To Advance Education, We Must First Reimagine Society | MindShift

Why haven’t education reform efforts amounted to much? Because they start with the wrong problem, says John Abbott, director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative.

Because disaffection with the education system reflects a much deeper societal malaise, it’s imperative that we first figure out what kind of world we really want: a world populated by responsible adults who thrive on interdependence and community, or a world of “customers” who feel dependent on products, services, and authority figures, and don’t take full responsibility for their actions? The answer, he says, will point to the changes needed in all three pillars of education — schools, families, and communities.

This is one of Abbott’s primary takeaways from a career spanning more than two decades of teaching in England, followed by three decades at the helm of an international nonprofit (begun in the U.S. but now headquartered in England), whose mission is to promote fresh thinking based on the existing body of research about how children learn. Its findings have been synthesized into policy briefings, reports, and a book, “Overschooled but Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents.” It has also just published a distillation of its work, called “Battling for the Soul of Education.”

As Abbott sees it, the need for reflection has never been greater. Spurred by technological advances, “civilization is on the cusp of a metamorphosis,” he says, that will lead either to societal collapse and chaos, or to a resurgence of liberty, community, and ethics. Either way, schools are stuck in the past: The emphasis has been on feeding children static information and rewarding them for doing only what they’re told, instead of helping them develop the transferable, higher-order skills they need to become life-long learners and thrive in an uncertain future.

Overhauling the educational paradigm means replacing the metaphor — the concept of the world and its inhabitants as machine-like entities — that has shaped the education system, as well as many other aspects of our culture.

This approach — a product of the Industrial Age, which relied on compliant factory workers and mass consumption — promotes weakness rather than strength. It has become even more regimented (and thus more disempowering) in recent years due to a lack of trust. Adults who feel hard-pressed to predict or control their own destinies, and who feel confused about the “big issues of life,” Abbott notes, are less willing to give children the time and space they need to shape their own futures.

Unfortunately, he adds, this approach to education goes against the grain of how young people learn. Research has confirmed what most parents of young children can already see for themselves — that children are born to learn, rather than to be taught, as Abbott puts it. Driven by an inborn desire to make sense of the world and find purpose in life, they naturally observe, deconstruct, piece together and create their own knowledge. They learn best when this intrinsic motivation is harnessed in what he calls “highly challenging but low-threat environments.”

Re-Imagining Society First, Education Second

The bottom line, Abbott notes, is that the current system excels at preparing children to be dependent “customers,” so if we hope to instead create a world of responsible, community-minded adults, we need to overhaul the educational paradigm. That means replacing the metaphor — the concept of the world and its inhabitants as machine-like entities — that has shaped the education system, as well as many other aspects of our culture. Because humans are not machines, a reliance on this metaphor has created a large disconnect between people’s actual lives and their inherited expectations and predispositions, which lies at the root of many inter-related modern challenges, says Abbott.

overschooled-but-undereducatedHis recommendation: Start by re-examining our collective values and envision a society where individuals once again matter. Clues to a more suitable paradigm can be found in the metaphors that characterize the dynamic, networked Information Age. These share some key characteristics with the pre-industrial past, when people learned in the community, from a variety of adults with whom they built relationships. Learning continued over the course of a lifetime filled with meaningful work (in contrast to today’s high unemployment rates and low workplace engagement levels), and success was judged by whether a person carried out his or her fair share of responsibilities within the community.

All of these elements have a direct bearing on education. “Such a vision is as essential to motivate whole generations of young people to delight in the development of their intellectual powers, as it is to create an adult society that is able — and willing — to devote quite enormous amounts of its energy to the slow, fascinating, if sometimes frustrating but totally essential, task of inducting all its young people into adulthood,” Abbott has written on the Initiative’s web site.

“Children learn most from what they see going on around them,” he explains. “We become who we are based on things around us that we admire or not. Children don’t just turn their brains on when they go to school.”

Therefore a young child is dealt “a shattering blow to its sense of order and purpose when a parent it loves and admires is made redundant …. Too much of that, and the web of life is shattered, and life becomes a crap game where the lasting lesson is take all you can, and put nothing back.”

Creating “Collaborative Learning Communities”

“It is essential to view learning as a total community responsibility,” he says, and to expect no short cuts. Children need to be integrated, fully contributing members of the broader community, so they can feel useful and valued. (It is not just the children who need this, he adds; healthy communities also need children.)

