Where Education is Not “Business as Usual”

School in the 21st Century

My experiences as a student were a mixed bag of exhilarating and mundane. I constantly questioned, “What does it take to create a school where teachers love to teach and students love to learn?” and I still do so today. But I’ve come to believe that the answer is something along the lines of, “It takes joy, relevance, and choice in the teaching and learning process” – the same qualities we seek in our professional and personal lives. That’s why I am constantly working, along with my remarkable colleagues locally and around the world, towards making “school” a place where students find joy in their work, see its relevance in everyday life, and have choices about the paths of their educational trajectories. In crafting such teaching and learning experiences.


An Exceptional Educational Trajectory

During my childhood in San Antonio, Texas, my elementary school acquired a networked, computer terminal that churned out math problems, Jeopardy style, via dox matrix printing on form feed paper.  A handful of kids were selected for weekly usage rotations on the device. This game show approach to drill-and-practice was riveting compared to regular class time, and I found creative ways to slip out to my allotted session early (and then stay late) to capitalize on my access to technology. A few years later, my parents purchased our first home computer – a Timex-Sinclair ZX-80 which used a television set as a monitor. Possessing only 4K of RAM, the device permitted me to write only short programs (in BASIC), but it sparked endless possibilities in my head of programs I could write someday when the technology would eventually evolve. Those experiences and the innovations associated with them jump started my thinking about both my own education and that of my peers. That thinking sometimes emerged as admiration for the inventive way a teacher would help us learn a new idea, and other times as dreaming up some other instructional method that was more engaging, more understandable, and more relatable than “traditional” classroom teaching.

In my teens, winning the Alamo Regional Science Fair provided a scholarship that allowed me to attend one of America’s top-ranked private schools, the Keystone School. With an elite cadre of fewer than thirty students per grade, my peers and I spent most school days immersed in captivating, cutting-edge learning: chemistry lab work, reading and debating the symbolism of everything from “Young Goodman Brown” to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; dissecting a cat; writing and revising, followed by more writing, then enduring the weighing in of each research paper (insufficient heft meant not enough writing); programming in Fortran; and more. Between classes, my school day was filled with philosophical debates about Nietzsche, and introductions to emerging punk bands (as heard via Sony Walkman) in the school lounge. During free periods, Keystone high schoolers enjoyed off-campus privileges, often gathering in booths at the Charles Pharmacy Diner, where hot coffee and buttered tortillas accompanied intensive problem-solving for Sister Newman’s Pre-Calculus course. (Keystone was not religious… Sister Newman was a rebel nun who wore a habit but eschewed many of the more pious trappings of her faith.) Beyond the “normal” school day, the founder of the school, Coach Eargle, along with my parents, mentored my increasingly deeper dives in science fair. My research, conducted throughout high school on the Big Bang theory and the resulting geometry of the Universe, led to me compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair. And on any given weekend, my peers and I hopped on a bus and headed to competitions of all sorts, from math contests to French Symposium. It was a challenging, engaging education with extraordinary teachers and classmates (with whom I’m still in touch!) and it set in motion my entire life.


Removing the Roadblocks to Educational Innovation

My own educational experiences helped define my thoughts about what it takes to make education joyous, relevant, and full of choice. Soon after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, I had the opportunity to put those thoughts into practice during my first teaching job, at a rural high school comprised of graduates matriculating to the military and farming.  While pursuing an alternative route to teacher licensure, my tenure coincided with the Gulf War, and my students were both curious and concerned about the daily progress of the war.  Over winter break, I asked the custodian to help me swap out desks for tables so the students and I could spread out copies of maps to mark terrain, draw flight plans, measure armaments in the region, compute the impact of ongoing strikes, and apply math and physics in as many ways as I could dream up from pouring over USA Today infographics and recording CNN (in VHS!) the night before each new day of classes. My students and I were invested, co-learners in a classroom-turned-situation-room. I worked as their guide to identify and provide real problems to tackle, dependent on the day’s news, and differentiated according to abilities and interests of our learning community. Class was engaging and different every day, and we were fortunate to have an administration that supported the idea that a learning environment – in the hands of a capable educator – can go off-script and connect instruction with the immediacy of current events.  In this and other teaching opportunities, exciting instructional transformations were realized, in part, because the strong leaders above me removed the roadblocks to educational innovation.

America possesses a reputation for innovation. From slogans of giant companies – Apple’s “Think Different,” and General Electric’s, “Imagination at Work” – we celebrate progressiveness, freedom, and diversity. Yet most schools still doing what we’ve been doing since the days of chalk-and-blackboard classrooms. Since when did amassing thirty people in a classroom to deliver a unidirectional lecture amount to engaging learning? American students sense a deep disconnect between what they are doing at school and what they are doing in their lives. Innovative and adaptive approaches to teaching and learning are missing from most of our nation’s schools. The ability for schools to detach from standards as “the goal” in lieu of standards as “the framework” is fundamental to reimagining teaching and learning.  Not every classroom must be a duplicate of the classroom next door. Simultaneously, schools must push back against the cloistering of teachers in their classrooms and the erection of “borders between disciplines” which are characteristic of most secondary institutions. Collaboration and convergence by teachers in their instruction – along with meaningful interactions with the youth engaged in that instruction – results in an educational cross-pollination that benefits all. 

