By Bill Madigan
On the evening of this writing, Steve Jobs died. Called an “erratic genius” by the BBC, he was a grand poster child of the brave new world and a model for how to teach, guide and lead learners of the new century. He was incessantly resilient, continuing to innovate, and create, regardless of setbacks both professionally and personally. Almost single-handedly, he moved the power of the giant mainframe computers of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the palm of your hand. His devices placed learning, communicating, and art into your hands, literally. He had a deep moral conviction that he was here to “change the world.” The motivation that fired his furnace of creativity was fueled by an elemental realization that we have a finite period to be our best change agents. Indeed he gave a commencement speech at Stanford in 2009 where he shared how death itself is the “best invention of life” because it teaches us to take the risks and to follow your creativity regardless of perceived setbacks or what others say negatively.
So, why do we keep doing the same things and expecting improved results in education? Why do too many of us, from primary school all the way through university, teach in the 19th century way given the great and undeniable revolution occurring all over the world? Economic upheaval, demographic swings, rapid technological evolution, and the threat of climate change all conspire to invalidate the current obsession with learning factoids for high-stakes standardized tests. We all see the changes, yet we still resist venturing out into this brave new landscape.
The sad reality is easy to understand: we are all victims of our own experiences in education. We do what we have been taught. We do what we know. And some may say that this is all new and uncharted territory, but it’s not. As I stated in an earlier installment, this sort of educational philosophy has been in practice at several high performing colleges such as the California Cal Poly schools. Another example is High Tech High, based in San Diego. These schools engage students in this problem solving, multi-disciplinary approach to learning and teaming. Check out some of their team based projects on their website: http://www.hightechhigh.org/projects/ - these are great examples of the “agricultural model” of educating: a basic framework and task is assigned, and the students create, collaborate and problem solve, resulting in publications, presentations both electronic and in hard copy. One such collaboration resulted in a project titled “A Mathematical Makeover: Using Student Choice to Differentiate Elementary Math Learning Stations,” which examined student choice in learning mathematics at a local charter elementary school.
In my book What We Need to Face in American Education, I quote a conversation between Thomas Friedman, a well respected futurist, educational philosopher and writer for the New York Times and Daniel Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind, where Friedman frames this need to change as a high stakes national issue:
“The greatest economic competition in the world going forward is not going to be between countries and countries. And it’s not going to be between companies and companies. The greatest economic competition going forward is going to be between you and your imagination. Your ability to act on your imagination is going to be so decisive in driving your future and the standard of living in your country. So the school, the state, the country that empowers, nurtures, enables imagination among its citizens, that’s who’s going to be the winner.”
Decades ago, AVID’s founder did what Steve Jobs did: she didn’t wish small; she wanted to change the world. She did. She sure changed mine, both as a teacher and an idealist. Now, I think I’ll share this blog with several “Friends” on Facebook and also email it to some peers for reviews while listening to Bob Dylan sing about how the “world is a’changin’” – all on my iPhone!