Fixing What We Broke

shifting-conversations-logoIs it me, or does it seem like much of what we’re doing in education these days is trying to fix what we ourselves break when it comes to kids and learning? I mean, what does it say that our kids come to us as creative, innovative thinkers when they’re five or six years old, but most of what we’re now rubbing our hands about in education is how to get kids in school to be more creative and innovative? I know that in the most watched TED talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson asks straight out “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” But if you wondered even for a moment as to the answer, the evidence isn’t hard to find that says schools must be doing that.

Recently, I landed on The Teacher’s Guild site, which looks like a group of educators who are exploring the use of design thinking to improve the school experience. All good. Their first “challenge” for educators from anywhere in the world to solve through design is this: “How might we create rituals and routines that establish a culture of innovation in our classrooms and schools?” Interesting question that is, it appears, meant to fix the problem of schools and classrooms that don’t have cultures of innovation. As I write this, they’ve narrowed their ideas down to 51 from 210 original submissions. As I scrolled through them, I couldn’t help but start asking why these “solutions” were needed in the first place. I’m not being cynical here. (Well, maybe a bit, but not nearly as much as I can be.) I’m seriously wondering. Let me give you a sense of what I mean.

16608505191_df044a90bd_bOne “solution” is to “Teach Children to Ask Their Own Questions.” Why do we have to do that? My wife and I certainly didn’t “teach” our own kids to ask questions when they were four years old when nearly everything that came out of their mouths was, in fact, a question. If we just let kids continue to ask questions when they got to school, would we have to “teach” them how to do this when they got older?

Another example: “Passion-based learning.” Look at any preschooler and tell me that they aren’t passionate learners. So why might it be that “passion based learning” is a “solution” for creating a culture of innovation?

Or, rethinking classroom spaces, which shows up a half a dozen times in various forms. Imagine the shock that kids experience when they show up to school on day one and their learning spaces move from playgrounds and neighborhoods to four walls. I know that for some kids those four walls may offer more than they’d get in their own neighborhoods, but there’s no doubt that as kids progress through school, those four walls get less creative and more constraining as they go.  So now we need to “rethink” them? What if we’d never rethought them in the first place?

Again, I’m not jumping on these teachers for offering these “solutions” as by all accounts, they are sorely needed. I’m just making this point: we struggle with and need for solutions for establishing a “culture of innovation” in our classrooms and schools because we’ve done such a good job of killing that culture in the first place. If we find ourselves asking how to “fix” schools, we may want to start with what broke them in the first place when it comes to learning and innovation and creativity and the rest.

All of this circles back around to the question of what motivates us most powerfully when it comes to the structures and systems we build and employ in the service of educating our children, what is best for them in terms of developing as powerful and creative learners, or what’s easiest for us in terms of managing and administrating their education? I understand that the demands of traditional schooling force us to keep our focus on efficiencies and standards and outcomes, and that it’s more than difficult to break that focus when the state and parents and to some extent the world is watching and measuring and ranking and rating. But it is not impossible. More and more schools are moving to powerful visions of learning given the modern affordances that technology and connections offer. And more and more schools are staying true to what we know in our hearts and minds makes for great learning.

The irony here is that we spend so much of our time and energy and money in trying to fix things that weren’t really broken until we broke them. And those that suffer most from all that breaking and fixing and refixing are our kids. We should know better.

Image credit: M.G.N.

2 thoughts on “Fixing What We Broke”

  1. Michael V

    Hi Will

    I am currently trying to inspire a bit of change here in Peth and also notice now another obstacle we are creating. Currently, creativity and innovation are two skills many teachers seek to feature in their own teaching. They are rightly recognised for this advanced professional practice and often they are role models for the entire teaching team in their school. Their practice is often technology rich and innovative. Students respond well to this exciting new context as they prepare to be assessed on the content delivered more dynamically and in a context more aligned with their own IT-savvy world. Schools rightly proclaim these individual classrooms as indicators of progress towards 21st century teaching and learning.
    However, it is my contention that this is also causing some obstruction to the successful embedding of all the 21st century skills and intellectual qualities into our entire school curriculum. The focus on creative or innovative teaching practice is important of course; but it is overshadowing the need for students to undertake curriculum designed to teach them to be creative and innovative. We not only need to teach creatively; we need to teach creativity. And so it follows for innovation, communication…et al. Having individual subject teachers working innovatively is a false-dawn I fear…we need to bring systemic change.
    In order to embed enduring and substantive change into our schools’ we need to ensure that the entire teaching team in any school is conversant with why it has to happen. And, that how it happens is not reliant on them becoming a dynamic, technology guru who can develop insightful educational practice on their own. It would be ideal and some will achieve it; but it is not reality for diverse and large teaching teams initially(I know after 30+ years of technology in schools it is a sad fact). However, in time, such professional qualities must be the norm.
    Our first step in the transformation of teaching and learning must be for the teaching team to speak the same language when discussing the needs of students, understand that these needs have changed from those of the recent past and to understand that our students need us to teach them how to think creatively and how to be innovative…. How to work collaboratively and to problem solve….. And how to communicate powerfully and effectively…as well understand and interconnect the richness of the subjects in our curriculum. From there we need to ensure that curriculum design in schools embeds core 21st century skills in each subject right alongside the explicit content for that terms work. It becomes the role of teaching teams to design teaching that delivers and assesses the content, and the core 21st century skills, for each unit of work. Learning for students needs to hone communication and collaboration skills, provide opportunities for a variety of valid responses to the same problem. None of these changes devalue or diminish content….sadly still non-negotiable here….but they might just bring it to life.
    We need to re-examine our arguments and realign our strategy….I am convinced we need to explain the richness of intellect as opposed to academic. It is a powerful contrast i believe.It begins, as always, with assessment.
    Such a refocus challenges current teaching practice and current assessment models in all areas of school. They require teachers to rethink the outcome of their daily interactions with students in the classroom. Certainly, in the junior and middle years teachers need to grasp the reality that lecturing content and assessing that content in a test or essay falls well short of their students’ needs. The teachers of senior years may invoke external assessment pressures as a reason for neutrality in this current debate; but such an argument ignores science and educational momentum and the makes the inevitable change even more traumatic. I share your frustration with the loss of the innate and natural creativity and energy in our younger students as they progress through school. My concerns are heightened when I read of back to basics as a priority here in Australia. Anyway, thanks for this journal, I enjoy it immensely.
    Mikev Perth Australia

  2. samantha R

    I am struggling with this very thing right now. I sent my 4,5 year old to Kindergarten. She is creative, inquisitive, and full of questions. I watch he come home from school everyday with worksheets, and I wonder how long will she continue to love school before they suck all the creativity from her imaginitive little mind. What can I do?

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