The School of the Future

Helping the Kid with the Giant Hands Learn
My two oldest kids started kindergarten this year and my third is in pre-school. So while I’ve worked in public education reform for two decades, now it’s gotten personal. I want my kids to be in the best possible schools. And when I look at the public school options out there, I’m not optimistic. All kids deserve great schools, inspiring schools, transformative schools. But do we have them today? If not, what would they look like? So that’s the topic of this two-part blog. What is the school of the future?

The Magic Wand: I’m not a quitter. But I was ready to quit my kids’ elementary school’s site council. We are a group of parents and teachers who help the principal develop a plan for the school’s success. We had spent our last meeting deciding to spend the school’s discretionary budget, a whopping $3,000, on iPads. Now a month later we were revisiting that decision. Over $3,000. Our next job? Working on the site plan our principal had to turn in to the district. It was 70-pages of strategies, programs, indicators, and budgets for every area of the school’s operation. It was needlessly complicated. It was uninspiring. It reminded me of doing my taxes. And worst of all, it was useless for driving day-to-day leadership and management of the school. Until that moment, I’d been a relatively quiet member of the group, but it was either time to speak up or quit. So I asked our principal, “Forget about the site plan. If you had a magic wand to make three big changes to the school, what would they be?” She didn’t miss a beat “Do a better job instilling a joy of learning in our children, make our curriculum more experiential, and transform our classrooms to be more student-centered and less teacher-led.” Forget quitting, I was now ready to walk through walls to help her turn that vision into a reality.

School 1.0: The truth is that our school’s current reality is far from that vision. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great school with experienced teachers, active parents, and high test scores. In fact, I felt pretty good about our school until I saw Dr. Stephen Hughes, a renowned brain researcher, speak a few months ago. His topic was how we would design schools differently if educators understood how the human brain develops. But first he described our current model of education, which he dubbed “School 1.0”. School 1.0 is designed based on the 19th century factory model. It’s focused on preparing kids for standardized tests, teaches all kids the same content at the same time, has a closed learning system in which students get most if not all of their information from text books and teachers, and has kids spending a lot of time sitting and listening to teachers talk. Yes, that does sound like my kids’ elementary school. But we have great test scores, so why should I care if it’s School 1.0? According to Dr. Hughes, I should care because our school is not designed to help my kids’ brains develop to their full potential.

The Kid with the Giant Hands: I think we would all agree that the brain is pretty important, and that we want our kids to have the best brains they can have. But how do brains learn? The answer lies in the connection between our brains and our bodies. Basically, our brain gets information from the outside world through a variety of stimuli, processes that information, and grows. And what scientists like Dr. Hughes have learned is that if you mapped your brain’s connections with your body, and apportioned those connections on a 12-inch ruler – about six inches would be devoted to your hands, three inches to your mouth, an inch-and-a-half to your ears, and an inch-and-a-half to everything else. So you can visualize what that means, the abovie image is a composite picture of how your brain perceives your body.

Note the giant hands. Simply put, brain researchers have discovered that we learn first and foremost with our hands. Brains develop quickest and best when we are touching and then when we are talking. Listening is a distant third. And that is the problem with School 1.0 – it is way too focused on kids’ ears. So if we want our kids to be in the best learning environment possible, we have to design schools so that they are educating the kid with the giant hands. And that was why I was so excited to hear our principal talk about her vision for our school. But given standardized tests and the core curriculum, how can the school of the future be more experiential and student-centered?

Brides with Binkies: But before I get to the school of the future, we need to spend a little more time on brain development. The brain, just like the body, grows in spurts. And different people have different patterns of when those spurts occur. That’s why some kids can do a 100-piece puzzle when they are 3, and others can’t do it until they are 5 or older. What that means is that it just doesn’t work to teach all kids the same things at the same time. Kids whose brains aren’t ready are going to be lost, and extra help won’t really help. Others kids are going to be bored. Only those in the “middle” are going to be well served. Yet that is how School 1.0 is structured. And trying to “track” kids doesn’t help because the youngster who is advanced in some math skills might be behind in others. So to best allow the brain to develop, we need to be less concerned with when kids learn, and more concerned simply that they do learn. That’s what works for kids, but it’s not what works for schools. As a friend put it to me when I was desperately trying to get my daughter to give up her binky when she turned 4, “there’s nothing magical about turning four, let her have her pacifier for a little longer if she still needs it. I’ve yet to go to a wedding where the bride walks down the aisle with a binky in her mouth.” But when you have master schedules and large class sizes, how do you design schools to provide the flexibility for kids to learn things at different rates and have the lessons customized to their own individual needs?

The School of the Future: Unfortunately, most schools, even if they want to move in the direction of being more experiential or more personalized don’t have a clue how to do so. How should the classroom be designed? What materials are needed? If teachers are talking less, what should they be doing more? What kind of professional development should teachers get? What does the curriculum look like and how do we make sure we still get those all-important test scores? How are we ever going to find the answer? Well, I’m happy to report that half of the answer has been right in front of our noses since the early 1900s, and the other half of the answer has just been invented. We have everything we need to build the school of the future.

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