Transforming lesson plans into learning experiences
I am not the only one who thinks about disrupting public education. A simple Google search on “remote learning” or “education and pandemic” brings you millions of hits. Tons of educational software companies gained new customers by providing free COVID-19 trials for educators who taught remotely. After lockdowns, websites, blogs, and news analysts discussed what “returning to normal” might look like and if we would (or should) return to normal at all. Katie Martin, author of Learner-Centered Innovation and VP of Professional Learning at Altitude Learning, has been a vocal advocate for redesigning the lesson plan. In 2016, during her TED talk: Teachers Create what they Experience, she advocated for more student-centered learning experiences and curriculum redesign. She believes “you can’t mandate learning, but you can create the conditions where people are inspired and empowered to learn (Martin, 2017). She continues to promote the idea of moving from engagement to empowerment, standardization to personalization, and skills to application in helping teachers create meaningful experiences for students. Online, there are a myriad of resources and frameworks for personalizing learning, engaging students online, blended learning, creativity in the classroom, flipped classrooms, and steps teachers can take to use technology effectively with students.
Learning experiences are not a new idea (even reforming education is not a new idea), but have gained considerable attention since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. The truth is that we have been trying to reform education for a very long time. Remember 21st Century skills? At the turn of the century, skills like online communication and Internet research were seen as the most important skills to teach students. The problem is that at the start of the Information Age, these discrete skills were taught in isolation and often relegated to a technology teacher. We have actually seen a ton of educational changes since the ancient Greeks’ gymnastike.
Chaitanya Chinchlikar, VP of Business Development, Whistling Woods International Ltd., wrote a blog post about how many times education has been “updated.”
Chinchlikar considers Education 1.0 to be the first known records of education, consisting of India’s gurukuls and the Greek classicist academicians. This form of early education had low student-teacher ratios, flexible schedules and syllabi, and highly a personalised educational experience for every student. It was often multidisciplinary with studies in languages, astronomy, warcraft, economics, politics, etc. and taught by individual subject matter experts. Knowledge was highly valued and guarded, making formal education difficult to access. This lasted until the advent of machines, handled by human labour, emerged helping manufacturing processes scale. Mass scale of communication and books made it easy to store and transfer information and knowledge, coinciding with the emergence of Education 2.0, making learning scalable to large number of students. Deploying the One-to-Many broadcast mode of education, the progression of students across the years transitioned to an assembly line model.
Education version 2.0 is the Industrialized system we are most familiar with and has lasted the longest. The more literate you were in school, the more successful. Teachers presented the same content and teaching methods to every student. Unfortunately, with this industrial model of education didn’t really mean for all students. Inequitable school facilities became a common part of public education. Schools were segregated and not equitably funded. Most of the systemic obstacles we face today were exasperated during this Industrial Age.
Chinchlikar calles Education 3.0 the Information Age, where we mainly continue to follow the one-to-many broadcast or assembly line model. Teachers still spend a lot of time forcing students to memorize information, but with the invention of certain technologies (computers, projectors) and the Internet and cloud-based storage, machines are beginning to replace human labor repetitive tasks. We now have almost unlimited access to technology and information, yet, our education system still values rote memorization.
While teachers and books still are a key source of information for a majority of students, we have also seen the emergence of the flipped classroom concept, where a small percentage of institutions have preloaded online activities before students arrive in class for more discussion. There has also been a resurgent need for creative arts education in schools. The deployment of creative arts is very minimal with performing arts and sports education mostly considered extra-curricular.
That takes us to when COVID-19 hit the world and fundamentally changed the way we look at systems such as racism, healthcare and education. What do we need to do to prepare for this post-pandemic Immersive Age (or Education 4.0)?
Everyone has an opinion. There are hundreds of books and thousands of websites that tell us that we need to “disrupt the system” (including myself). They throw out inspiring calls to action like, improve teacher quality, decrease class size, reduce the dropout rate, or close the opportunity gap. The problem with these statements is that not everyone knows what they mean or how one would go about reducing the dropout rate for high school students. Education is an incredibly complex system. There are intersections of race, gender, finance, health care, housing, parenting, leadership, and pedagogy. We all have a desire to change the educational system, but how can we disrupt a system that is so complex?
Simon Sinek believes that we are only responsible for ourselves and our own actions. He states:
We can make demands of our leaders, but at the end of the day, we can only be responsible for ourselves. We can’t change our leaders. We can vote them in or out or we can choose to get a different job somewhere, but we can’t actually change the way that they are going to do business or how they see the world. But we can change ourselves. When I hear people talking about the system is broken, there is no mythical system. It’s us. Our society is a collection of individuals and whatever the balance of behavior is from those individuals, [that] is the system you get. It starts with us. If we want to change the system, this elephant, the only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time (Interview, 2020)
Our repeated failure to update the education system for subsequent generations of students is due to having a finite mindset. In Sinek’s 2019 book, The Infinite Game, he applies ideas from James P. Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games to topics of business and leadership. Finite games are those with fixed rules for engagement, a clear end goal and easily determined winners and losers (e.g.: chess, football). Infinite games are more flexible because rules are changeable, there is no clear end goal and there are no winners or losers (e.g.: business, politics). Education, especially schooling, is an infinite system. Education reform treats it as a finite system with concrete solutions. As Victoria Onodera explains, educational leaders are constantly “applying technical solutions to adaptive problems.”
