Choose It, or Lose It: The story of how we write our wrongs

I teach English, or more to the point, I teach stories; so when I persuaded a few dozen students to join me at the  Big Data Congress recently, I am sure that more than a few of them were wondering why. To be honest, I didn’t know; at the time I was just looking to give them an opportunity to see something beyond the classroom for the day, and to meet people that see the world the way that they do. What they learned instead – what we all learned – is that big data and coding are all about stories.

Throughout the day, whether intentionally or not, everyone of the speakers referenced story-telling in some way. Whether it was American data-scientist Hilary Mason explaining the role of stories in interpreting mountains of meta-data, or young coder, Michael Go from Riverview, talking about how learning to code helped him to take control of his environment for fun and a profit, there was a common thread beyond data and technology. Their stories were about empowering young people, and changing the public narrative.

So much of our lives – so much of our young people’s lives – is defined by the public narrative we have created. Here in New Brunswick, it is often a story of people and a province fallen on hard times. A sad story, with lots of hardship and heart-break, that probably ends badly for everyone. It is a story in which the vast majority of the characters are passive, and seem powerless to do anything. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Interactive stories, the kind found in the choose-your-own-adventure books from my childhood, and in many videogames today, give us choices that can influence the outcome; they allow us to be active collaborators in the story that unfolds. But in our schools and our communities, many young people have grown up inside a story they feel helpless to change. They believe that they are powerless, and that the end of the story is predetermined. And sometimes, when it seems like we have no power, the most sensible thing to do is to leave. I know, because that’s exactly what I did.

I grew up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a cluster of small cities, towns and villages, peppered with lakes and ski hills, nestled between Montreal and the American border. It is beautiful, and it broke my heart to leave, but after ten years as a teacher and school administrator in the shrinking English school system, and more than thirty years as part of the linguistic minority, I had begun to feel powerless in my own story.  I would like to be able to say that I found it within myself to change the narrative, but instead I packed up a van with all my worldly possessions, and followed my wife to New Brunswick.

Nearly eight years into my New Brunswick story, I have a better appreciation for where I come from and why I left, and a better understanding of what gives people the courage and strength to write their own wrongs (did I mention I teach English? Bad puns are part of the package). The Big Data Congress and the Brilliant Labs initiative are promoting technology and innovation, but more importantly they are challenging the way we tell our stories. Learning to make and to code is really about creating a culture of co-authorship, where everyone, young or old, has access to the tools they need to change their personal narrative, and by extension give them something that the story we sometimes share does not: hope, and the power to choose own adventure.

The Imperative Narrative: Can Stories Save Schools?

There is no denying that making significant changes in the school system is something that will take a great deal of time, energy, and investment.  Changing how we think about the system, however, is free and simple, and could have important consequences for both students and teachers.

For  more than a century, the guiding metaphor behind the school system has been industrial; students have been conducted like eggs through a sorting plant, being graded and divided, before being sent on their way. The industrial metaphor has emphasized efficiency and economy, but it has discouraged individuality, and impeded creativity.

The school system of the twenty-first century needs a metaphor which recognizes individuals, the paths they take, the obstacles that each must overcome, and the role that teachers might play in guiding them on their way; that metaphor is story.

When we choose story as the guiding metaphor in education, students become the protagonists in their own narrative, working to overcome obstacles and adversity along their particular path, and eventually to be transformed by their experience. The essence of this pattern is also the essence of how we learn and grow as human beings. Story is already an integral part of who we are, and recognizing its relevance in the education system is a way forward that costs nothing.

Changing our metaphor for education might just be the most powerful thing that we could do for schools and students. Developing a narrative-based approach to learning and student-progress might actually allow us to dispense with some of the one-size-fits-all rhetoric that we have saddled ourselves with, and help us to see each student as an individual with his or her own path. It could also be an enormously powerful tool in guiding system reform, by helping us to recognize what is, and isn’t part of the story.

