“…every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.” — Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language.
Education, particularly in the twenty-first century, has a threefold purpose. First, an excellent education gives young people the opportunity to make dignified and dignifying choices about their lives. It affords them the capacity to make decisions about work, family, self-direction and engagement in local, American and global cultures that are informed, rather than reflexive. Second, by developing the critical capacities of young minds, education gives students the capacity, as adults, to be full participants in democratic society. Third, through rigorous questioning, problem-posing and creative thinking, education affords students the power to solve any problem to which they might set their minds to solving.
Schools that prepare students best for life in the twenty-first century are those that do all of these things while taking Christopher Alexander’s maxim cited above to heart. They become places where students do more than just learn content for its own sake (or for exams); they also become places where teachers do more than just teach that content. Students and teachers of the twenty-first century learn and teach best when applying time-tested wisdom to the opportunities presented by the transformative now.
Young people (and adults, for that matter) learn best by doing. Classrooms should be learning laboratories, connected to the world and tethered to rich, meaningful questions based on essential concepts and questions. Classrooms should be rambunctious places of active study and vigorous student-to-student teaching and collaboration, like a design studio or an engineering lab. Students should be given the opportunity to learn by applying their knowledge to real problems. Furthermore, they should be expected to be able to teach the relevant principles to anyone. There is nothing more likely to show how well or how poorly a student understands something than trying to explain it to someone else.
Our children crave the opportunity to make connections between disciplines and to reach out to peers across the country and the world. They are ready to teach us what they know and what we don’t. Moreover, our teachers are lifelong learners with the skills to empower students to make these connections and to guide the development of their critical skills, if only we as school leaders would let them unleash their creative spark. Students will always need to learn how to read, to solve mathematical problems, to understand cause-and-effect relationships and to know how to use the tools of rationalism to understand the workings of the world. It may be the twenty-first century, but the Greeks got it right. To be problem-posers, to think critically and to give sound, reasoned answers to complex questions is the foundation of learning success and a productive society. While the Greeks understood the heart of the matter, they could not have anticipated the web and web-ways of thinking. Hypertextuality, game-based learning, crowd-sourced wisdom and crowd-sourced critique can enhance students’ understanding of truth and sharpen critical engagement. This is the age of the mash-up…the age where interconnectivity matters more than nineteenth-century learning silos. Mathematics divorced from science? Impoverished. Literature outside of its historical contexts? That leaves the job half done. Both or either separated from art? Why make that choice when math and literature through art encourage so many meaningful connections?
All of this learning takes place within an American society that is changing faster and faster every day. To ensure the stability of our learning community, we have to make our schools embody three notions – respect, spirit and balance. Respect reminds us of how essential it is to treat one’s self and others in a way that dignifies. Spirit reminds us of how important it is to engage with others in an open-hearted, joyful way. Balance suggests that we stop now and again, breathe, reflect and restart. These values form the core of what I can bring to a school community. Helping kids become their best selves is what I do. I am an optimistic, intellectually curious, playful futurist. The best days of any school lie in its future.