There are cool schools here and there, but there should be cool schools everywhere.
Author, “A Revolution in Education”
Dr. Chris Unger is a professor in the Doctorate of Education program at Northeastern University. He recently published the book, A Revolution in Education and hosts a podcast, website, and weekly newsletter with the same name. We talked to Chris about why we need a new approach to education, where we see some of these changes taking place, and how people can take steps to get involved.
Q: What inspired you to write A Revolution in Education?
Chris: I’m very old—180 years old—so I’ve been around the block. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work with many educators—at least 1,000 teachers, 200 schools, 40 districts, and eight or nine state departments over the past 35 years. I’ve had the opportunity to see the system at so many levels and interact with parents, educators, students, district leaders, and community members.
It became very clear to me that many people don’t have a full view of how the public education system works, and the impact of how it operates. At Northeastern University and have even noticed how students in the program—who have been working in the education system for as many as 10 or 20 years—are not aware of how the entire system operates.
When I talk about how our current education system operates, I draw a series of concentric circles around a dot in the center—which would be the student—with each circle surrounding the student being the classroom, the school, the family, and the community. Then there’s the state, the United States, and the global community. Every single circle impacts that youth, how they grow up, and their experience with school.
The system impacts how people see, think, and behave. I’ve had this experience as a parent, where my kid didn’t want to get out of bed and go to high school. And you start thinking of ways to motivate them so that they can graduate and get a job. But, I kept asking myself: what if school were different and somewhere my kid wanted to go? Sometimes we’re so familiar with how things are, that we don’t step back and look at how they can be different, and why.
Q: Could you give us an overview of how the public education system functions, and why we face challenges creating change within it?
Chris: I go into much more detail about this in the book, but here are a few of the key points. To receive a high school diploma, you have to earn a specified number of credits in certain areas—four years of English, four years of math, four years of social studies, three years of science, and so on. This was developed many, many years ago and was driven by the content and skills industrialists, politicians, and a few educators felt were most important for an informed citizenry and workforce. Then school and district leaders looked at these expectations and said, “OK, what’s the most efficient way to cover all of this?”
When you think about classes being a 45-minute period, it’s likely because kids couldn’t listen to someone lecture to them for longer than that, not because that’s how kids learn best. Our system was built to meet standards that were deemed important and developed many decades ago. Our world and the needs of our learners have changed a lot since then. When I think about my own teaching, I don’t think about teaching; I think about designing experiences. Teaching often evokes the act of delivering information rather than coaching, apprenticing, or mentoring. The idea of teaching as the delivery of knowledge and skills, rather than the facilitation of experiences grounded in learners’ interests, sits within very different paradigms of teaching and learning.
It’s important to understand how federal and state expectations shape what goes on in schools and how teachers, schools, and districts respond. For instance, when No Child Left Behind was created, many districts zeroed in on math and reading scores because that was how states—as directed by the feds—measured the performance of schools. Districts and schools rushed to focus on these because they didn’t want to have a target on them as having or being an underperforming school, but this meant an increase in tutoring and remediation programs, and putting kids in front of computers. The focus was on test scores, not on the needs of the learners, no less their interests.
There’s a story I like to tell about a young woman who is making a meatloaf. She’s putting it in the oven in a nine-by-four pan with aluminum foil. A friend watching her asks why she is making it that way and she replies, “Because that’s the way my mother did it.” That’s kind of like what we are doing in schools. Everyone is doing it the same way because that is the way we have always done it and how everyone else is doing it. I’m all for a good family recipe, but sometimes we find new ingredients, cooking methods, or entirely new recipes along the way. And guess what, they taste better and they’re better for you.
The most important thing somebody can do is to “get in the know.” It means really looking around and seeking out who is doing teaching, learning, and schooling differently.
Author, “A Revolution in Education”
Q: What is the case you make for needing a different approach to education?
Chris: We have workforce needs that call for skills that aren’t being met by our conventional education system. We have an opportunity to create competencies that address the durable skills kids need, which aren’t addressed by the common core standards. Things like: Is this person responsible? Can they collaborate? Can they communicate? Can they solve problems? Can they build social capital? Can they pursue their interests and aspirations, and give back to the world?
From there, we look at how to make those skills competency-based and socially embedded. Many learner-centered schools focus on these skills and support students’ interest-driven learning. But because we keep doing school like the young woman baking with the nine-by-four meatloaf pan—doing school as it always has been done—it will take district leaders, community members, and parents to call for a new recipe, and states can both incentivize and support new models of teaching, learning, and schooling by creating new policy expectations and use state funding to support such innovation. It will most likely take a combination of families, innovative educators, industry partners, and community leaders to press for this shift with a focus on what will benefit our youth, their future, and our communities.