Upgrading the (Education) System

Maybe it is naive to think that we can upend the education system we have, and supplant it with something that treats every individual like a life-long learner, with their own path to follow. The system is huge and entrenched, and cannot be brought to move with the same kind of mercurial speed we see in teaching trends or societal priorities. It was never built for speed, but reliability, and as such it will trundle along until it breaks down.

Systems are like that. The more invested we are as a society in a particular system, the more difficult it is to change or dismantle. This is why so many students and educators get frustrated and discouraged; change is so incremental in a system such as ours that it feels as though there’s hardly any change at all. When the system does shift, it is generally due to an enormous external pressure (insert latest technology here), and even then it rarely brings about the sort of systemic change we might be hoping for.

Maybe the real problem is our emphasis on the system, rather than  the idea of education. After all, education is about ideas, and ideas are light and malleable; they grow and evolve with each new element we add. Creating efficiency and  greater accountability in the system through frequent evaluation may be laudable (from the point of view of improving the system), but these don’t belong to the idea of education; the system should only be a vehicle for the idea.

Think of the education system as a piece of technology, the purpose of which is delivering the idea. We have invested enormous sums of time, energy and people in our current technology, and with so much invested we are reluctant to make a complete upgrade. In fact, we have become so invested that, in some respects, we have let the technology overtake the idea.

To put things back to rights, and to assure ourselves that the system serves the idea and not the other way around, we need to re-examine the idea of education and re-determine its purpose. We need to come to some sort of consensus as to what it is we want from an education system, and then re-evaluate the technology we have before us. If there are elements of our current system that do not serve the idea, we should dispense with them; we move more quickly when we travel light. And if there is a better way, a more robust and resilient system, then maybe we ought to upgrade.

What I Learned From Mrs. Walls

Some of my earliest school memories involve the SRA reading lab; the SRA reading lab was a series of levled reading and reading comprehension texts that sat in a box at the back of the classroom. The texts were generally short (a page with pictures at the most), followed by questions. In Grades One and Two, Mrs. Walls would let me pull a card from the SRA whenever I was done my other work. I came to see it as a reward, and I read through most of the cards over the first two years of school.

The texts I was reading were not particularly memorable, but the process of reading and completing them was. The SRA kept me engaged. Not every child would have welcomed the opportunity to read more, but I enjoyed the SRA cards. I felt as though I was collecting them like hockey cards, and as a result I worked hard to get through other work in order to get to the next card in the SRA. I was highly motivated to challenge myself, and work independently; that does not make me exceptional, but it does make me wonder what happened to the SRA.

As a teacher, I recognize that every student is different, and that they each have their own ideal learning circumstances, but I think that my experience in Grade One and Two has helped me to isolate three important factors:

(1) When the work is personally meaningful, the student is more motivated to complete the task and push forward. In the case of the SRA reading cards, I was motivated by the sense of accomplishment I felt each time I finished a card and moved on to the next. I knew that what I was doing was special – not everyone finished their work early enough to read SRA cards, and that worked for me. It might not have worked for another student.

(2) When the end is in sight, students have the sense that they are striving for something attainable. Knowing how many cards were in the SRA box, and tracking my progress as I went, made it seem as though I was achieving something, and that it was possible to complete the box.

(3) When students set the pace for themselves there is no such thing as too quick or too slow. I worked through the SRA cards as quickly as I could, whenever I had an opportunity, but I only moved on to the next card if I was able to answer the questions correctly. I was able to work through at my own pace, unhampered by any other schedule or plan, and Mrs. Walls simply kept track of what card I was reading.

As a teacher, I have never had an SRA reading lab in my classroom, and I am not sure that every teacher that does have a reading lab uses it the way that Mrs. Walls did. She allowed me the opportunity to do work that was personally motivating, attainable, and could be done at my own pace. I can’t actually remember very many similar opportunities from the rest of my life at school, but I as I think about it now, I realize that Mrs. Walls taught me more than reading and writing, and that I should strive to do likewise.

