How the Olympics Shine a Light on Access to Deeper Learning
This post is by Randy Scherer, Director, PBL Leadership Academy at High Tech High
I love the water. Outside of school, you will often find me doing something aquatic--and that love was cultivated in ways that have parallels in the deeper learning community.
I grew up in the fastest swimming country in the world. I don't mean the U.S.--I mean the area surrounding Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. Draw an oval on a map that contains these two cities and the spaces nearby, and you have the boundaries of the fastest swimming country in the world. In the 2016 Summer Olympics, the US swim team won 16 events--D.C. and Baltimore swimmers were responsible for nine of those victories. The greatest Olympic champion of all time is a swimmer from Baltimore; one of the greatest female swimmers ever grew up near D.C. Swimmers from that area know that our peers achieve at the highest levels.
When my childhood swim team took me to volunteer at a local Special Olympics event, I was stationed near an older volunteer who would eventually set a world record and win an Olympic gold medal. Once, in a random meet, a world-record holder and gold medalist happened to be in the lane next to me. These events were surprising, but I knew they could happen.
I was something of a first generation swimmer. My mom can swim, but my dad cannot: they grew up in New York City, and my dad jokes that swimming meant splashing in front of a broken fire hydrant. After our family moved to the D.C. area, a neighbor asked, "Are you going to sign the kids up for swim team?" I was only five, but my dad took me to a nearby pool, where they took me on the team--there was no tryout.
In An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger writes that some communities consistently achieve in outstanding ways--every year, some towns produce the best swimmers, while others have the best jazz bands or the best chess teams. He writes that this is due to the ethic these communities cultivate. I believe this is true, and would add an element: some places systematically eliminate barriers to access. Some communities excel because they welcome everyone in, help everyone get started, and keep everyone involved.
Near D.C. and Baltimore, a quirk of mid-century urban and suburban development led to an abundance of community pools. Many are public or can be accessed at low costs. Typically, each pool has a swim team that is easy to access. In the D.C. area, over 30,000 kids join swim teams every year--nowhere else in the nation gets kids swimming at this rate.
As a parent, I am excited to get my own kids swimming. I went to my YMCA and was told that my then-six-year-old son must pass an assessment of all four competitive strokes to join the team. I stared at the coach. "Teach him all four strokes?" I thought, "Isn't that your job?"
I shopped around for other teams. The answer was the same: learn the strokes, then join the team.
The results speak for themselves: I now live in an area of San Diego with double the population of my hometown. We have one small swim team in the community, and the high school team. My hometown supported six recreational teams, a YMCA team, and a high school team, and sent kids to nationally competitive local club teams. "Pre-teams" were created to welcome the youngest swimmers. This pathway produces countless college-level swimmers annually, and gold medalists at eight of the past nine Olympic games.
I see important parallels in schools. The question I ask: "How can we systematically eliminate barriers to entry so all students meaningfully access deeper learning?"
When I think about the Share Your Learning campaign, I am glad that a core tenet is that when a teacher commits to a public presentation of learning, every student participates.
I am excited by schools and districts that have committed to ensure that all students graduate with the credits, tests, and financial aid applications necessary to be accepted to college. Urban and rural schools, rich and poor alike, have redesigned systems to ensure that 100% of their students have at least one college acceptance by their high school graduation.
When I think about career-technical education, I am excited by the classes that embrace student documentation and reflection of students' engagement with core academic content. While CTE competitions generate beautiful final products, I am engaged most with the teachers that move beyond competitions to ensure that all students meaningfully share their learning.
I am excited by teachers who engage colleagues to revisit foundational texts, reimagine support structures, and redesign classroom experiences to ensure the full inclusion of English Language Learners.
When I think about special education, I wonder: how can we best strive for a full-inclusion model? How can we ensure that a label--or worse, a behavior--does not inadvertently lead to a pattern of limited access to a rich and full education? What if the barrier is not the label or the impairment, but outdated systems that lack intentional designs for accessibility?
When I think about honors classes, I wonder: did those students go through a tryout--real or implied--that hinges on their parents' education level? What happens to the populations of honors classes when honors credit is offered to students in the same classroom as those enrolled in the "regular" class?
The systematic elimination of barriers to entry requires educators to become masters of differentiation. This is what leads deeper learning schools to become agents of change rather than mirrors of our nation's structural inequities.
When we watch this year's Olympics, we will marvel at the triumphs of human talent, will, and perseverance. The human interest stories will tell us how each athlete got started. And, a question is implied for all of us: "Was there someone even faster or stronger in the next town over, who never had the chance to start?"