The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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What is 21st Century Education?

In PD last week, we watched this video as a precursor to a discussion on how to incorporate more leadership skills into our school curricula and activities:

I love this; it’s a great visual montage of data is continuing to change.  To me this is among the best arguments for designing curricula that go well beyond what we simply want students to know. Because knowledge itself is changing so quickly (and so instantly and comprehensively searchable now to boot), the value of content knowledge for it’s own sake has become necessarily rather dilute.

My only complaint with this video is that it makes it seem like the disconnect between rote content instruction and more authentic learning is some recent deficiency in how we approach education, brought on by the sudden techno-boom of the 21st century. This is not a recent problem which we have been merely a little slow in recognizing.

While the contemporary world certainly comes with unique challenges that we cannot ignore, great minds in education have long railed against the futility of teaching nothing but facts and expecting the process to result in authentically well-educated individuals.

In 1968, Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education this becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. […] [The students] do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers [sic] of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart of inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. [pg 72]

In 1916, John Dewey wrote in his collection of essays, Democracy and Education:

Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? That education is not an act of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory. [pg 38, III. “Education as Direction”]

That science may be taught as a set of formal and technical exercises is only too true. This happens whenever information about the world is made an end in itself. The failure of such instruction to procure culture is not, however, evidence of the antithesis of natural knowledge to humanistic concern, but evidence of a wrong educational attitude. [pg 219, XVII. “Science in the Course of Study”]

So even without cellphones, YouTube, and Google, these educators (writing 45 and 97 years ago, respectively) understood that a good education (and particularly for Dewey, a good science education) cannot be measured in units of facts-retained.

So why hasn’t anything changed in at least a hundred years or so? What Freire calls the “banking” model of education continues to be the bread and butter of mainline K-12 pedagogy — driven not by teachers, but by the archaic curriculum standards to which they are beholden. Of what value is the ability to regurgitate Newton’s Laws on an exam if the student’s curiosity and ability to engage with humanity’s understanding of the world is left underdeveloped? To be sure, content and curiosity are not mutually exclusive. But in the presence of so much negative pressure from quantitative standards and positive pressure from the ease of rote instruction, where is the weighting of that balance going to inevitably lean?

With the onset of the kind of change highlighted in the video, the imperative for “21st century education” does not become any different, though it certainly becomes all the more emphatic. When Dewey set up his University of Chicago Schools near the end of the 19th century, I think it likely that he made many of the same kinds of arguments that we are making in the early years of the 21st. That means that at least several generations of the status quo have passed by since this idea was proposed. What shall we do now, in the times we have been given?



Pardon the Disruption – We Just Love Each Other

As posted by me this morning on the Boston Teacher Residency blog:

If you were at a certain bar and grill on Boylston Street in Back Bay last Friday night, you may have noticed a large group of constantly-smiling people who had apparently transformed a significant fraction of the underground bar into their own eight-hour raucous dance party. You would have noticed that said party continued to exude warmth regardless of incredulous stares and even the slightly awkward attempts by others to join in. You would have heard vigorous debates on race as a social construct and multidimensional n-branes as a fundamental building block of spacetime. And you would have heard a lot of overpowering laughter, swelling repeatedly like a tidal wave trying to drown the room in our good times.

Um, yeah, so that was us. A bunch of urban public school teachers in training. Hi. Allow me to attempt to explain our exuberance in disrupting your regularly scheduled evening at the bar.

The context for our party was a desperate, pent-up need to have a great time after what I can only lightly characterize as “a rough week.” We explored (many of us for the first time) how ugly, pervasive, and seemingly inescapable some of the injustices in the world are. We all lived out multiple examples of how none of us, no matter how committed we are to social justice or how much we have suffered or studied, are immune from the very systemic biases we are trying to correct. All in all, it was a painful and emotionally raw week in many ways. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, we were asking ourselves, “In spite of all this, what is it that gives us hope? What makes us think we can do this?”

I heard many good answers to that question in class, but I saw a great answer to that question in what happened after class: that in the face of the darkness of the moment, our unconscious response was love.

In retrospect, I think now about how we were easily the most diverse group in the room, on so many levels: race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, educational background, family dynamics, where we grew up, how we talk, and so many others. We were such an obvious grab-bag of different kinds of people together. And we were positively radiating a lot of love for each other and having an amazing time, oblivious to how anyone else was looking at us. Say what you will about our sense of decorum, but no one could have been in that bar and not felt the love.

In Language, Power and Democracy class we talked about creating “Islands of Decency” and “Pockets of Hope.” Perhaps few of the people who observed us on Friday would consciously frame it in these terms. But as a group I think that we are a pretty awesome Island of Decency and Pocket of Hope ourselves—just in who we are and how we treat each other. Maybe someone who saw us will remember our faces laughing and dancing together—and internalize a small kernel of what humanity could be like if we tried. If that vague memory of us changes even one action by one person for the better, then we did some good for the world just by showing it how much we can love each other.

I am forced to an unavoidably cheesy but logically inescapable conclusion: that we can succeed in this endeavor by making a moral choice to believe in love and living our lives like we mean it. Maybe this is how we can make the impossible possible.



Happy birthday to a war hero, former President, and among the last of a dying breed of gunslingers.

Many are fond of quoting him, but take a quick minute to reflect on this day: What would it mean if you took these words personally? How would you change the way you live your life, if at all? What if these exhortations were delivered personally, to you directly and no one else? No answer required, just the thought.

Notable quotes:

Now the trumpet summons us again -not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”-a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. […] The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it-and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or regard that quality in its chosen leaders today – and in fact we have forgotten.

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.

I look forward to a great future for America – a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.

I’m an idealist without illusions.

Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.

Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.

Modern cynics and skeptics… see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.

No one has been barred on account of his race from fighting or dying for America, there are no white or colored signs on the foxholes or graveyards of battle.

Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.

— John Fitzgerald Kennedy.



quote from “The Sparrow”

Aside  Comment

I’m presently reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and came across this passage that I really liked:

He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.

It felt apropos.




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