment in society. Another irony, I know.

If we don’t have a deep understanding of what our kids are experiencing in classrooms, the activities that engage them, the information and skills that stick with them, their desires and needs, how can we design effective learning environments for them?

Last week in a Change School coaching session, my colleague Missy Emler recounted a story about a young man who was struggling in school because his passion was to become a professional YouTuber, and shockingly, traditional classroom learning just wasn’t a fit. And equally unsurprising, his teachers had little context or understanding of the realness and potential of being a YouTuber. So, he simply refused to do the school thing. But instead of doubling down and making that student “fit” with school, Missy suggested a design where the school “fit” the student. In essence, she said, “Let him be a YouTuber.” They’re now building out a pathway to graduation for that student with YouTube at the center. It will include analytics and statistics for math and writing and communication skills for English and…you get the point. As Missy said, “There’s a million things he can learn in this process.”

But the question is what are we adults going to learn in that process? Let’s be honest, if we’re not bucking the system, we’re contributing to the disconnect between the natural process we use to learn as humans and the unnatural experiences of learning in schools.

What Do We Want Our Children to Be?

In the end, design has to start with our greatest aspirations for our kids.  For too long, schools and the practices within them have been based on the efficiencies of teaching and delivery, not on what is necessarily best for our students. To that end, Ira Socol has a great post that speaks to the most important question to start with.

What do you want our children to be?” It is that question that needs to define everything about what a school is. If you want your children to be creative, to be collaborators, to be great communicators, to know how to make choices, to know how to build their own work and/or learning environments, to be kind, to be curious, to learn throughout their lives from the great wide world, to engage with technology well, to build healthy relationships and lead healthy lives… well… can you really do that within the closed boundaries of traditional schools? Can you do that with age-separated learning? with closed classroom doors? with separated subject areas? without seating choices? without technology choices? without culturally engaged learning groups?

Can you do that with bells ringing telling kids to stop thinking about what they are thinking about and move on to another subject? Can you do that when you artificially divide kids, whether via reading “levels,” or with honor rolls, or with one or two student activities honored above the rest?

We know the answer to Ira’s questions. Do we have the gumption to make those types of changes happen? That should be the focus of our designs moving forward.

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

Comments

    • Vivianna, I’m so inspired that your asked that question! So, so many things! If you want to start small, share this article with your most open-minded teacher. Or suggest to him or her an idea you have for learning a unit of study differently. For inspiration on bigger ways to help learning become more open minded, check out “The Independent Project” conceived and started by high school students in New England: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTmH1wS2NJY

      You could also start your own blog or podcast sharing your high school experience and how your really learning throughout your life from your perspective. This would help teachers gain the kinds of insight discussed in the article! Good luck!

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