Free the Children . . .

Historically schools have been the place where our children spend 12, 16, 20+ years preparing.  A guided series of stepping stones to navigate while gaining the knowledge and skills to participate in life. Elementary school nurtures and lays the academic foundation, middle/jr high school allows time to gain emotional stability and begins the focus on academic disciplines,  high school prepares for higher education or a trade, and higher education provides the specialized knowledge for a career. Beyond some field trips and a couple weeks of service learning, and a possible internship, there are no real expectations that students can, or should be making direct contributions to society until after they have made it through the system.

Schools should prepare students to be productive once they leave the system, and they be a place where students can make significant contributions to society while they are learning. In our work with students through the Challenge Based Learning (CBL) pilot and implementation programs we found that a growing majority of students want to make a difference now, not wait until they graduate. Whether it is the powerful toolset they have access too, increased exposure to media, a general impatience with the system, or a sense that something needs to be done now, more and more students are not waiting until they are “fully cooked” and are jumping into the real world while they are in school. Students want to, can, and are make a difference now. And we, as educators, parents, community members and policy makers, should be providing the structure and resources to assist them to do this work. Schools must evolve from just a place of preparation to an environment where students actively benefit their community. This shift from “holding tank” to a vibrant embedded army of creative contributors serves a wide variety of purposes.

First, it gives learning a purpose for students. The ACOT2 research demonstrated most students do not understand the relevancy and application of what they are learning in school. Increasingly we are seeing students tuning out, and dropping out (both literally and figuratively) because they just do not get why they need to be marched through a curriculum that they do not see as important and they can easily look up on their iPhone. For some students the “carrot” of college and the “stick” of parental wrath keeps the jumping through the hoops, but for those without these factors it is easy to simply opt out.  We can not afford the loss of intellectual capital caused by students simply jumping through hoops or dropping out of school.

Second, it changes the way we teach and learn. The idea of school as a place where we hold students until they are complete fosters a curriculum and pedagogy bent on filling students full of information and then moving them on to the next phase until they are done. Paulo Freire identified this as the banking theory of education where teachers make knowledge deposits into the heads of students and then at the end of the term make a withdrawal in the form of a test. If school is re-imagineeered to be a place where students are actively participating in identifying and solving problems in the community (micro and macro) their learning takes on both utility and a sense of urgency. Teachers and students are working together to learn what they need in order to solve a challenge and benefit their community. This does not mean that all content becomes what we traditionally have labeled vocational, we can still teach and learn great literature, philosophy, art, physics, etc.,  but there is a conscious effort to apply all of this information to real issues and challenges in their surrounding community. A real challenge spurs authentic learning and action.

Third, as I mentioned in my essay on the student as meaningful worker when we tap student creativity and energy we leverage an immense workforce. Our CBL experiences provide convincing evidence that students can learn the prescribed curriculum while developing useful ideas and products to solve challenges. Imagine the impact if all students are given the opportunity, tools and framework to make a difference now. We will benefit tremendously from the unique perspective made possible by fresh eyes that have not been corralled by “expertise” and the limitless possibilities of their optimism, drive and energy. The students benefit from our experience and wisdom gained from a life of trial and error. Students learn that everything they do can makes a difference ([positive and negative) to someone.

Finally, for the school and community there are tangible benefits. The school becomes much more deeply embedded in the local community. As much as we like to talk about the neighborhood school many schools have very little authentic connection with their neighboring families, businesses and organizations. The people in the community who are called on to fund the schools often have very little knowledge of what actually is happening in the school. Sometimes this becomes painfully apparent when a district is seeking a bond or override for school funding. By having students working with teachers, businesses, families, community organizations and government the schools will be seen as valued partners rather than impersonal,  failing institutions asking for more money to do the same old thing. The surrounding community benefits by having access to a young, creative and intelligent workforce to help them solve challenges and build a positive environment.

A central tenant of Challenge Based Learning (CBL) is expanding the learning community beyond the four walls of the school to the family, neighborhood and community. Big ideas, the essential question and the challenge tied to real community needs inside and outside of the school provide students with the opportunity to take action and make a difference now – rather than waiting until they get through the system. The CBL framework provides a structure and process for integrating learning with action in a way that can meet current standards and assessment needs, learn digital age skills and serve their community.

– Mark H Nichols




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Copyright © 2013 Mark H. Nichols