Our New, “New Education”

We are not only “the last…of an epoch,” we are more than that, or we are that in a different way to what is most often asserted. We are the first…of a Future that has not materialized.

-Wyndham Lewis

“I believe that education is a process of…living and not a preparation for future living.” I believe “to prepare him for…future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.” “I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.” In 1897 John Dewey penned these and other beliefs about education in his work My Pedagogical Creed. At this moment in history, society was beginning to undergo a monumental technological transformation; thus, Dewey believed it prudent that education change alongside society, dubbing this idea “New Education.”[1] Now more than 100 years on from these publications, our world is in the midst of another massive technological transformation, and we must once again expect education to evolve.  What do we believe education is in the 21st century? What is our “New Education?” 

 In a recent workshop, I propositioned participants with just this idea. Participants were asked to share a moment of teaching that they considered to be a “peak experience,” (a moment of teaching where they were in a state of flow alongside their students) to help reveal their beliefs about education. While anecdotes echoed around the room, the affective imprint the experiences left could easily be identified from the smiling faces and jovial gestures common to each group. As group members then identified beliefs embedded in the stories, words like creative, independent, and collaborative marked common threads between perfect strangers. Apparently, we do know what we believe about education, and many of our beliefs are shared. How then do these beliefs play a part in our day to day lives as teachers, and more importantly how do these shared beliefs become the basis for the creation of our new educational foundations?

 Within any environment there are a variety of factors that influence the degree to which one is able to maintain the integrity of her beliefs. Schools are no different. There are factors that support and enable efforts to uphold beliefs while there are other factors that challenge or sabotage these efforts. There are internal factors within our control as educators and external factors we have no control over whatsoever. In order to define the core beliefs of our “New Education,” we must first consider two specific factors that are within our control and enable us to adhere to our beliefs: pedagogical philosophy and individual voice

The blue area represents the region of initial focus as we look to identify core beliefs in education.

1.    Pedagogical Philosophy

·    What are your beliefs about how learning should be designed? 

·    What is the role of the teacher? 

·    What is the role of the student?

·    What is the role of the parent? 

·    Who is asking the questions? 

·    Who is designing the process?

·    Who is in control of the learning, and how is this demonstrated?

2.    Individual Voice

·    How is individual voice recognized?

·    What opportunities do individuals have to influence the environment?

·    What opportunities do individuals have to influence the learning?

·    How does the balance of power feel to the individual?

·    What is the story the individual will tell about her educational experience?

By exploring our shared beliefs related to these two ideas, we can begin to lay cornerstones for our own pedagogical creed and initiate the construction of 21st century education. 

I believe education should be understood as a series of experiences and that each experience uniquely impacts an individual’s understanding and perception of self. I believe each student has the capacity to be an agent of her own learning and the role of the teacher is to foster the understanding of this potential. I believe society needs to redefine its beliefs and values related to education and recognize that this starts with the individual. How about you, what do you believe?

[1] Dewey, John. The School and Society: Being Three Lectures. 1899. Print.

Teachers as Agents of Flow

As an educator my favorite thing to do is to walk into a space, where engaged learning is happening, and feel the energy.  Whether the learners are adults or children, teachers or technicians, this feeling of engagement never fails to energize me with its focused intensity.  Noise levels fluctuate from raucous roars to soft whispers.  Bodies become passionately animated before resuming their statue like poise.  The learners are invested in the learning that is taking place.  Simply put, the learners are lost in learning.

This is flow.  In an interview with Wired magazine, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  Flow is the optimal balance between personal challenge and skill application, where an individual loses herself in the activity and experiences engagement that cuts through time and space.  If the challenge is too hard, one becomes anxious and frustrated; and if the engagement fails to utilize skill sufficiently, one becomes bored to a point of apathy.   However, when the appropriate conditions are satisfied, both consciously and unconsciously, an individual can enter a state of flow and experience engagement as a sort of inner harmony

If we consider an optimal state of learning to be learning that takes place in a state of flow, we as educators should be eager to identify ways to help our students experience learning in this way.  The experience of education then becomes one of engagement, growth, reflection, enjoyment and satisfaction rather than one of standardized tests, curricular outcomes, anxiety, and pressure.  This means that classrooms and schools need to shift their mindsets, putting the experience of the learner as the priority, trusting that various curricular outcomes can still be met.  In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi puts forth seven conditions that need to be met in order for flow to manifest.  These conditions can act as a guide for teachers as they design learning that focuses foremost on the experience of the learners.

