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A Brave New World for Education?

It's time to rethink how we teach children.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels
Online Learning
Source: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

More than any other credential I hold, I’m proudest to call myself an educator. Like all of you, I have been watching closely as approximately three million teachers in the United States have tried to figure out how to take what they do best in a classroom and put it online. Talk about resilience and dedication; our teachers are remarkable!

I open with this for a reason: I want you to know that what I am about to say is in no way a criticism of the caring and dedicated professional educators who have made online learning a reality during this COVID-19 pandemic.

But now let me say this: If we are indeed facing things like potential quarantines in the fall or beyond, part-time schooling, requirements for smaller class sizes, plastic sheets between desks, children attending school on alternate days, or even just continued online instruction in some areas, then isn’t this the right time to talk about how we teach?

On last week’s world news, I saw that a teacher with a strong background in technology had created a virtual classroom for his students, complete with desks, chairs, and avatars for the students and himself. He even included a working whiteboard. Drawing from funding that most teachers don’t have, he then sent each student in his class a VR headset. This allowed him to teach online in much the same way as he had been teaching in person. The news story opened with “a cutting-edge revolution in the future of education.”

I almost cried — and not with tears of joy. Why on earth would we “dumb down” the rich and diverse learning potential of virtual reality in learning to recreate, what in my opinion, is the very worst aspect of modern-day education — teacher as the lecturer, students sitting in desks, and assignments coming from a lecture and a whiteboard?

In my humble opinion, children were never meant to passively sit, then read, listen, or watch someone feed them information. Moreover, children were certainly never meant to demonstrate their learning through meaningless, paper-and-pencil products.

Imagine if everything you were asked to do at your job was unmeaningful to the world, and you only did the work to show your boss and co-workers that you could do it. Then, all of your hard work was given an assessment and point value before it was put into the trash. How long would you keep working?

Now add, you are not getting paid to do this. The “products” we ask students to deliver in school for 12 or more years of their lives are simply not meaningful to them, and their hard work isn’t relevant to the world in which they live. There has been no other time in human history that becoming an adult involved 12 full years of non-productive “practice.” Yet we accept this with little discussion or thought because this is the way it has been for a very long time.

But as any educator can tell you, while all children are expected to do this, for children who are different-minded, gifted, twice-exceptional, neuro-diverse, learning-disabled, or on the autism spectrum, this system really doesn’t work. And now that teaching has had to go online, the students who need education the most are the same students who get the least out of our current, pandemic-style teaching method.

Back when information was scarce and the news was delivered on the back of a horse, bringing information to children as it became available was probably necessary. But with a world of education and information at our fingertips, I believe that both what we teach and the methods we use to teach are no longer serving today’s children.

True, the world has used this formula as the basis of education for over 150 years. But with the exciting potential that is now available through modern-day technologies, would it be possible to use this pandemic as the reason for thinking about a true revolution in learning?

We certainly must do better than having kids sit at home, with a less-than school version of being in a classroom. If they must be behind a computer anyway, why not harness the immense potential of that computer? My apologies and kudos to the creator of the VR classroom; he was a step ahead of lectures and worksheets online. But now is the time, and we really must do better.

About 20 years ago, I started a special needs school for children who were both disabled and intellectually gifted. Back then, tablets didn’t exist, cheap laptops ran over a thousand dollars, and no one outside of the gaming industry saw the potential for apps and hand-held technology, nor did they imagine a VR world that could literally transform the world of possibility for learning. Ahead of our time, and without the technology tools to do what I really wanted to do, I created a multi-age curriculum that was largely delivered through live-action, role-playing, and dramatic, theme-based problem-solving sequences.

We didn’t read about the burnings of the Library of Alexandria; we “lived” in ancient Egypt, dressed in togas, gossiped about the Greek politicians, helped to plan and then attend the wedding of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and we divided all of our studies into the Hellenistic traditions of rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, and natural science.

As our story evolved and civil war broke out between our beloved Cleopatra and her brother, we even helped to deliver Cleopatra to Julius Caesar, rolled inside of a carpet. During this unit, all the students held employment at the library, and work there required them to study and create scrolls of knowledge.

We made perfume, built clay structures, cooked Greek flatbread, and we sewed our costumes for “the wedding.” So, out of the blue, when we filled our transformed school with fake smoke and our scholars escaped the “fire” with their lives and only a few of the books and scrolls they could carry, our kids knew what it truly meant when the library burned.

Within each 4-to-6-week unit, the model embedded a standards-based, multi-grade-level curriculum and placed curriculum standards into a theme-based, historical epoch for all students grades 1-8. Tasks were assigned based on skill level and student interest, and students could always work above or below their level if they wanted to.

By the way, no one chose for long to work below grade level. To make sure we addressed kids’ deficits, we also brought in a special education team, and they too joined as scholars and mentors, in full costumed regalia. In this way, we built on both strengths and deficits.