Building Capacity

When all is said and done, education is about building the capacity to learn, imagine and grow; and implicit in those three is the extra capacity to hope.

I have long believed that the purpose of school and education, is to create hope; enabling young people to develop their strengths and abilities, and believe in their own innate capacity to imagine their way out of the problems they face.

The truth is that without that capacity, there’s little else that matters. The student who believes that there is nothing he or she can do to overcome a problem, to combat poverty, overpopulation, or the depletion of our environment, has little reason to go forward. Good grades and the possibility of employment can’t hold a candle to the “end of the world.”

So much of what young people now face in the world has to do with what previous generations could not do, or failed to do in the past. Is it any wonder that so many young people succumb to  a sense of paralysis, overwhelmed by hopelessness, and the enormity of what lays ahead. Their capacity to change the world has been compromised.

For young people to make the changes that must be made in order to preserve life on the planet, we need to teach them to believe in their own capacity. We need to teach hope, and encourage them to challenge those that say it can’t be done.

Step 11: Start Now!

There are a lot of factors that may stand between what schools are and what we want them to be, but we cannot wait for the ideal circumstances. We need to push forward, whatever our current conditions, and adjust as we go. The world will not wait.

While some of the things I have suggested in the previous posts may seem impractical for some schools, I recommend that each school look closely at itself and its community, take note of what it is already doing well, and choose one aspect to improve upon. Sweeping reforms imposed from without often do little to change the culture of the school in a way that is meaningful to the community, or the specific needs of individual students. It is important that change, whatever it may be, has its roots in the school and the community it serves.

Change within an institution like public education is slow-going, and it is easy for those in the system to get discouraged. Like climate change, it is so much bigger than the scope of one individual that we feel outsized and powerless, but we cannot let the size of the problem paralyze us. We need to find what is right with each school, acknowledge what’s wrong, and move forward, knowing it will take time. It has taken centuries to build the system we have now; it may take some time to take it apart…

but our children, and our children’s children are counting on us.

Step 10: Build A Sandbox

Play is one of the most powerful learning tools we have at our disposal, but in most schools, it is reserved for physical education and that other period students love: recess. We include it in our school schedules, but we usually divorce it from the classroom except on special occasions, or worse still, we treat it as something that children do when they are not learning.

The truth about play, as we are coming to understand it, is that it is essential to creativity, problem solving, and the development of happy and healthy human beings. While the occasional school experiment has embraced this knowledge, most schools have had difficulty integrating play outside of Kindergarten classrooms. As students progress through the grades play is left behind; it is seen as childish and unnecessary, and students are expected to find their motivation elsewhere. They often don’t.

To make education relevant and motivating we need to create more opportunities for play at every level; what works so well in Kindergarten could work equally well in Grade Eleven with a few adjustments. The games may become more sophisticated, but the power of play to stimulate learning is constant. Many teachers sense this, and do their best to include elements of play when they can, but it needs to take a much more central role in what goes on in the classroom. Rather than using it as the reward for learning, it should be the means by which things are learned.

Every subject in school needs a “sandbox” – time set aside each week – to play with ideas and concepts learned in class. Let that sandbox be where students take apart and reassemble concepts, and find new and creative ways to anchor their learning. Children are innately playful and creative, and if we recognize this instead of trying to condition them against it, we run the risk of creating happy and imaginative young problem-solvers, capable of finding the creative solutions it will take to get us through the twenty first century.

Step 9: Find Partners

When we are trying to build learning communities, it is important to remember the community. Building partnerships between the school and people or organizations in the community is an essential part of making learning relevant. It also allows teachers to tap into a wealth of knowledge and resources they might not otherwise have access to, and teaches students about the place they live in and the people that live there.

Creating partners means finding those people who have the knowledge students need and delivering them in person, or even electronically, to the classroom. When students are discussing a problem that could be related to architecture or construction, find someone working in those fields to explain and answer questions. In the same way that Sesame Street used the song “These Are The People In Your Neighbourhood” to introduce careers to young people, it’s possible to use classroom projects and community problem solving to reach out and find people who can serve as resources. These interactions help students to understand how various specializations contribute to the whole and appreciate the expertise that exists in the community.