There is nothing wrong (and quite a bit right) with ensuring that every student passes an exam with baseline knowledge and skills – but this is not the best use of human teachers. At too many schools across our nation, the stuff of educational standardization has unwittingly become everything, the only thing.  If students are trained only to regurgitate knowledge, even at a high level, they will be unprepared for the messy challenges that will inevitably confront them in their careers.  No manager will hire and evaluate an employee on his ability to successfully answer ten multiple choice questions with 90% accuracy.  The success of a worker and her company isn’t an AP exam. The role of schools now is to guide students in planning, negotiating, thinking critically, problem-solving, and make meaning with basic informational and computational “stuff.” Otherwise, why should students come to school at all, investing eight hours each day in something that seems to have little translation or application to their futures?  In the end, a failure to align the teaching and learning experience with the ever-changing, inconsistent world – of government, science, entrepreneurial enterprises and “life” to which students exit – creates not just failing schools, but unprepared citizens and a faltering society. 


A Progressive Education through Technology and PBL

At the Adelson Educational Campus, we don’t perpetuate an educational philosophy of business as usual. In my current role as Director of Technology and Curriculum Innovations for the Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas, we are reimagining what an elite, first-class, progressive education looks like. A key component of our restructuring efforts is the effective use of technology in teaching and learning. To this end, I collaborated with my tech team, our administration, our board, and a major donor to craft a new Technology Innovation and Integration Initiative that we are currently implementing throughout our preK-12 school. This initiative features three key components: one-to-world devices for every student and teacher; ongoing, intensive technology professional development for every teacher; and the construction of a 5000 square foot, state-of-the-art Startup Incubator employing a progressive coding, maker, and design curriculum which we invent (and re-invent) constantly.  Invoking the latest research, current events, and emerging technologies, our instructors develop and update learning experiences on a daily basis, and evolve our work through honest evaluation and reflection.  At $4M, this investment represents both a deep commitment to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) and to an overhaul of the traditional educational paradigm. Students who emerge from school with the ability to understand, transform, and improve any system they confront trump those who have only experienced traditional school methods.

And our STEAM restructuring is only the start… we are implementing this progressive vision schoolwide at Adelson, integrating all disciplines to reflect the 21st Century world beyond the campus, creating authentic daily experiences in project-based formats that our students and teachers co-create. Ultimately, technology can facilitate our teaching and learning mission in two distinct ways: delivering knowledge-level information, offloading human teachers from repetitive lecturing, and providing students differentiated tools, such as flipped video content and quiz practice to master content at their own pace; and providing content, creation, collaboration, and communication technologies which allow learners to design, model, build, analyze, evaluate, and share information and ideas in powerful ways.

An example of these progressive uses of technology is an Arts and Incubator project that was recently conducted by our freshmen class, the Chair Project. The project also invokes the second key component of a progressive education, project-based learning (PBL), “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.” After exploring a timeline of artistic movements throughout history, freshmen formed small teams, then selected a prominent person for whom they would design and fabricate a chair. A chair object was chosen for its simplicity of function, its variability of form, and its unique aesthetics with regard to user status, religion, culture, and other factors. Student research and debate led them to choose King Tut, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marilyn Monroe, and Elijah as their “clients.” Invoking a design thinking methodology, freshmen brainstormed the sitting needs and stylistic preferences of each chair owner, empathizing virtually with their clients to plan the ideal custom chair for each person. Teams then employed Fusion 360 to digitally design small-scale versions of their chair creations for prototyping via 3D printing and cardboard construction. After fine-tuning designs and troubleshooting potential fabrication challenges, students employed authentic materials (e.g., wood, nails, fabric) and fabrication tools (e.g., saws, lathes, laser-cutters, sewing machines) to build their designs full scale. Through extensive mentoring from their teachers and thoughtful collaboration with their peers, freshmen teams completed impressive start-to-finish projects, producing real-world products, and developing hard and soft skills they will carry forwards into college and career. Students expressed tremendous satisfaction in their finished chairs, having found joy in their work, relevance in the process, and choice in multiple facets of the project.


Leaping Forwards

I once asked a colleague, the late Mike Wargo, who was chief exploration scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration Mission, how it was possible that the United States had met President Kennedy’s rapid turnaround goal of getting a man to the Moon… and yet we’ve made only incremental progress in rocketry in the fifty years following that success. His answer was that initially, we made a giant leap; but since then, we’ve just kept revising the same propulsion system, making tiny improvements, never realizing the paradigm shift that has to transpire to truly level up and make the next big leap. Without that leap, we are stuck in our own solar system, seeing through telescopes the many newly discovered planets we can inhabit, but never being able to get there because the forty light-year-distance is too far to cross.

Innovative schools can only be innovative if they create and act on a paradigm shift in education. They can’t make little tweaks.  Only with the next big leap can we propel America’s students to the lead position on the world stage. We are leaping ahead at the Adelson Educational Campus. I wish every child, everywhere, could attend a school where that leap happens every day.

(first appeared in 2018 AEC Gala publication)