The curriculum took on a life of its own. For their homework, students began researching and gathering herbs to add to their perfumes, built tiny waterway replicas to improve the public baths, and wrote their comedy routines to mock the leaders of the day on the open stage.

The model worked. Kids were engaged and they met their standards. On a dozen or more occasions, at pick up time, our kids asked if they could sleep over at the school and continue learning. But, in hindsight, the model also worked too well, as it attracted difficult kids who came from all over the country with severe challenges.

Also, the model was hard to deliver. Teacher’s roles were simply too complex. Added to the job of planning and teaching, we also asked our teachers to dress up, become a character actor, and deal with the mess and chaos of building new “sets” and themes every 4 to 6 weeks. By the end, when the school was forced to close, we had served 178 students, across 1 semester short of 10 years, and for many, their parents told us we had saved their lives.

After the school closed, I took my curriculum to Blizzard, the creator of some of the highest-end video games in the world, intending to put our learning model into a highly complex video game that would allow teachers, as guides, to work within a serious gaming model to deliver the same rich, interactive, learning enhanced activities that we had fostered throughout our school’s history. It was the closest we could get back then to giving kids a truly engaging learning world.

Blizzard politely told us that the field of “edutainment” wasn’t ready for this type of revolution quite yet. In the years that followed, the entire field took the form of drill-and-kill educational activities, (with a few good exceptions in the preschool and early education learning world.) The field forwarded simple, short learning apps that simulated small but disjointed components of learning inside of a game.

Over time, these fell flat, and the entire field became loosely associated with “bad education” and “boring games.” If fact, still to this day, that old game Oregon Trail stands as one of the leaders in this field. Why? In my opinion, it's because that game, as simple as it is, does more than teach a simple concept. It took the decisions and learning choices of the learner and applied them to something meaningful within the game: their very survival.

It’s been 20 years since my vision for education got put on the shelf. But guess what? We now have the technology to take something like what we did at my school and build it out into a massive, open, online, action-based, virtual reality curriculum where kids can learn academic standards through “traveling” into a rich, online world.

Think about it: Even math is something you would gladly do to calculate how best to divide the amount of food you have on your virtual ship to keep you and your crew alive for the duration of your voyage. Granted, you can kill off some of your crew, but then you would have to do more work, and that would keep you from engaging in some of the more preferable activities available to you as you face the long voyage ahead.

I don’t personally think kids should spend all their time behind a computer, nor should teachers spend all their time grading papers, writing lesson plans, or documenting steps of progress for every student. But couldn’t some of this be done in an educational gaming world? This would then leave some nice brick-and-mortar space open for teachers to truly engage with small groups of students, within “maker-space” types of learning environments. In these, the activities done could even mirror aspects of the curriculum being delivered in the computerized parts of the program.

Done right, this would also allow for true individualization and moment-by-moment tracking of performance, giving teachers a new role to truly teach and facilitate collaboration, problem-solving, relationship-building, and meaningful production of tangible, hands-on, student-built projects. This also leaves plenty of real-world space and even frees up teachers to work one-on-one with students who simply need extra, such as students with disabilities.

I’m not nearly as young as I used to be. I also know that I no longer have the energy to drive a force this big. But consider this: We already do most of these things in bits and pieces anyway. Our complex video games track massive amounts of data, as do educational systems, and we also have lots of maker spaces popping up all over the place. But instead of teaching our children how to be hired assassins online and making them earn special time to work on a project an hour or two a week in a maker space, couldn’t we finally just let teachers teach and let software track, grade, pace, and deliver curriculum along with meaningful assessments?

Better yet, it could be done within a rich enough online world, combined with hands-on learning by doing. Couldn’t a school environment focus on teaching kids about their world and helping them find the passions and interests that will ultimately drive them to want to become a contributing adult, no matter how different minded they are?

I get it; change is hard. It takes tons of money, massive amounts of time, and a whole lot of dedication. But more important than that, change takes vision. In today’s world, I see billions of dollars going to things that I value much less than our next generation. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but if money isn’t spent on kids to give them a meaningful way to grow up, participate, learn, then apply their learning to make the world a better place, there simply isn’t a future anymore.

I believe it is time, pandemic and all, for the entire world of education to embrace a revolution in both what and how we teach. The teaching that has occurred over the past three months has proven to me that our educators have the ingenuity, the know-how, and the sheer determination to embrace change and make it happen.

Right now, we are already rethinking lots of things. This means that our world is rapidly changing. But the solution isn’t to divide up traditional classrooms with sheets of plastic between all the desks. This solution is horrifying! We need to do better and now is the time to really examine our teaching methods. We can do this!

Moreover, the kids who are the most neuro-diverse and bright, who always come up with that “different solution,” are the same kids that I believe will be so desperately needed in the world that we are creating right now. In my opinion, this, like so many things, can’t wait another decade.

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