On a practical level, the most powerful lever for change, Abbott says, is people coming together to “rethink the role of community in the learning process,” agreeing how to divide up responsibilities among professional teachers and other community members, and then launching small pilot projects that are true to their new vision. These efforts will build on each other, he says, and large-scale change will follow.

He cautions against simply copying a specific model that worked elsewhere — each community must figure out what’s best, given its unique circumstances. But he is convinced of one thing: The formal school system needs to be “turned upside down and inside out.” It should be based on the biological system of weaning — i.e., gradually reducing children’s dependence on teachers. Teacher-student ratios should be high in the early years, then decrease dramatically in adolescence, when “the whole community has to become a place of learning,” with mentorships, apprenticeships and other hands-on learning experiences complementing highly self-directed classroom learning.

Teachers as Guides

In general, schools should move away from “an overemphasis on teaching,” Abbott says, and instead view teachers as imaginative, knowledgeable guides. “Any kid can read a textbook — they don’t need a teacher standing over them telling them to do so,” he points out. “They need teachers to inspire them to think about things in a much bigger way than they’ve done before.”

John Abbott

He cites an example from his time as a substitute teacher, when he found himself assigned to teach history to a class of 15-year-olds one afternoon. Casting about for inspiration, he expressed an interest in a student’s book about prisoners of war. When the boy asked him why wars get started, Abbott used the question as a launching pad for a discussion on the topic. He urged the students to consider not only what they’d been taught in school, but also what they’d gleaned from relatives. “It went so well,” he recalls, “that no one heard the bell ring.”

Twenty years later, while waiting for a train during the time of the Falklands War, he was approached by a porter who said he recognized him as the teacher of that class. It had opened his eyes, the man added, to how wars can serve politicians’ careers, and he had referenced it in a discussion with friends the previous evening. “At the end of my history lesson, something had stuck,” Abbott notes, “so that 20 years later, he remembered how between us we had constructed an explanation for the Second World War.”

Simply following a lesson plan wouldn’t have had the same result. “I don’t think teachers should be over prepared for any particular lesson,” he says, “because if they are, they lack flexibility to adapt to where the children are in their understanding.”

Lastly, in this vision of the world, our expectations of children would also be recalibrated. Rather than being considered the age at which people start to become independent learners, 18 (and even younger in some cases) should be viewed as the age when young people “demonstrate that they have already perfected that art, and know how to exercise this responsibly,” says Abbott.

To Advance Education, We Must First Reimagine Society | MindShift.

Flipping the Classroom Facilitates Active Learning Methods

No study can deny this – freeing up class time enables teachers and students to pursue Active Learning.

In a recent exchange in the media, the USA Today news site sensationalized a study under way at Harvey Mudd College, using the headline “‘Flipped classrooms’ may not have any impact on learning1. As the debate rolled out in the media over this, it became apparent that USA Today had taken the study and published information out of context (I know, shocking). In this commentary published the next day by Harvey Mudd teacher and study participant Darryl Yong we learn that, “the article greatly oversimplifies things by portraying our study as an attempt to answer whether flipped classrooms work or not.  That kind of research question is too blunt to be useful.”2

I am a firm believer that a key benefit of flipped instruction is that it frees up some time to enable Active Learning in the classroom. Yong explains in the aforementioned commentary that many faculty at Harvey Mudd are already engaging in active learning methods, and that, “there are lots of studies that show that active learning, formative assessment, group work, project-based learning, just-in-time learning are all measurably good things for students.” Researchers in this particular study are considering questions like, “are flipped classrooms good for students because they create more time for these demonstrably good things, or are there other benefits that we haven’t yet characterized?” Well, those “demonstrably good things” are precisely some of the key deliverables of flipped instruction, so even if these were the only benefits (and I don’t believe they are), we would be ahead of the game.

Facilitating Active Learning via ‘the Flip’

Wikipedia defines Active Learning as, “an umbrella term that refers to several models of instruction that focus the responsibility of learning on learners”3. When teachers flip the classroom and deliver learning content outside of the classroom, not only are they putting students in a position where they can consume the content at a more leisurely pace, with “rewind, replay, review” capabilities, they are also freeing up class time to be used differently. With this free class time, teachers have the opportunity to review materials, identify learning gaps, and pursue them. This allows for a level of differentiation and personalized learning that is hard to pursue in a traditional lecture-oriented classroom. It also provides time for Active Learning.

