My ten-year-old nephew is in fourth grade in North Carolina. He plays the recorder, as all fourth graders in North Carolina do. Thirty-seven years ago, I went to fourth grade in North Carolina. I played the recorder, as all fourth graders in North Carolina did.
I realize that there are developmental reasons why schools introduce band around fourth grade. I realize that the recorder is considered relatively easy for kids to learn (though a quick Google search suggests that not everyone agrees). But for me this example illustrates vividly (and in screeching, haunting tones) how deep-set education traditions can be.
It’s hard to think about school being different than it is today. Most of us hold strong memories of its rituals: the first-day-of kindergarten picture on the front steps, the field trips, the progression from one grade to the next, the joy of summer break, learning to move among classrooms in middle school, the glare of Friday night lights. Many of the features that are strong and stable about school have stayed that way for good social and developmental reasons.
But as we consider possibilities for the future of learning, we need to remember that every one of those features represents design choices. Sometimes those design choices were singular and deliberate; sometimes, they developed over years of small decisions. If we want to achieve different outcomes for education – for example, to address persistent inequities or to shift what students learn so as to help them prepare for a future in which people could be working alongside and competing with smart machines – we need to make some different choices. Not necessarily all different choices, but some.
We need to question our assumptions about what school looks like. About why “We’ve always done it that way.” About how we frame the problems we are trying to solve. That way, we can identify new options. We can, potentially, find breakthrough solutions that could create better outcomes for learners. By outcomes, I don’t just mean better test scores. I mean things like more engagement with learning, stronger social-emotional development, deeper understanding of academics, and a stronger vision for one’s life. Or whatever you care about and are designing for.
When Jason Swanson and I work with educators and others to explore the future of learning, we draw upon a toolbox of activities and approaches designed to help people see and explore new possibilities. Those tools draw from several fields: strategic foresight, creative problem solving, systems thinking, and design thinking. We use cycles of divergent and convergent thinking to help people consider options, select ones to explore further, look at them from fresh angles, and identify pathways forward. It’s fun! We very deliberately play with possibilities, in hopes of helping people see something they haven’t seen before.
As I was reminded in a course on everyday innovation recently, sometimes problems can’t be solved unless we think outside the lines of our existing frames, as the classic nine-dot puzzle below illustrates:
When I tried to solve this puzzle, I couldn’t, because I tried to draw the lines within the frame of the box formed by the nine dots. I assumed that I had to work within the apparent space. Similarly, the assumptions and mental models that we bring to education design choices help create its deep-set traditions and govern what we think of as being possible for the current system. They also affect what we believe is possible for changing the system. Reframing techniques can help us break through those assumptions and shift our mental models so that we can see new solutions.
Some of our education problems won’t be solved, nor our hopes for the promise of personalized learning realized, unless we think beyond school as we know it today.