1. A challenging activity that requires skill

  • How is the activity relevant to the learner?
  • How much input do students have to design the parameters of the activity? 

2. Merging of action and awareness

  • What ownership do students have in determining their actions in response to the situation?
  • What skills must the learner utilize in order to proceed? 

3. Clear goals and feedback

  • How do goals develop and evolve during the learning experience? 
  • What opportunities are there for internal and external feedback within the school day? 

4. Concentration on the task at hand

  • How are time, space and individuals organized to allow for concentration to develop and be sustained? 
  • How is the learning space utilized to meet the needs of different learners and learning behaviors?

5. The paradox of control

  • What sort of control do the learners have in steering the experience? 
  • What control does the teacher have to surrender in order to encourage student ownership and autonomy?

6. Transformation of Time

  • How is the schedule organized to allow for learners to engage fully and completely in the activity without interruption? 
  • What ability to students have to determine how time is used?

7. Loss of self-consciousness

  • Are students able to recognize and identify moments where consciousness is lost? 
  • What factors do the learners identify as crucial components to this state of being?

Prioritizing the experience of learners won’t guarantee each individual will achieve a state of flow, but it will communicate to each learner that she matters and her experience with learning matters.  And maybe with this consideration as a focus, the learner might just let herself get sucked into a state of flow, getting lost in the learning that is happening all around her.  And then, who knows what sort of learning might take place?

Education’s Identity Crisis

To understand the identity globally associated with education, one needs to go no further than watching a group of children “play school.”  The power is dispersed.  The roles are assigned.  The environment is arranged, and the role-play begins.  The child, who has been designated as the teacher, takes place at the front of the makeshift classroom and issues the first of his demands of the pupils sitting below.  The students respond eagerly to the teacher’s request, engaging fully with the given assignment.  And on it goes until the idea of playing school exhausts itself and the next scenario is designed.  This scene depicts a powerful paradox about what education could be and what it is.  How education could be about the interactions and experiences we have with others while learning rather than meeting a set of standards and benchmarks dictated by the entity of education.

Until we are able to alter the identity of education as a society, it will be hard to create any real change from taking place.  In this era of movements, it is evident that people are willing to act on meaningful issues.  We therefore need to prioritize redefining education’s identity as one of these issues.  To help guide us in this pursuit, we should first consider the meaning of identity.  In the article “Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory,” Jan Stets and Peter Burke describe identity as being “the categorization of the self as an occupant of a role and the incorporation into the self, of the meanings and expectations associated with that role and its performance.  These expectations and meanings{then} form a set of standards that guide behavior.”By using this explanation of identity as a starting point, we can begin to consider the role in society school is going to occupy and subsequently the expectations we have of that role and the standards we will associate with it. 

To suggest a single identity for education is far too great a challenge, particularly when so much of identity depends on the values a specific society holds dear to its individual self.  However, if we assume that the role of education has been defined by society, using the values it esteems the most, we can then design expectations and standards of behavior that support the fulfillment of this new identity.  Currently, the standards that run through education focus primarily on learning specific content knowledge and concepts; however, we as a society seem to value this focus less and less as time goes on.  So, what is it that does matter most, and how can we help students experience this in a meaningful way?  To start we must move beyond content knowledge as the end and instead look at an individual’s disposition towards himself and towards learning as being key to this new identity.  We can then begin to think how the expectations and standards of behavior associated with being educated focus first and foremost on developing an individual’s many dispositions.

In his book Intellectual Character, Ron Ritchhart identifies eight cultural forces he suggests define the culture within a classroom to promote a culture of thinking.  When developing this culture of thinking, Ritchhart discusses the importance of fostering the growth of different dispositions via these cultural forces.  It is my belief that education can use these cultural forces to guide the creation of its new standards of behavior, where the design of learning focuses on dispositional experience and growth rather than grade level benchmarks.  Let’s consider how each of the eight cultural forces might help support the creation of this new standard of behavior in education’s new identity.

