Waiting for Cupid (not Superman)

One of the many adverse educational consequences of having to wait for Superman is that too many kids lose their love of learning while they're waiting. It doesn't take long. Teachers complain that fourth graders who once loved learning to read cannot make the transition to reading to learn. We know that it's passion that makes the difference in performance, in learning as in anything else, and loss of passion -- a steady erosion of the spirit of inquiry, a lessening of delight in discovery -- may explain why our national dropout rate continues to rise and why those few students who stay in school are learning less and learning it less well.

Yet curiosity and love of learning seem inherent in human DNA. Hang a toy over an infant's crib and watch her eyes follow its motion while her arms and legs twitch with curiosity. ALL toddlers are notorious for experimenting with everything they can see or reach; they learn to express themselves with sounds, words, sentences, and numbers not through a structured curriculum delivered by certified teachers, but by engaging with their environment -- people, objects, toys, tools -- and negotiating their way through it. Nor are we born with the notion that school is bad for us. No one is as wide-eyed with excitement as a first-grader on the first day of school, with a world before him just waiting to be explored.

It is not unreasonable to expect some diminution of that level of excitement. But that the passion should be so dulled that nearly one in three high school students fails to graduate each year is unacceptable. Moreover, it leads to consequences that are downright dangerous, as all the statistics make clear, one result of our failing education system is that we can't get our students to succeed at science and mathematics or to want to study engineering, design, IT, or computer science. This is unsustainable if we are to maintain a competitive position in the world and successfully confront the challenges of the not-very-distant future.

Reform is on the way. Driven by the current administration (and by the most tech-savvy president in history) and advanced by a nationwide conversation on the "how" of reform -- a conversation recently galvanized by Davis Guggenheim's brilliant documentary, Waiting for 'Superman'. Educational transformation is today the bull's eye on our national target.

What those of us involved with reform must keep in mind is that every arrow aimed at the bull's eye must be a Cupid's arrow that can re-ignite children's inherent love of learning. Reform is NOT about pouring knowledge into heads (as demonstrated by the most frustrating animation in Guggenheim's movie); it's about igniting the heart's eagerness that sets the mind on fire and unlocks a child's motivation to explore, study, learn.

While I greatly admire Geoffrey Canada and admire his innovative and systemic work at HCZ, I also believe that kids seeking an education need to be saved by Cupid more than Superman. And I believe that in this age of digital inventions, Cupid flies on wings of more scalable digital learning networks. That is the driving principle behind one model I know well: my organization, the World Wide Workshop, has been testing for the last four years in "real-life" laboratories in two states, West Virginia and Texas.

Our pilot program implements a digital social learning network called Globaloria. Through it, we want to empower students to learn about learning and find love in their hearts for tackling problems creatively. So the program creates a scalable and customizable digital learning space in which, every day for a whole year, kids design web-based videogames about many subjects -- ranging from STEM disciplines (fractions, climate, molecular biology) to civics (minority rights, democracy) to social issues (poverty, obesity).

Why program videogames? Because they are the language of this era, the new literacy. Videogames are not just the world's most popular pastime; they are also its common language -- today's form of self-expression and experiential learning. And kids are completely at home with videogames; this is a generation that seems to have been born knowing how to play them. So in the Globaloria platform, instead of asking kids to "power down" when school starts, we demand that they power up. Instead of being programmed by boring textbook media, we ask them to program their own interactive media for learning.

But -- and it's a big "but" -- knowing how to play videogames is like knowing how to read but not to write. Globaloria is a way of learning -- of self-learning with heart and mind -- how to write today's digital language. As they plan, design, and build these games, students learn the subject matter of their game -- environmental science, perhaps, or how our courts work, or the order of mathematical operations. They practice computational thinking and software design. They develop skills in creating and using digital media. They learn to interact, share information, and collaborate with others -- the very behaviors they'll need to succeed in any 21st-century workplace. They exercise their minds in critical thinking and problem-solving. In short, they're gaining top technical skills, preparing themselves for college-level studies, gearing up for careers in the knowledge economy, and readying themselves for 21st-century citizenship.

So the question all digital education innovators must ask is: Does it work? Can it scale? We've put Globaloria into operation among youth in economically-disadvantaged and technologically-underserved communities including at-risk youth, in rural public schools and at a new urban bilingual charter school, with teachers who admittedly started out as "technophobes," supported by administrators at the community and state levels, and yes, it works and it scales. Why? I believe it's because Globaloria demands hard work and sets high expectations among learners; it's engaging and personally meaningful; but most important, it is a Cupid's arrow that reaches inside these kids and helps them realize their own potential.

One more thing: Most communities around the nation are ill-equipped in terms of infrastructure or funding to start a new school or tear down an old one, firing teachers and principals they cannot replace. And since this is a nation where free public education is a civil right, we simply need to also figure out how to work with whatever resources we have within the system -- starting with the inherent potential of the children themselves! The Globaloria learning network does not require that schools be shut down or that new schools be built; instead, it helps create hybrid learning networks -- online and onsite -- irrespective of bricks and mortar, indifferent to location or distance. Poor schools, failing schools, rural schools, urban schools, charter schools, summer schools, museum schools, after-school schools, boarding schools: It doesn't matter; the program can be customized by teams from anywhere in the world to fit any and all structures.

That's a scalable digital reform strategy that holds that there is no time to lose, and that the locus of education is inside the kids. The self-propelling curiosity and self-motivated inquisitiveness that our program unlocks are what drive the learning. That means that we don't have to take kids out of their environment or pray they'll be lucky enough to win a lottery to improve their education; their environment can be technologically empowered with a network that can bring expertise from all corners of the nation and the world into any community, and act as a virtual KIPP. They can "stay home," learn to learn, and make home a better place.

What a model program like Globaloria and others like it shows us, in effect, is that kids don't need to wait for Superman. The real Superman is inside kids; it's their own inherent love of learning that must be cultivated and empowered through engagement. In West Virginia and Texas, we're perfecting the social learning platforms and computational tools that can serve as Cupid's arrows to power up that love of learning.