Ongoing Observations on Progressive 21st Century Educational Philosophy & Practice
I had planned to hit the hiking trail yesterday as my reward for teaching two weeks of intensive writing workshops over spring break. Both workshops are still in their infancy. Before this spring, I’d taught the Writing Skills Intensive only once last summer and the Tabletop Moviemaking course twice previously. But I’m a fanatic about research, revision, and reflection. Throughout the workshop weeks I’d constantly tinkered with my curriculum, adjusting its scope, sequence and delivery into the wee hours of the morning, making note of future changes like a mad scientist on the brink of a breakthrough.
So like I was saying…hiking. That was the plan on a glorious Monday morning. Coffee in hand, sneakers tied, I rifled through a few emails, browsed my favorite blog feeds, and well…one thing led to another (damn you, Internet Rabbit Hole.) Anyway, I found myself –- by way of the righteous GOOD.is – first at the articles written by, then at the personal website of, my friend and ex-colleague, Chris Thinnes.
A.) Wow. Chris never disappoints. He’s one of the most articulate, intelligent and exciting guys I’ve ever met.
B.) Serendipity? Chris’ recent guest post on GOOD, (“Stop Exploring ‘Innovative Education Models’: We Need Action Now”) made me jump on the couch in bounce position. Forget the hike. I was already headed to church.
I love discussing Great Ideas. Chris’ idea campaign in support of a transformative educational “master plan” taking shape now at a local level in both public and private schools through collaborative design and courageous implementation echoed so many of my own thoughts, but with far more grace and clarity than I could ever muster.
I thought back to my time in the classroom. Whenever I’ve decided to pilot a new lesson, unit or workshop, I instinctually draw from my deep-seated educational belief system to extract the purpose, value, and experience I hope to provide my students. These core principles form the framework of my teaching approach. The first time I implement the experience in front of students, my ideals may not quite match up to the reality of all the factors at play. Thus, I tend to hold tighter control, as I feel my way through my own narrative, along with the natural nuances and inclinations of the classes I’m “experimenting” on. Over time though, through trial, error, and trust in process, control gives way to intuition, guidance and greater creativity; the experience becomes more student-centered and more gratifying for everyone. I’m always eager to reach this point in my own teaching (whether it takes a day, week or year), since it’s when my approach finally aligns with my ideals to create the most authentic and enduring learning experience I can provide.
In 2012 I founded my own educational company, W.O.R.D. Ink. Now my teaching approach must not only be my own, it must also radiate out to my entire team, so that we share the same vision and actually make a real difference in the education and personal growth of the students we mentor; and so that we meet the high standards we set for our teaching practices. W.O.R.D. Ink is true ‘ninja warrior’ team built of resiliency, ingenuity, humility, and spirit. Yet we are still in infancy, finding our footing much in the same way the Collective ‘We’ of Educational Advocacy are carving our path past rhetoric and into practice on the front lines of all classrooms and one-on-one mentorships.
WHAT ROLE DO I ENVISION W.O.R.D. INK PLAYING IN THIS NEW GRASSROOTS PROJECT-BASED LEARNING ERA?
W.O.R.D. Ink is a Do Good Company that believes Every Voice Matters. We design education programs for clients at all ages and stages to develop thriving writing talents, personal expression, and voice. The W.O.R.D. Ink team wants to empower our students to “Make Their Mark” by providing an invigorating approach to writing workshops, tutoring programs and editorial services whose results endure and inspire. We hope that, in turn, the students we serve realize that learning is a joyful, boundless process that serves not only oneself, but also one’s greater community.
For K-12 students in particular to thrive (ie: learn, create, lead, serve) in a world of constantly evolving conventions and expectations we must teach them how to see themselves as lifelong learners who value process, observation, reflection, inclusivity, resourcefulness, creativity, versatility, courage, change, and collaboration.