Technical problems are easy to identify and oftentimes have quick solutions. Usually a small change, suggested by an outside authority and if implemented quickly, can solve technical challenges. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are difficult to identify and require a change in one’s mindset and value system. These challenges require a lot of systemic change, using a variety of levers, from those within the system. There are no quick fixes to adaptive problems, only continual experimentation, reflection and iteration. Adaptive challenges are easy to identify, making them easy targets for financial solutions. School districts spend annually millions of dollars hiring outside experts to train teachers in improving education. Professional development expenditures for U.S. public elementary and secondary schools during the 2017–2018 school year, for example, “amounted to $762 billion, or $14,891 per public school pupil enrolled in the Fall” (U.S. Department of Education, 2021). As a recipient of much of this professional development, I have seen firsthand how the majority of these trainings are not designed to challenge mindsets, just offer expensive silver bullet solutions in the form of frameworks, curricula and book studies.
If we are ever going to disrupt public education and redesign schooling to be equitable, innovative and student-centered, we need to look within, challenge our outdated mindsets, and adopt a more infinite mindset.
Infinite Game Framework
Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game outlines five essential practices for any leader who wants to adopt an infinite mindset.
A Just Cause
A just cause is a purpose and mission that drives and powers you. Sinek asks, “does your organization offer your people a cause so just that they would be willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests in order to advance that cause?” Teachers do not teach just to advance students to the next grade level. Teachers need inspiration more than “best practices.” Teachers need a cause the propels them forward in the face of adversity and empowers them to persevere when things get tough.
Courage to Lead
All stakeholders in public education, from state representatives to administrators to teachers to parents, receive an immense amount of pressure to make finite, short-term decisions. It takes an incredible amount of courage to stand up for your just cause even when there are other pressures. Teachers have so much pressure to meet certain targets based on arbitrary goals (e.g.: standardized test scores, teacher evaluation scores, etc.) that they lose sight of their just cause and even abandon their own values in the name of higher test scores or graduation rates.
Change occurs when there is a culture where people feel safe to be themselves and and admit to their failures. When you walk into a school building, you can immediately feel culture. Is there a culture of fear? Cynicism? Do students and teachers feel safe? I have been a part of many teacher teams and unfortunately, teacher in-fighting is more common than collaboration. Teachers may be “participating in a PLC” when in reality are sabotaging their colleagues’ efforts, or more often, working in isolation.
Having a worthy adversary is necessary for growth in an infinite system. Rivals are not those you fight with, sabotage, or ignore, but are those that you acknowledge and treat with respect. Instead of measuring our successes or failures measured against them, we are instead competing against ourselves, to improve our pedagogy and craft. We should not be comparing our teaching to the teacher next door; our success or failure should be measured against our just cause.
Sinek refers to this as “existential flexibility.” You have probably heard the quote, “If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone else will do it for you.” Too many organizations pursue a variable cause with a fixed strategy. They are so ingrained in their status quo, either due to financial or emotional investments, that they ultimately put themselves out of business (think about Kodak from my last blog post).
There are many finite “fixes” to our broken education system because there are many myths about the future of education. No one really knows what schools and education will look like in 10, 15, or 50 years. We can make educated guesses based on new technologies, but we really don’t know for certain. In reimagining what school and learning might look like in a post-pandemic world, we need to focus on changing ourselves in service of our students, and start making changes today. This is not a sprint, but a marathon. This is not an overnight process. There is no finite goal. No winners. No losers. No one expects you to rewrite the curriculum from scratch. No one expects you to have it all figured out. That is the beauty of human-centered design thinking: every day we get another chance to experiment and try again. Every day our students come in with different needs, different struggles. Every day, our world is changing. Every day, our students are calling out for a transformed school experience. Public schooling is bigger than our classroom. Education is bigger than our students. Educators are part of an infinite system and contribute every day to something bigger than themselves.
We have a moral obligation to answer that call, be held accountable for our change efforts, and take action to disrupt a system that was designed to fail historically underserved and marginalized communities of students.
A Wakeup Call
Teaching is my purpose in life. It’s my calling. It’s what wakes me up in the morning excited. It’s what keeps me energized at 2 PM after a challenging day. Teaching is what keeps me going when I am overwhelmed with stress.
Pandemic changed everything. The last two years have been the most challenging, frustrating, scary, life-threatening school years in my 20-year career in public education. I have never put more of myself into my students. I have never been this vulnerable. I have lost count the number of times I felt scared, helpless, defeated and exhausted. I continue to do the best I can under impossible circumstances. I know that I’m a good teacher, but I know I was not the best teacher during pandemic.
Now is the time for a wakeup call. It is time to answer the call, hold myself accountable, and take action.
