Why Zero-Based Thinking is Mission Critical in Reimagining Education

Voices from the Field   13 November 2018
By Ira Socol


We learned to watch learning. And, so can you.

Ira Socol
former K-12 Chief Technology and Innovation Officer

This article first appeared on Ira Socol’s personal blog on Medium. It has been edited and republished for our readers.

If you had never seen or heard of “school” and never knew about this thing called formal education, how would you choose to lead our four-year-olds to adulthood? What would you create for that very complex task? What would your community build? What would your society want?

The heart of Zero-Based Thinking—beginning our search for solutions without being limited by existing practices—lies in these deceptively simple questions. They might seem simple ,  but it is very difficult to separate what we know about the system we’ve inherited from the new thinking our society demands we come up with.

Zero-Based Thinking, as my colleague Pam Moran often alludes to, offers educators the opportunity to create a “Bell Labs” moment. For those too young — Bell Labs was America’s top invention center, the research part of the old AT&T phone monopoly.

In 1951, the Bell Labs team was asked to imagine that the entire phone system of the U.S. had been destroyed — a concept not unthinkable in the wake of World War II — and then, given this chance to start all over again, what they would build in its place. For most of the 20th century, telephones were still rooted in the best technologies of 1880–1920. To really change, Zero-Based Thinking was required.

All that we see in our phone system now was conceived in the next two years. Why would we use wires? Surely there’s a better idea than a mechanical dial. Why would phones be limited to carrying voices? Why would long distances matter?

There’s an old book by Jack Finney — who wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers— titled Time and Again. As a person who can, in the words of my child, take you on a tour of New York that’s only about “what used to be there,” it’s an old favorite. In this time travel novel, slipping back into time is done through a self-hypnosis that both imagines the lost world of the past — how do you light a gas lamp, what does money look like, what’s the news of the day — but also breaks what the book calls “the million tiny threads of knowledge that bind you to the present.” The protagonist has to terminate his knowledge of television, radio, world wars, nuclear power, aircraft, and automobiles, in order to discover New York City in the 1880s.

And, therein lies the block that prevents so many from getting to Zero-Based Thinking. We know too much. If you just close your eyes and imagine a “learning space” most of us will picture something like a classroom. If we hear about time and learning we will see a school day. Heck, so many of us still only see books when we say “reading.”

Probably the most successful high school in Philadelphia history — in terms of true value-added for the lives of its students—the Parkway Program began with real Zero-Based Thinking.

Change demands that we break those ties that bind. “What would happen,” Wind and Cook asked in Embrace the Outlier: To Do Differently You Must See Differently, “if you set aside your current model? Without the burden of these ‘legacy systems,’ what would you create in their place?”

Change demands that we see opportunities, instead of simply seeing a structure. If we look and see a structure, we will see the difficulties . Those classroom walls are structural; they hold up the roof and have asbestos in them. If we change the times of the school day, it will affect football practice. Teachers need summers off. We have to clean the cafeteria at 2:00pm.

On the other hand, if we see opportunities, we will focus on the possibilities .  What if some kids would rather take classes at night or on Saturdays? What if schools emphasized lifetime fitness, instead of focusing solely on team sports? What if kids determined the pace of their own learning?

If we think about it for a moment, learning does not require walls, time periods, bells, or desks. It doesn’t need content separation, or “drop everything and read,” or worksheets, or even paper. If we read Wikipedia’s characterizations of “Informal Learning,” we might ask why the article isn’t simply titled, “Learning.”

When I think about learning, I look at the founding description of my high school — crafted by Neil Postman with the deep support of Charley Weingartner and Alan Shapiro:

“In other words, we are assuming (1) that learning takes place best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that “problems” and personal interests as well as “subjects” form a realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them.

“This set of beliefs is sometimes referred to as the “judo” principle of education. Instead of trying to forestall, resist, or neutralize the natural curiosity intelligence, energy, and idealism of youth, one uses it in a context which permits both them and their community to change. Thus, the experimental program reduces the reliance on classrooms and school buildings; it transforms the relevant problems of the community and the special interests of individual students into the students’ “curriculum”; it looks toward the creation of a sense of community in both The Program, students and adults.”

I also reflect on my latest work in co-designing Albemarle Tech, the new high school Pam Moran and I developed last year:

“Designed using the best contemporary research on education, Albemarle Tech will remove several potential barriers to learning: such as time constraints, environmental limitations, and curricular restrictions. In addition, with a location embedded in the Albemarle County world of innovative businesses, ATech will allow students to fully engage their world. Removing these barriers allows students to discover an extensive education made possible by a grassroots connection to the community through technological problem-solving and maker-infused learning.”

I even look at the multi-age elementary environments, Pam, Michele Castner, Michael Thornton, and I (among many others) built in schools, with ages five through eleven learning together in a big spaces (60 to 180 kids) centered on kitchens.

All of these environments, all entirely unique in their final design, began with Zero-Based Thinking. And, each road began with observation that was not limited to — or even primarily within — schools. We went outside and watched kids (a.k.a. human beings). We watched them learn when we (the adults) weren’t interfering. We watched them learn in parks and coffee shops, on playgrounds and playing fields, in museums and in stores, while riding on buses and trains, while playing with Legos, and while watching the tide come in. We learned to watch learning. And, so can you. What does a four-month-old do? A four-year-old? A 14-year-old? A 40-year-old? Keep your mind blank and observe. And then, begin to imagine.

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