These ten elevated principles are not learned through rote routine and teacher-centered approaches, no matter if the student is a fourth grader, an eighth grade teacher, or a forty-year old father. Conversely, they are ten principles that must be extracted from within the learner himself in an ongoing project or problem-based, student-centered learning environment and with the guidance of coaches who capitalize on teachable moments along the path to self-discovery.
Earning my own MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults as an adult validated the truth about what makes an authentic learning experience. For two years I engaged in a student-led, project-based environment that required me to study these very same ten principles outlined above. The principles were not discussed outright. Rather, they emerged through my own successes and failures as necessary and motivating steps to achieving, by the program’s end, both critical and creative writing goals that I had personally set for myself.
On the website CFEE (Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School), Founding Director Chris Thinnes, Head of Upper Elementary & Academic Dean at Curtis School, as well as a public school parent, explores the research, theory, and practice that will transform 21st century elementary education. Chris notes that while best practices in the most basic proficiencies of “the three Rs” must obviously be developed, we as educators (teachers, parents and thought leaders alike) must “devote our collective attention to ‘the four Cs’ (collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking).”
On both the CFEE site and in his insightful article on GOOD, Chris points to other educational thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson, Grant Lichtman, Wendy Mogel, Alfie Kohn, Yong Zhao, Jonathan Martin, Bo Adams, Chris Lehmann, and Carol Dweck to drive home the shared belief that collaborative design among parents, advocates, and educators in a sort of “crowd-sourced” atmosphere of input, further ignited by the speed of communication (thanks, social media!), will set us on the path to accomplishing several key educational objectives and moving past the stale pretext of “easier said than done” by:
- Pooling resources from a fusion of diverse talents, concerns, and experiences to implement actionable and ambitious change in education now at a local level, rather than waiting for state or nationwide efforts
- Practicing the same core principles of project / problem-based learning that we aim to instill in our students, despite semantic differences (ie: CFEE’s “The 4 C’s”, C.H.I.L.D.’s 16 Transformative Education Principles, or even W.O.R.D. Ink’s own “Write. Observe. Revise. Discover.”) Collaboration helps us “redefine,” as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, “our own, private scope of influence [while we] adhere to certain common principles.”
Chris further highlighted Sir Ken Robinson’s sage words, which truly sum up our collective and personal directive to make change happen now:
“The ‘Education System’ is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan’s office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals […] If you are a school principal, you are ‘the education system’ for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are ‘the education system’ for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice—if you change your way of thinking—you change the world for those students. You change ‘the education system.’ […] And if enough people change, and they’re connected in the way they change, that’s a movement. And when enough people are moving, that’s a revolution.”
YES! YES! YES!
While a “Unified Vision of Education” does not in itself outline the actionable steps towards achieving a goal, it does state the overarching purpose and principles required in creating an authentic and indelible learning experience. Therefore, Vision is a necessary first step in developing one’s personal commitment to a larger cause.
This gets me thinking about Big Ideas IN ALL CAPS for W.O.R.D. Ink:
- WHERE DO WE FIT INTO THIS CONVERSATION ON EDUCATION? HOW CAN WE CONTRIBUTE TO THE DISCOURSE AND DYNAMIC, BOLD NEW PRACTICES?
- WHAT ARE PARENTS & EDUCATORS ASKING OF US?
- WHAT ARE WE PROMISING IN RETURN?
- HOW HAVE WE SUCCEEDED SO FAR? (HOW ARE WE HONESTLY WORKING ON CRITICAL THINKING AND CREATIVE CONTRIBUTION? HOW ARE WE DISPLAYING OUR PHILOSOPHIES AND RHETORIC IN OUR LESSON PLANS? HOW ARE WE PERSONALLY REFLECTING ON OUR PRACTICES AND ALSO EVOLVING AS A TEAM?)
- WHERE DO WE STILL FALL SHORT OF OUR PRACTICE MIRRORING OUR BELIEF SYSTEM?
As with the learning process, such questions have no final answers. But W.O.R.D. Ink values process, observation, reflection, inclusivity, resourcefulness, creativity, versatility, courage, change, and collaboration. Thus, we can only make a concerted commitment to steady growth and innovative practice by asking ourselves these very questions with our core principles in mind.
