The Privilege of Learning, Rethinking Traditional Schooling

In 2009, I was fortunate enough to visit New Tech High School in Coppell, TX…a “New Tech Network” school centered on project based learning and authentic student-led experiences. Prior to that visit, everything that I understood about education involved teachers as the holders of information with students waiting to grasp onto every word. Within a few moments of walking through the halls of New Tech, I knew that I was experiencing something life-changing. It was as if the doors of learning were unlocked ever so slightly and I haven’t been the same educator since.

It was on that day that I first experienced what freedom to explore and learn meant. I saw kids, deeply draped in trust, collaborating, researching, discussing and even studying from all corners of the building. I saw a “grading system” that had zero numerical value but a life value far greater than a red pen could mark.

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I saw kids, excited about the “global awareness” project they were collaboratively creating…entranced by their ideas as well as the ongoing feedback of their peers…while also editing final videos for online submission to youtube.

I remember leaving New Tech full of excitement and wonder and I was eager to try implementing some of those ideas into my own math classroom. I started with changing the way that I taught by giving much less and asking much more. That simple change, while not easy, profoundly changed who I was as a teacher.

Over the last few years, I’ve been to many different schools and I have only felt such a life-changing jolt on two other occasions. One…after visiting Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and the other…Anastasis Academy in Colorado. Like New Tech, both schools are inquiry driven and project based, with one (SLA) being a public magnet high school founded by a man with a transformative vision and The Franklin Institute. The second…a private school (Anastasis) formed because a pair of teachers wanted to create a “new paradigm in education”.

In both situations, the differences in belief and approach to learning versus traditional schooling were obvious from multiple views. Kids were empowered to think, dream, act and learn with many iterations of thought. Partnerships between students, teachers and parents were clearly evident. Students were trusted to be human and teachers were trusted to be their own curriculum writers instead of forced to teach from a district box-set of ideas. Both locations boasted students who spoke of the privilege that they felt to learn in such an authentic manner that their voices and ideas were not only heard but empowered to ignite their individual paths.

Each trip, while months apart, forced me to think about the possibilities for kids and the future leaders that they can become if we stopped living in the traditional sense of school and shifted our thinking to be truly focused on empowering kids to be architects of their own thoughts and lovers of the art of learning.

It should not be surprising to adults when students can articulate their own thoughts. We should not be shocked when a teenager makes some incredible scientific discovery or creates a work of art “beyond his/her years”.

When I am told, “…designed/created by a student”, I do not want to live in a world where my response is, “Are you serious?”….but instead… “of course”.

If we listen to our learners, our schools should be empowering…

  • Ideas
  • Voice
  • Passion
  • Activism
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Relationships
  • Community
  • Research
  • Cultural Cognizance
  • Invention
  • Learning

If we aren’t doing those things, why should we question when kids lack a spark or intent when approaching school? Why should we be concerned when attendance lacks while discipline referrals reach new peaks? Why should we wonder why parental support falters? Why question the social connectedness of teachers to ideas or opportunities for growth?

Why question what we haven’t established, implemented or supported…in the traditional sense?

Why have we created and accepted a system where authentic learning is a matter of privilege?

We all speak of educational change and/or reform but no such change is possible until we cut the leashes of traditional learning and redefine our purpose for school. The key to getting there is tucked in the dusty boxes that are currently holding the muted thoughts of our greatest assets.

Our Kids

What do they think about learning? What do they think about school? How would they change it?

What small change can you make in your classroom/school to empower “untraditional” growth?

What needs to happen to support more meaningful and authentic approaches to growth?

(Noticeably absent from the list above…Technology. We don’t need to empower technology. We need to empower our learners…who they are and who they can become. The technology should be accessible…supporting and empowering all of the characteristics listed and more)

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