Answer the Call
I never thought I would see the tide shift in public education in my lifetime. The pandemic forced an entire planet to rethink how we, as humans, respond to all aspects of our society. From racial justice to health care to government to public education, we are all called to be responsive in how we move forward. Going back to the status quo must not be our goal post-pandemic. It is not surprising that many of our current systems attempted to right themselves as soon as possible. Remember, we are the system and if we want the system to change, we must start with us.
In my social justice work, I have often heard the term ally to refer to a person who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of someone else who doesn’t hold that same privilege. Allyship is one of the first action-oriented tools one learns in social justice and bias training. Although awareness of injustices such as racism, sexism and homophobia is the first step toward advocacy, awareness alone is not enough to dismantle systems of oppression. Our current public education system is not serving all students equitably. Seeing this is one level of accountability because one can agree to see the systemic prejudice and racism without actually making any changes. An accomplice, on the other hand, focuses more on dismantling the structures that oppress marginalized groups because they know that they will be held accountable for their actions (and inaction). Allies focus on individuals (students, colleagues, administration) whereas accomplices focus on disrupting the structures of decision-making agency in public education. Brené Brown tells us that accountability is hard. Blame is easy. Accountability builds trust, while blame destroys empathy. I can only speak for myself, but I would rather be held accountable for being an accomplice than an ally.
Educational organizations are very complicated, and it is no small task to dismantle systems of inequity and racism within. As Gloria Ladson-Billings (2011) states:
…classrooms are complex organisms. The students bring with them richly textured biographies that go beyond their racial and ethnic categorizations, and their teachers bring their own sets of complexities. Somewhere in the nexus of this humanity, we are charged with producing literate, numerate young citizens who are capable of learning more and faster than any generation that has preceded it (pp. 13–14).
No one ever said that restructuring our educational system so that all children reach full academic excellence would be easy. In fact, “thinking our way toward progress or taking action as a single individual is not likely to make any great impact on the powerful systems of oppression we face as teachers” and as students of color face in their classrooms (Gutierrez, 2016, p. 274). It is important to “resist intellectualizing the struggle, and instead, live it. Living it means action, such as taking risks in our everyday lives” (Gutierrez, 2016, p. 274).
We are defined by our actions (or inaction). Instead of making continued recommendations for practice, we need to take action. The urgency for systemic change is not going away. There will always be constraints, limitations and those working to keep the system inequitable. Disrupting a system that has been entrenched in the status quo for over 300 years takes courage, but more importantly, will. It is vitally important that we, as educators, mentors, and role models ask this one question: Do we have the will to take action and educate all children? Dr. Asa G. Hilliard (1995) believed:
the knowledge and skills to educate all children already exist. Because we have lived in a historically oppressive society, educational issues tend to be framed as technical issues, which deny their political origin and meaning. There are no pedagogical barriers to teaching and learning when willing people are prepared and made available to children. If we embrace a will to excellence, we can deeply restructure education in ways that will engage teachers to release the full potential of all our children (p. 200).
We cannot sit back and complain from the sidelines. We know what we need to do. We know that teaching is difficult. We know that teaching is not just a profession. We recognize that if we strive for excellence and brilliance in our calling, then creating learning experiences for our students is just the beginning.
This is what I set out to do in my opening blog post. I wanted to synthesize all that I have learned in my 20 years as an educator (and am still learning). After two decades in public education, I found my Massively Transformative Purpose (MTP). I have encountered many obstacles as a teacher. The more I have tried to buck the status quo, the more pushback I have received. I’m not surprised. As Peter Diamandis states, “doing anything big and bold and meaningful in the world is hard, and you’re going to be facing all kinds of dragons, all kinds of barriers, and it really is your persistence driven by that emotional energy that allows you to overcome.” I have dedicated my life to designing culturally responsive, meaningful learning experiences for my students.
I hope you have enjoyed reading these blog posts throughout the year. Remember to stay strong, be devoted to your craft, and trust in your abilities to create an educational system that not only services ALL students equitably, but elevates teachers and students to be their best selves and rallies those who are ready to challenge that status quo. We don’t have to suffer this system. To paraphrase Simon Sinek, we can replace it with a reality that is vastly more conducive to our deep-seated human need to feel safe, to contribute to something bigger than ourselves and to provide for ourselves and our students. We can transform lesson plans into learning experiences.
@simonsinek. (2020, June 12). Tweet text [We can make demands of our leaders, and have a desire to change systems, but we are only responsible for ourselves and our own actions. The change has to start within each of us.]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/simonsinek/status/1271446298684788737
Gutierrez, R. (2016). Nesting in nepantla: The importance of maintaining tensions in our work. In Interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power: White faculty’s commitment to racial consciousness in STEM classrooms (Vol. 1, pp. 253–281). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
Hilliard, A. G. (1995). The maroon within us: Selected essays on African American community socialization. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, 2nd Edi. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Martin, K. (2018). Learner centered innovation: Spark curiosity, ignite passion and unleash genius. Place of publication not identified: IMPress.
TEDxElCajonSalon. (2016, May 10). Teachers Create what they Experience | Katie Martin [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcDpDPwRxvU
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). The Condition of Education 2021 (NCES 2021–144), Public School Expenditures.