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'Skunk Works' for the Schools: A Technology-Enabled Vision

In my last blog, I told you why I was not surprised that the OECD data appear to show that national investments in educational technologies have resulted in zero improvements in student achievement. I described very creative software that has been available on digital platforms since the 1980s and asserted that it won't make much difference until the teachers who use it are very highly educated and until virtually everything else that defines what goes on in the classroom changes, from the goals we have for students to the way we assess student progress to the way schools are organized to support student learning. I don't see technology as a driver of high-performance learning, but as an enabler, but only when the whole system is redesigned from the get-go for that purpose. I ended that blog with a promise to describe in this blog what such a learning environment might look like and what a state or nation might do to bring such a vision into being.

Let's start at the beginning, which is, what kind of person we would you like our learning system to produce. You will have your own view, but, for my part, I'd like a high school graduate to be the sort of person I'd want for a close colleague, a good friend or would want my son or daughter to marry:  smart, at home in the world, a good person, someone I could trust to do the right thing when no one is looking, someone I could count on in the clutch, who would set tough goals for herself and do whatever it takes to get there, who would go out of her way to help others, to roll with the punches, to be independent, capable of exercising initiative, know what to do and do it without constant guidance, someone I could count on to exercise good judgment, the sort of person others want to follow but also the sort who pitches in as a member of the team, a person whose education was deep enough and wide enough to serve as a foundation for moving in any direction but with strong enough technical skills in at least one area to get a great start in a pretty tough labor market, a person who is comfortable in his or her own shoes but not arrogant or standoffish, a person with a good aesthetic sense who is well read, deeply thoughtful, but fully engaged in the political life of her community and committed to being of service to others. I'd like this young person to have an inquiring mind, to learn easily, quickly, even voraciously. I would not care whether she started out as a carpenter or a brain surgeon, but I would want to be sure that whatever she chose to do, she did it as well as she possibly could. More than anything, I'd want her to be a decent person, someone I can be proud of when the day is done.

The wrong question to ask, in my estimation, is what courses should be taught and how they should be taught to this young person to get there. The right question is what sort of experiences this young person needs to have in order to develop, over time, these qualities. The emphasis needs to be on learning, not teaching. The venue could be anywhere—in school and out. The teacher could be a licensed public school teacher, but it could also be a coach on the playing field, a shop foreman who is a mentor in an apprenticeship situation, or a world-famous professor who appears in a MOOC. 

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But this is not an anything goes environment. In the background is a set of clear statements about what is expected of all students at the end of their common schooling, typically at the end of 10th grade, and a thoughtful framework that serves as a step-by-step guide for the core knowledge and skills that should be developed along the way. As implied a moment ago, there should be a clear set of expectations—pretty high—that all students must meet before they leave high school, but some will get there earlier than others.

The high school program is organized like the curriculum for modern medical or engineering education. There are brilliantly crafted short core courses in the disciplines, designed to convey the big ideas and introduce the key intellectual tools of the disciplines. Each of these short courses are no more than two or three weeks long. But they are intellectually rigorous, very rigorous. Taken together, they aren't meant to take more than half the time available for course work.  The rest is devoted to projects that provide an opportunity for the students to apply what they are learning to an ever more complex and realistic set of real-world problems. So a lot of the school time is spent going back and forth between straight ahead but deep acquisition of the central concepts, ideas and tools in the core disciplines, alternating in short cycles with a chance to put it to work in realistic settings in which there are important tasks to be done and results to be achieved, often in collaboration with other students, but always in a setting in which goals have to be set, work planned, deadlines met and something of value produced.  

All of this must be very carefully planned, so that any individual student has an opportunity to learn all the skills and acquire all the knowledge expected, though each may end up doing it in very different ways than others of the same age and often at a different pace, meeting different challenges. The faculty has to have a system for carefully tracking individual student progress in real time against a myriad of goals and correct course constantly, never letting a student fall significantly behind while at the same time providing great flexibility with respect to the specific activities each youngster engages in.

The school will be a fine place for taking the short courses, although some, MOOC style, might be taken at home or in any quiet place the student can find.  But many of the qualities I spoke of above will be developed much more readily through extracurricular activities or outside the school altogether rather than in it.  It will be up to the larger community to organize the kinds of experiences for teenage students in which they can take on real adult responsibilities of the kind that they need to become responsible, contributing members of society.  Modern societies keep extending childhood ever longer when we should be looking for ways to recreate the kind of transition to adulthood that young people so desperately need to grow up but so seldom get in today's society.

Some of the experiences that students will need in order to effectively apply what they have learned to real world problems can be done in school—you can, for example, learn about music in school, and can take up an instrument and learn to perform at high levels in school—but many things cannot. As I see it, this balance between theory and applications is not something just for students who in another day would have been called vocational students.  It is essential for all students.  Finding the right balance between theory and applications will not be easy but it is very important. And then, somewhere in the mix, there will have to be seminars in which the faculty and the students talk about what they are learning in these different venues and in which it is all brought together, not in lectures but seminar style, in conversation, debate and emerging enlightenment. 

In this scheme of things, while the goals are unchanging, the route to their achievement is nothing if not flexible. Years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a middle school in Boston where 8th graders were working with Lego Logo robotics. The students decided they wanted to build a working model of the Star Wars walking machine. Their teacher did not know how to program the eccentric motion of the machine. Students and teacher went to the math teacher, who went to an MIT math professor who taught both teachers and students the advanced mathematics of eccentric motion. The students did not know that they were not supposed to be able to do that sort of math until they got to graduate school, so they did it and it worked. Many of those 8th graders in that inner city school were on a path to becoming engineers. Many who weren't no longer talked about being no good at math.

In another case, I got to know a technology teacher who had a class of kids who came from every point on the socio-economic spectrum. They decided they wanted to build a laser-operated device capable of very precise measurement. The students decided they needed a very stable platform made of concrete and the only place to build it was where the teacher's desk was. So, they built it there and then went on to construct and program the laser. When they were done, it worked. The Seattle Intelligencer wrote it up. A group of Boeing engineers read the story and came to the school, telling the students that they had solved a programming challenge that the engineers had been unable to solve. These high school kids became interns at Boeing and Boeing helped to pay for their college education.

The sort of software I described in my last blog would have found a much warmer welcome in the kind of environment I just described. But that environment will continue to be very rare indeed until the state creates what I think of as a "Skunk Works" in which several teams of people from very different backgrounds—great teachers, system engineers, designers, curriculum developers, software engineers, test developers, cognitive scientists, and just plain entrepreneurs can work together to develop all the  parts and pieces needed to make what I have described not the rare exception but the rule. The state will need as well to create a very different set of incentives for such teams than now operate in regular public schools. It will have to find parents who are willing to let their children get their education in a setting that looks very unlike what they are accustomed to. It will have to find prestigious universities that will be willing to accept students who are produced in this very different environment.  

As I said in my last blog, my life's experience tells me that neither the best of our technology or the best of our entrepreneurial spirit are likely to flourish under the incentives that typically operate on public schools everywhere. A different environment, with different incentives--a safe space--is required. The state that does this, does it well and then figures out how to rebuild the whole system in this image will chart the future for all of us.

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