The other advantage is that it can help to orient students, both with respect to careers and problem solving. Seeing and meeting people from a variety of walks of life can introduce students to careers they might like to explore themselves, help them to create connections with real people working in the fields that interest them, and provide them with possible niches they might one day fill in the community. Schools with these kinds of partnerships also teach their students that complex problems are best solved when we have the participation and cooperation of a wide variety of people, and access to accurate and relevant information. Students come to see how each person’s contribution fits together into a bigger picture.

So many of the issues that our communities struggle with can only be dealt with when the whole community is engaged, and that includes our students. Creating partnerships with the people and organizations that make our cities, towns and neighbourhoods what they are, is a way of engaging schools in the life and future of the communities they serve. The relationships built between schools and their partners not only help to make learning relevant; they make schools relevant, and contribute to our success and continued survival.

Step 8: Go Beyond the Building

So much of what we know and think about schools is related to place. We think of the chalkboards, desks in rows, waiting buses, gymnasiums and cafeterias. This has been the setting of our educational narrative in North America, and much of the Western world for more than half  a century. The problem with this narrative is that it gives the impression that learning happens somewhere, rather than anywhere, at anytime. While children may encounter lots of information in schools, much of  their learning happens in backyards, parks and playgrounds, stores and hospitals, theatres and museums, at all times of the waking day.

Learning can’t be contained in the way that some things can. It cannot be packaged or delivered (though teaching may be… for good or bad). It is something that occurs naturally, and under an incredible array of circumstances, relying largely on our interactions with new ideas from the world around us. In other words, the school building is an artificial learning environment; much of what is learned in school is learned out of context, and students are right to question the relevance of some of those lessons.

Part of the solution is to solve real problems that are of real consequence to the community, but there is another, more important step in creating learning contexts, and that is getting out of the school. Take students into the community as much and as often as possible. Field-trips are often regarded as rewards, something that is done at the end of a unit, when in fact, they should be the point of departure.

Relevant learning occurs in context. Classrooms are where we should retreat to process the lessons we learn, and reflect on what we have experienced. The learning itself should take place in whatever context is most conducive to the subject; learn about nature in nature; learn about history in a museum; learn about governance and debate in the council chambers.

If learning is going to be relevant and  engaging, it needs context, and that means venturing beyond the four walls of the classroom, and into the wide-world in which students live, and which they will have to one day transform. The school building is merely a container after all, and we shouldn’t try to contain learning.

Step 7: Create Experts

In times of crisis, we turn to the “experts,” whomever they may be, to help us solve our problems. Our survival on this planet is closely related to our capacity for solving problems we have yet to encounter,  thus it is in our best interest to create as many experts as we possibly can.

The current school system produces generalists; square pegs for the increasingly round holes employers seek to fill. While there may have been an economic imperative driving the need for generalists at one time, that imperative seems to hold less and less sway. Experts are usually people who have pursued a passion; someone does not become an expert in ornithology without a passion for birds. Thus, creating experts in school means helping each student to find and develop his or her passion, discover strengths and shore up weaknesses. Instead of imposing the increasingly dubious illusion of employability on students, we must begin to create experts by finding out who they are and what they have to offer.

Giving students the opportunity to become experts on particular issues, or particular aspects of a problem to be solved, can give them a sense of empowerment, and help them to see their value to the community. Knowing that they have something to offer to the rest of the group, and that their passion for particular subjects will help them find their place in the world, and make meaningful contributions, will make for happier, more hopeful problem-solvers, on which our future may depend.

Ultimately, creating experts is about creating capacities in our schools and communities, to work through a wide variety of problems with the best tools we have at hand; our minds.

If we truly believe that our children are our most precious resource we need to be more intelligent about how we prepare and make use of that resource. A world in crisis needs experts; where else will they come from if not from schools?