Whole Child Symposium

Self-Selecting, Real-World Learning Communities

Post written by Walter McKenzie

Imagine in your mind, a map of your community. Nothing detailed; just the boundaries and general lay of the land. Got it? Now add in the major areas in your community where people live and work and play. You know, to give yourself some bearings with a few landmarks. Still with me? Good! Now convert this mental image into a heat map. You know, where the hot spots flare up in bright yellows, oranges and reds? Picture in your mind hot spots that indicate places people go to learn new things and practice skills that are important to them. Where are those heat surges? Athletic fields? Dance studios? Book stores? Parks and beaches? Art galleries? Theaters? How about school buildings? No? Why aren’t school building hot spots on anyone's heat map?

President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment Karen Pittman discussed this at the recent ASCD Whole Child Symposium Live, saying:

"Learning communities need to be grounded where children live, being able to learn in all kinds of places within their community. Let's let go of the idea that there are buildings where learning happens and help children find their own learning communities based on their interests and abilities and pace of learning. Such learning communities do provide just more learning time, but better learning experiences by being able to learn and practice skills in their authentic contexts. We need to allow young people to create their own heat maps based on where their learning needs and interests. And then we need to go to those places where children identify their learning hot spots and find ways to replicate learning experiences there on the ground within the community. You can bet schools are not going to show up very warm on these maps."

This isn't a big conceptual stretch. We already have virtual learning communities that connect people of common interests and skills. Students meet online with content matter experts, skilled professionals and learning partners as a way to push beyond the four walls of the classroom. But as we continue to transform education from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, why settle pushing the boundaries when we can literally open up the doors and let students out to seek meaning and understanding and practical application of the skills they will need to be successful contributors to their community?

Children are past the point of needing to master content. They can find the information they need on the fly in real time from anywhere. Instead, they need the skills and understandings of how to

  • Collaborate,
  • Problem solve,
  • Create products of value,
  • Practice conflict resolution,
  • Self-monitor their work performance, and
  • Learn from risk-taking regardless of the outcome.

If students can learn and practice these kinds of skills, they will be ready for whatever their adult world looks like, regardless of the information at hand.

"Right now," Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, pointed out at the live Whole Child Symposium event, "there is an emphasis on student interest and choice in preschool and in college, but nowhere in between." Why is that? In a world where agility with skills and concepts is key, why are our elementary, middle, and high schools focused on prescribed content and contrived outcomes? Because for the last century the ideals of the industrial age were reflected in public education: alignment, standardization, consistency of behavior, and ability to follow directions. These things produced a more homogenous citizenry, a trainable pool of prospective soldiers and responsible stewards of business. We accomplished this to an impressively high degree. But society has continued to grow and morph, and being able to master a set scope and sequence of memorized facts, rote vocabulary and basic heuristics no longer meets the needs in a collaborative, competitive global economy. If we continue training bean counters, they will serve those who can ask important questions, find valuable answers, and deliver innovative breakthroughs in ways our generation cannot even imagine.

School buildings are brick-and-mortar monuments to a bygone age. They have served their purpose well, delivering us from being an agricultural start-up to a world super power. But we no longer need brain factories dispensing knowledge into empty heads. There's little value in inspecting graduates with one-size-fits-all assembly-line standards. A century ago we enacted labor laws to free children from inappropriate working conditions. Today we must enact education laws that free children from inappropriate learning conditions. Learners participating in self-selected learning communities. Teachers participating as facilitators, coaches and mentors. Learning taking place across the community: libraries, museums, laboratories, businesses, public offices, and virtual spaces. Anywhere students are engaged and motivated to learn, allow them to do so. Sure there can still be standards and assessments, but let them be as practical and authentic as the real-world environments where learning takes place.

For the last thirty-five years, the reforms that have been imposed on public education have cited the cost of everything but lost sight of the value education delivered. The solution is not further reform of the outdated model, but to fully transform education to where it needs to be today. It won't happen quickly, but it will happen. How do we start? Educators committed to children need to band together and take risks, creating environments where learners can acquire and practice the skills they need. It will be our legacy; our gift to the future. What a transcendent way to give back to our profession, and make the world a better place for the next generation.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network or by e-mail at wmckenzie@ascd.org.

Follow the Whole Child Symposium conversation here on the blog, share your thoughts in the comments and by e-mail, and pose your questions on Twitter using the hashtag #WCSymposium2014.

Learn more at www.ascd.org/wcsymposium.

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