Making learning meaningful

In our schools today (and especially going forward), two profound shifts are underway to transform the learning experience for students.

The first shift involves changing the kinds of tasks with which students engage to emphasize the practice and demonstration of what we call "global-ready skills." These skills include collaboration, influence, problem-solving, adaptability, entrepreneurialism, analysis and imagination. Contrast this with the acquisition of facts about reading, math or science. This is not to say the latter is unimportant, but rather to say where the emphasis in the learning should be placed.

The second shift involves changing those tasks from things that only have meaning within the context of school (i.e. worksheets, book reports, or even the dreaded papier-mache volcano), to instead focus on things that have meaning to the student's life, community and world. In edu-jargon, we call these higher-order tasks problems (if they are relatively short-term) or projects (if they are longer-term). You may hear kids or educators in our community talking about "problem-based" or "project-based" learning when referring to this change.

But why make these shifts? Why should we engage in a deep effort to change how teaching and learning occur in our schools? Isn't the kind of learning most adults had growing up just fine? The answer to that question comes from (at least) a couple of areas.

First, the kinds of skills students need in order to be successful adults has evolved far beyond the ability to memorize information and recall it while demonstrating obedience to authority and blind compliance. Those kinds of jobs left the shores of our country decades ago and, regardless of the promises from any politician, they are never coming back.

One might wonder why a business leader would choose relatively higher-wage American workers versus cheaper labor in other countries, or machines that can perform routine and repetitive tasks cheaper and more reliably. The answer: they won't and it is both irrational and unrealistic to expect otherwise. If it can be outsourced or automated, then it will be.

Second, the kind of learning that results from fact-recall and simply receiving information is shallow and lacks staying power. Consider the kind of cramming of information you did in high school, or even college, for some big exam. While there may have been a big idea or two that stuck, most of those facts have been lost to your brain's short-term and working memory processes of dumping unnecessary information over time.

Learning that sticks happens by doing and experiencing, particularly if the learning is about something interesting or useful to the learner. And learning can be enhanced through the creation of aesthetic experiences, where the learner is completely engaged and the subject matter is vivid and meaningful to the learner.

Think about how you learn best. Was it when you were forced to sit through a class and take notes on some subject someone else thought you needed to know, or was it when you needed (or wanted) to know something because it was important or interesting to you? For most people, deeper learning happens with the latter.

These ideas about making learning a more experience-based endeavor are by no means new. Educational theorists and philosophers dating back to the 18th (Rousseau) and 19th (Piaget) centuries talked about the importance of experience in education. Even problem and project-based learning concepts are ideas that have been around for decades.

What has kept us from making this transformational shift is that the fact-recall and teacher-driven form of education is easier for the adults. Creating experiences that deeply engage students and which require them to create, demonstrate, or perform a genuine skill is hard and complex work.

We also have many students who have done well in the fact-recall/compliance model. We established a social contract with students that said if they were obedient, did well enough on standardized tests, and sat through enough lectures, then they would be rewarded with degrees honoring their knowledge and guaranteed a decent life.

But we can't make those guarantees any longer because the realities of the global economy make that contract obsolete.

These two transformative shifts are already underway in our community schools. They place learning in our schools on an exciting precipice. While this work will certainly not be without its missteps, false starts, and challenges — it sure beats focusing on better worksheets.