I was recently asked to offer some suggestions about what I thought were the most important policy and non-policy recommendations that I have for education reform. I think of "policy" as things that federal or state officials can do: laws that can be passed or money that can be spent. I offered three of these recommendations earlier this week. These "non-policy" suggestions are things that are beyond regulations, technical support, or direct funding. Here are two ways we ought to change the way we talk about education, so that we change the way we think about education.
Change the Frame (1): From Delivery to Design
Borrowing from the work of George Lakoff, how people linguistically (metaphorically and analogically) frame a topic has a powerful impact on how people define and understand the topic. If you define "tax cuts" as "tax relief," then you get people to associate taxes with "pain". The discourse of teaching and learning is dominated by metaphors of delivery. You deliver a lecture. You give a test. That kid picks it up pretty quickly. That kid doesn't get it.
As long as great teaching is defined as an act of delivery, it will be misunderstood, poorly conducted, and undervalued. We will treat teachers as interchangeably as UPS drivers. We will misunderstand the power of technology in education, with a misguided emphasis on scaling delivery rather than empowering student performance. Borrowing from Larry Cuban's recent book, we will misinterpret schooling as a complicated enterprise when it is really a complex enterprise, more akin to the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.
Teachers design spaces and experiences that rearrange the neurons in young people's brains for pro-social purposes. That work is nuanced, intellectually demanding, creative, and joyful. Redefining the language of teaching around design rather than around delivery would bring greater respect to the profession and greater humility to policymaking.
In my pre-service teacher training at MIT, the most important thing I do is convince students that the design and facilitation of learning spaces is an incredibly complex, rich enterprise, worthy of their considerable intellectual talents.
Change the Frame (2): From the Right to Equitable Schooling to the Right to Equitable Ecologies of Learning
I'm convinced by the arguments of Mimi Ito and her various colleagues associated with MacArthur's Connected Learning movement that in the future, learning will take place from cradle to grave--in schools, online, in museums, libraries, makerspaces, and all kinds of other "third spaces" for learning that we have yet to imagine. Young people need access not just to schools but to ecologies of learning that envelop students in learning opportunities.
The affluent are already extremely good at creating these connected learning environments around their children. To support the learning of my two year old daughter, we have her enrolled in home day care and a structure child care center; we have memberships to the Audubon Society Nature Reserves, Action Discovery Museum, Minuteman Public Library Network, Boston Children's Museum, New England Aquarium, Harvard Museums, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the pool at our Arlington Boys and Girls Club; she's been to special events at Harvard, our local elementary school, regional craft collaboratives, and nearby hackerspaces. In those rare moments where we are unable to provide structured or unstructured experiences superintended by her family or childcare professionals--mostly car rides--she watches high quality PBS programming or plays with apps vetted by Common Sense Media's learning guidelines (mostly Endless Alphabet). One day, my daughter will go to a pretty good elementary school.
Right now the citizens and civic leaders in my town, state, and nation believe that our society has a social contract where all children should be able to go to a pretty good elementary school. Even if we fail to live up to that contract, we believe it to be a worthy aim. We don't believe that the social contract requires that all children have an equitable right to all of the other opportunities that my daughter enjoys. We won't get policies that balance the extraordinary investments that the affluent make for their children if we do not expand the social contract such that all children have not only the right to equitable schooling but the right to equitable ecologies of learning. (Ignite talk where I make this argument)