To continue with this fun analogy, it’s as if the conventional system is simply serving typical fast food—a burger, fries, and shake. If lucky, perhaps it’s more like a cafeteria in high school—with more extracurriculars and electives. I compare that food to our standard state-mandated curriculum like history, math, science, and English. But what if we asked our students what they would like to eat? What they would like to cook? And what if we taught them how to cook? (i.e., help them learn how to learn). Imagine—steak, sushi, pasta, BBQ, vegetarian dishes, dumplings, and maybe even a gourmet burger! Again, metaphorically, they would be learning how to be creative problem-solvers.
You can engage young people through questions that are relevant to what they have in front of them: What do you want to make? What do you want to create? How can you make it? Over time, you can become an amazing chef. We can approach learning the same way. School doesn’t have to look the same for each young person. School shouldn’t be a fast food enterprise.
Q: We see a lot of people eager to make change, but scaling a model often poses some challenges. How do you grapple with the challenges of scale?
Chris: The first thing I would say about scaling is that networks are really powerful means of scaling good models of learning that a district or school can use to make inroads into their community. If I’m a district leader and have a desire to do something different, I can point to a network to evidence the efficacy and impact of the new learning program. There are some highly innovative people out there willing to take a risk and create something new, but many people need a prototype to get started. District leaders often need to point to success to sell their community on the benefit of the innovations. They also often need help on how to get the new learning program up and running—connecting the dots starting from where they are—point A—to where they want to go—point B. Whether it’s networks such as Big Picture Learning, the New Tech Network, or the CAPS Network, they can help people access the resources to help them move the needle in their community.
In some instances, such as with Design39, the superintendent and others have gone out of their way to visit many other schools to learn how they can design something different. I think we can learn a lot from the origin stories of other innovative schools and how their successes could play out in our own lives or communities. The goal of my book and the podcast is to highlight what makes these schools work and how they got started. I’m capturing the brilliance of educators and community members who have been able—through vision, relationships, and serendipity—to create amazing learning environments across the country. There isn’t one way to do all of this, and there isn’t one way we should be doing things for every kid. To continue with the food fun: I’d rather be in a city with lots of different food choices, where everyone can choose what they want and like the most—sort of like having the North End in Boston (Italian if you haven’t been).
You also don’t need to start with 500 kids. Whether you’re starting from scratch or implementing an existing program, you can start with a dozen kids and families who are already bought in. It’s much easier that way and doesn’t upset the apple cart. You can try out the new approach and iterate on its designs. And once people see how it works, others will want it and your numbers will grow. Going back to origin stories, many of the schools I highlight started with just a handful of learners and have grown with creativity from there.
Q: How can individuals start making a difference?
Chris: The last chapter of my book is dedicated to exactly this idea. The most important thing somebody can do is to “get in the know.” It means really looking around and seeking out who is doing teaching, learning, and schooling differently. How are they doing it? How did they get started? This is where organizations like Education Reimagined are really valuable because they can point you to several different models of learner-centered environments. Someone might hear the term “learner-centered” and think, “What is that? Are there learner-centered organizations? Where are they? What are the schools like? And … how did they get started?”
You also need to know how the public education system functions. Knowing how the system works and where people have found success can help you figure out where you can be most impactful. You can be a parent, learner, classroom educator, school principal, district leader, policy actor, or community member—each person has something to contribute to pursue a new design and make a difference.
One of the things I learned by seeking out and listening to so many of the inspiring stories of learner-centered startups across the country is how much serendipity played a role in each of them. When you think of a start-up with a cool design, you would think it was all from careful planning and pursuing the right resources. But in reality, many were the result of a couple of educators’ impassioned vision and wearing their passions for their vision on their shirt sleeves. Through some serendipitous connection or event, a relationship or resource supporting their vision to become a reality. Such as Larry Rosenstock meeting Sol Price, the founder of Price Club, who then asked him to direct his foundation, eventually leading him to community members who wanted his vision for a school to take root in their community—now High Tech High in San Diego. Or how through word of mouth, Chuck Peters, a prominent community leader in Cedar Rapids IA, told Mary Masterling, the Chair of the School Board, that Trace Pickering and Shawn Cornally were planning to start their own private learning endeavor. Upon hearing that, Mary told Trace and Shawn, “I want you to start that school in our district.” Hence, the start-up of Iowa BIG.
In short, I don’t think it’s all so planned or random. If you are passionate about a new vision of learning and you get in the know and connect with those who can help you, you have a better chance of building the team you need to enact the change. I highlight those experiences and the people doing the work in my podcast and the book, hoping that it will inspire others to pursue their own new designs, get in the know, and see how they can pursue their own new possibilities of teaching, learning, and schooling in their community.
To close, I have a saying that’s a bit Dr. Seuss-ish: “There are cool schools here and there, but there should be cool schools everywhere.” I hope that by learning about other cool schools and seeing similarities across our work, more people will have the tools and resources to make a difference for the young people in their communities.
You can learn more about Chris Unger and his various projects on his website. To read A Revolution in Education: Scaling Agency & Opportunity for All, click here. Seasons one, two, and three of Chris’s podcast, A Revolution in Education, are available now.