Of course, going down this path doesn’t happen without learning, planning, and effort, so I strongly advocate easing into flipped instruction. Learn about it and flip a little bit of content (a chapter, a lesson, a week of material), learning more as you go, so it’s not overwhelming. As you get more comfortable with the process, you can expand on it as time and resources permit, and soon you will find you have more class time for these types of Active Learning (and/or others – Active Learning comes in many forms and has many labels):

Experiential Learning: Dr. Jackie Gerstein has written a great deal on the flip, and has developed an excellent visual model4 supporting the benefits of experiential learning as part of a well designed flipped teaching model. In this article, “Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture for Higher Education5, she focuses on how this construct can work within the higher education setting. A well-planned flipped teaching approach will start with the introduction of a topic prior to the external consumption of learning content, and complete the cycle with constructivist learning activities.

Inquiry Based Learning: In the article, “The Flip: Why I Love It, How I Use It” teacher Shelley Wright explains, “For me, inquiry learning is where it’s at. I don’t believe in assigning videos every night as a substitute for my own lecturing. To me, that’s simply the traditional classroom rearranged, not flipped. I use the flip when my students need to absorb a few chunks of new information to continue learning. I don’t use it to front-load information at the beginning of a unit. I think that can rob students of the experience of authentically building knowledge and skills as they encounter new concepts.”6 Again we see that good flipped instruction should include a full cycle in which new ideas are discussed in the classroom before students are asked to consume related digital content. Failing to do so is a frequent reason cited in publications that speak to the potential failings of some flipped instruction implementations.

Project Based LearningIn this video7, Sal Khan discusses how the flip moves the lecture out of the classroom, freeing up class time for PBL. To learn more about Project Based Learning, check out Edutopia’s Project Based Learning page8. Project-based and problem-based learning are two of several methods that emphasize hands-on application of academic content, to reinforce the material and bring the student through the full cycle of learning.

Problem Based Learning: In this article on the Weebly site “The Digital Sandbox”, Teacher and Principal Mike King explains how, “Problem Based Learning in the flipped classroom is centered around the presentation of a problem, not lectures or assignments or exercises. Since “content obtainment” is not at the center of learning, the classroom becomes an active center for discovery using content as a support to solve a problem.”9 Learn more about Problem Based Learning here.10

Constructivism: The University of Oregon hosts a web page with this definition, “Constructivist learning is based on students’ active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking regarding a learning activity which they find relevant and engaging. They are “constructing” their own knowledge …”.11 This article from teacher Mark Isero briefly discusses the relationship between Constructivism and Flipped Teaching. “The idea … is simple: Construct knowledge together in the classroom, rather than having students do so at home.”12

An added bonus – enabling Mastery Learning

While not an Active Learning methodology per se, Mastery Learning can go hand in hand with Active Learning, and it is another powerful learning theory that is supported by flipped instruction. Sams and Bergmann have a devoted a whole chapter to this in the seminal book, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Students, in Every Class, Every Day13. The NY Times recently published this article about Mastery Learning in the Flipped Classroom on their Opinion Page blog. Blogger Tina Rosenberg explains, “In a traditional classroom, the teacher must aim the lecture at the middle, leaving the faster learners bored and the slower ones lost. Differentiation and personalization are big challenges. But the mastery system allows each student to learn at her own pace.” 14 There are lots of articles published discussing how flipped instruction enables mastery learning – give it a Google if you are interested in learning more.

The Right Tools in the Right Package

Getting back to that controversial article mentioned at the start of this post – frankly, it’s good news when a concept starts to gain detractors (this isn’t the first such article, and it won’t be the last) because you know it’s really getting some steam behind it and being taken seriously. Flipped teaching is no panacea, it requires learning, planning, and adaptation, and that’s not easy work, but it can deliver many benefits when it is understood and appropriately applied.

I’m also the first to admit that much about flipped teaching isn’t really new – in many ways it’s an idea that brings together various existing instructional constructs with new a label. But often, many ‘new’ ideas are just enhancements of existing, long standing concepts, with a little tweaking and polish. Consider the iPad – computer manufacturers had spent a decade trying to make tablet computing a meaningful niche, but it didn’t happen until Apple put together the right set of tools in the right package. I believe that flipped instruction tools and techniques are the right set of tools in the right package for many educators and classrooms, and more importantly for our students.

Flipping the Classroom Facilitates Active Learning Methods.