AND MEANWHILE…THERE’S THE REALITY OF…
The World We Live In: A Critical Crossroads for the Gatekeepers of Education
“For folks who are arguing for a more humane, more inquiry-driven, more citizenship-minded, more modern education, it seems daunting [….] The very language of our best ideas often seem co-opted by those who, in the end, seem to be creating a very different kind of schooling than what our best ideas are really about.” –Chris Lehmann
At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, CFEE asked Curtis School teachers, parents and students to “describe the very best they hoped to become.” Chris noted the results in another of his inspiring guest posts on GOOD, “Revolution From the Ground Up: A Framework for the Education System We Need”:
- Teachers used words like: compassionate, cooperative, creative, critically thinking, and curious.
- Parents used words like: independent, open-minded, self-motivated, resilient, and engaged.
- 8 to 12-year-old students used words like: balanced, flexible, enthusiastic, honest, cooperative, and determined.
“Yet nobody used words like accountable, competitive, distinguished, or exceptional. But when we take a close look at most schools’ practice—to say nothing of the current national dialogue about education, as represented in the mainstream press—which of these value systems is actually promoted? And what message are we broadcasting to the children in our care?
Our world has changed in ways that make the predominant models of learning in our education system irrelevant. Public schools are prevented from making transformative changes because of their obligations to high-stakes testing and accountability policies. Private schools are theoretically more nimble, but serve a dreadfully narrow spectrum of our population and are beholden to antiquated ideas of ‘excellence.’
Teachers are invested in supporting all the learners in their classrooms, and weary of mandated practices that are often incompatible with learning. Parents welcome their children’s more meaningful engagement at school, but worry whether their children’s grades and test scores will qualify them for high school, college, graduate school, or employment. And thus our education system—leaving aside the growing promise of some creatively subversive examples to the contrary—has, broadly speaking, changed at a painfully slower pace than our ideas.”
Research has shown that being tutored is one of the most effective ways to learn.
The key is finding a great tutor.
One who shows students how to “make their mark” without inadvertently “making the mark for them.” As Chris puts it, “less sitting and getting. More choosing and doing.” And as Grant Lichtman states, “Don’t we know at least that much about motivation, relevancy, cognitive commitment, heartfelt conviction, grit, and perseverance?”
To support educators at school and parents at home, tutors and mentors must also share in the ongoing dialogue, principles, and practice of education reform. Whether in a workshop setting or one-on-one, we must nurture both the emotional and academic growth of our mutual students. It’s our team’s imperative to help children and young adults:
- Always do their personal best
- Lead by example
- Think deep
- Listen with compassion
- Notice what they notice
- Build meaningful relationships
- Honor their word
- Write. Observe. Revise. Discover.
- Foster control over their learning & command of material.
- Challenge students at a level of difficulty that is within their reach while encouraging resilience and displaying compassion in the face of ambiguity.
- Instill confidence and ethical decision-making by maximizing success (expressing confidence in their ability to tackle challenges great and small) and by minimizing failure (allowing mistakes when they provide valuable learning experiences, providing helpful rationale for mistakes, emphasizing the part of the problem the student got right.)
- Nurture curiosity, honor questions, and value opinions.
- Contextualize by placing the problem in a meaningful, real-world, interdisciplinary context.
(Read more about “The W.O.R.D. Ink Approach”)
I love that Chris Thinnes likens our moral imperative to our children’s education to “planting dates, even if we may never eat them,” and that Glen Lichtman considers We Who Educate as the “flamethrowers”, or warriors, “who try, knowing success may always be beyond their reach [….]” For, “to truly consider yourself a warrior, you must set your personal bar very high [….] At some point, you are going to fail in your fundamental goals, your belief system, your moral foundation, your self-view. It is an inevitable result of setting the bar higher and higher. Redemption comes from trying, despite the sure knowledge that you will fail.”
Here’s to planting dates, throwing flames, and being of passionate service to others.
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