Expectations: What expectations does the community have for the learning and the learning experiences of individuals in the community?  How does the presence of flow fit into these expectations?

Opportunities: What opportunities do learners have to experience different situations where the primary purpose is dispositional development?

Modelling: Do teachers and administrators put themselves in situations where they demonstrate themselves as learners, and are these experiences visible to the community?

Language: How is it that the members of the community discuss learning?  How is language used to express the value and meaning of various dispositions?

Time:  How is time organized to allow the focus of learning to be on the experience learners have with learning and with one another?

Relationships & Interactions: How are relationships in the community used as a means to challenge and build one’s understanding of himself as an individual and as a learner? 

Routines & Structures: How are routines and structures used as a means to grow students understanding of different dispositions?

Physical Environment: How is the physical design of the learning space used to further an individual’s understanding of how he experiences learning in different spaces with different people?

By considering the way in which cultural forces can influence the identity of education, the behavior and appearance of schools is bound to change.  The balance of power will be recalibrated.  The roles will be redesigned.  The environment will be reorganized, and then students and teachers might be able to experience the same joy they did when playing school as a young child as they do, in their daily lives in the classroom, learning alongside one another.

Bringing Time Back on our Side

Despite the Rolling Stones’ proclamation that “time is on my side, yes, it is,” there are many of us who would beg to differ.  And there are many who would flat out say that time is not only not on our side but combats our best efforts to take control of our lives and our situations.  The many teachers that I have spoken to over the past 16 years seem to be aligned with the latter, fighting feverishly to meet all that is expected of them within the confines of a given school day.  In the process of this battle, they end up compromising their own experience thus inadvertently sabotaging their best efforts to create the most meaningful experiences for their students.  So, is there a way that we can forge an alliance with time using it as an ally in our daily teaching lives?

Only when we identify what really matters in our schools do we hold the power to shape our experiences and shift how time is used. In our current model of education, it is clear that what matters most may not be in line with improving one’s actual experience. This means that we have to reassess what it is that takes priority in our classrooms and schools. If so much of learning takes place through experience, it seems logical to place an individual’s experience with her education at the front of the list of priorities. By organizing time around a learner’s experience with learning and learning content, the opportunity for the individual to enjoy learning becomes more feasible.  This increased attention to the individual enables a learner to develop more positive associations with learning in general and hopefully connect learning with flow.

Take a moment and imagine yourself as a learner alongside your students or colleagues.  What is the learning experience you desire?  How is time being used to create this experience?  What do you want to feel whilst you are engaged, and how do you want to feel about it when the experience has concluded?  Generally speaking, people want to feel as though their time was well spent, both valued and valuable: time was effectively used, individuals were able to challenge/engage themselves throughout, a sense of purpose was quickly established if not present from the onset, and a feeling of contentedness/excitement resonates as the time drew to a close.   If this is the reality we want for ourselves, we must also ask what reality do our students crave and what is the best way to help them experience learning in this way.  Though this may be a daunting endeavor, particularly due to our inability to control experiences outside of school, there are elements we can give attention to that directly impact a learner’s overall experience.

  1. Pedagogical Philosophy: How does the design of curriculum act as a means to invite flow into our classrooms and schools?  What design models are being used and how are students involved in the design?
  2. The Power Paradigm: How do our relationships act as a key to unlocking the flow potential within our environment?  How do our values influence the balance of power? 
  3. Structural Staples: How does the way we engage students in learning allow flow to be a part of their school experience?  What routines and structures are in place to support students’ ability to find a state flow?
  4. Environmental Parameters: How is the physical design of the learning space used to further an individual’s flow experience?  Does the space encourage students to engage with flow through different personal interactions?

Only after we as educators acknowledge that one’s learning experience is paramount in the design and delivery of education for the future, can we shift the focus from content mastery to content experience. By changing our focus, we can also change how time is used and maybe begin to feel that time is in fact on our side.