The Best Ideas for Our Schools

I recently attended a session at the 2012 NASSP Annual Conference facilitated by Dr. Gary Stager, a progressive educator whose work I have come to know over the past couple of years. Gary's message is one that resonates with me and many other educators who frequent digital spaces. All around the world there are ideas that are put into action. These ideas, for the most part, put student learning front and center and consist of experiences that enhance essential skills that all learners should possess. These include creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, technological proficiency, global awareness, media literacy, communication, and collaboration.

Ideas like the ones Gary discussed also lead to the promotion of ingenuity, entrepreneurialism, and self-directed learning. As he weaved together stories and firsthand accounts of these ideas in action one thing became painfully apparent and that was that the majority of schools in the United States do not place a high value on this type of learning. Current reform practices and a system of education still entrenched in preparing students for an industrialized society squash many schools attempts or desires to embrace a better way of learning. Gary is not one to mince his words and is blunt when it comes to the reasons why many schools and educators in our country are not changing. In his opinion the problem is incrementalism and he stressed that this is the greatest enemy of change. It is no secret that the policy of making changes is a process fraught with issue after issue. This is, after all, what we hear and experience from those that resist change. I have posted in the past some of my personal thoughts on factors impeding the change process and can now add this one to the list.

As leaders, whether in the capacity as a teacher or administrator, it is our duty to be agents of change. We must collaboratively develop and implement our own ideas to improve the learning process in a way that emphasizes our student's cognitive growth, passions, and strengths, while challenging them to push their own boundaries. It is difficult work to transform a culture of learning that has been embedded for nearly a century, but as Gray eloquently put it, every problem in education has been solved sometime or somewhere before. Now is the time for all of us to critically analyze our respective schools and take a stand against the status quo in order to do what is best for our students.

The best ideas in the world don't succumb to incrementalism or any other type of excuse or challenge. As Gary stated, they evolve around the following:

1. Respect for each learner: We need to have actual conversations with our students. They
must be part of transformation efforts and their voices can provide invaluable feedback in efforts to reshape everything from curriculum, to pedagogy, to technology purchases, to how time for learning is allocated. Respect also entails we will consistently seek paths to grow professionally in order to discover and implement new ideas on their behalf.

2. Authentic problems: This is as real world as it gets. In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.

3. Real tools and materials: Students are using technology to solve problems outside of school. They are also creating their own technology in some cases. As Gary emphasized, learners are capable of incredible things if they are placed the right environment. Just take a look at some of the Super Awesome Sylvia videos he shared. It is our responsibility to create these environments. To do so me must relinquish control, provide support (purchasing the right tools and providing quality professional development), encourage calculated risk-taking, exhibit flexibility, and model expectations.

4. Expanded opportunities: I could not agree with Gary more on this one. We have made great strides in this area in my District through the development of the Academies at NMHS. With this initiative all students have the opportunity to be exposed to authentic learning experiences, online courses, specialized field trips, independent study, credit for learning experiences outside of school, and internships. We plan to eventually incorporate capstone projects into our Academies program as well.

5. Collegiality: Let's face it, as educators we need to work together in order to successfully implement the best ideas in order to improve teaching and learning. We must overcome personal agendas, bring the naysayers on board, implement a system focused on shared decision-making, and move to initiative a change process that is sustainable. The best ideas will only become reality through collegiality.

The best ideas in the world can and should be cultivated in our schools. As leaders it is our responsibility to see that they are. The time is now!