Four Ways to Move from ‘School World’ to ‘Real World’

| June 5, 2014 | 15 Comments
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General Assembly

General Assembly

By Gayle Allen

On a rainy Saturday at Hackbright Academy classroom in San Francisco, a group of 35 adults sat at tables, desks, and on couches learning how to code. Marcy, a former artist and now programmer for Uber, taught the class. During a break, Marcy shared that she’d never taken a programming class prior to starting a job in art media. After completing courses at places like Hackbright and General Assembly, she realized how much she enjoyed coding and switched careers. Today she volunteers to teach coding on the weekends. Real world.

Compare Marcy’s story to Daria’s, a high school junior. Daria applied to take her school’s AP Computer Science class and was rejected. The reason? She lacked the math prerequisites. Even if she had the prerequisites, she lamented, the counselor told her that her grades probably wouldn’t have been high enough to compete for one of the precious 30 seats in the single section that was offered. School world.

Daria’s and Marcy’s stories speak to the differences between school world and real world. In Marcy’s world learning is abundant and artists become coders. In Daria’s world, learning is scarce and limited by classroom space and teacher availability.

This isn’t about coding – it’s about how a subject such as coding (one of the most explosive fields of the past decade) reveals a scarcity mindset in our schools. This mindset is one that economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much may offer some benefits in the short run, but may cause us to neglect what’s really important in the long run; namely, preparing students to learn and work in the real world.

RETHINKING A SCARCITY MINDSET

For many years, the best school leaders operated with a scarcity mindset. They demonstrated how to lead with limited resources, like teachers, textbooks and classrooms. Those who could squeeze the most out of their budgets and school spaces were deemed heroes. It was a mindset that worked well for most of the Twentieth Century.

Today, as limitations on content, space and teachers evaporate, this mindset is increasingly out of step. Leaders, instead, need to cultivate a new mindset — one of abundance — that leverages all the online resources available for learning.

Four beliefs can spur action and create an abundance mindset for learning:

  • We can provide unlimited course sections and offerings. By sharing resources with schools and learning organizations nearby and online, we can offer more than one section of a course. We can also offer courses we hadn’t thought possible, such as all types of programming classes. For example, AP Computer Science focuses solely on Java, to the exclusion of additional programming languages valued by employers and colleges, such as HTML, CSS, JNode, to name a few. Now it’s time to rethink school schedules and course credits to support this abundance.
  • We can take down the gates. With an abundance of resources, we can rethink our approach to prerequisites. We can ask when do the prereqs serve as important scaffolds for learning rather than gatekeepers for protecting scant resources. In essence, how does the concept of a prerequisite change when it no longer means exclusion but instead means actual preparation for courses anyone can access? Down come the gates.
  • We can rethink course sequencing. We’re discovering that many students can master higher level concepts and skills at a younger age. For example, researchers have shown that kindergartners can master linear equations, an algebraic concept not typically taught until middle or high school. Similarly, research reveals that 5-year-olds can learn calculus concepts typically not taught until high school. Traditional course sequencing enacted in systems limited by textbooks, grade levels, and factory-like approaches to education don’t make sense when learning in the real world is abundant. This type of abundance helps us support our students in taking advantage of the 1.4 million new software engineering jobs expected between 2012 and 2022. Fortunately, colleagues are leading the way through innovative STEM programs and after school coding opportunities.
  • We can make informed decisions about course and program offerings. We can access information — employment and economic trends, higher education data, K-12 data, etc. — more readily than ever before. Much of it has already been analyzed for us and is updated and published regularly. These trends can inform the types of programs and initiatives we provide to our students in relation to our requirements-based curriculum. We can partner with our students and families to learn where their needs and interests lie, and we can share those interests and trends in an ongoing way with school stakeholders, including teachers, students, staff, board members and parents.

Ultimately, we can develop a well-scaffolded, learner-directed school curriculum that increasingly matches real-world learning. It’s a click-through curriculum.

CREATING A CLICK-THROUGH CURRICULUM

When leaders exchange a scarcity mindset for one of abundance and innovation, they open the door to an empowering click-through curriculum.

While hard copy textbooks have been and, in many schools and districts, continue to be a learning staple, their linear organizational design is fast becoming an exception for many students. So little of our learning occurs in a textbook-like fashion. Most of it involves a very non-linear, click by click approach. We read something and realize we need to find out more about the concepts discussed, so we open a new window and search the terms we need, or we click on the link embedded in the article to gain a deeper understanding.

In essence, we’re participating in a click-through curriculum, and it’s one we need to teach our students to navigate and encourage them to pursue. There’s no scarcity there, no worries about available rooms or staffing needs. Instead, it’s about self-direction, passion, interests, persistence, critical thinking, curation, and outcomes. There’s a greater focus on what they have done and will do with what you’ve learned, rather than how they learned it.

With an abundance mindset, we can create click-through spaces in our schools and in our curriculum. We can empower students to direct their own learning and to take full advantage of the unlimited courses and access they already have outside of school. By shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance, we can move from school world to real world.

Gayle Allen spent nearly two decades as a teacher, school leader, and founder of two professional development institutes. She holds an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she focused her research on teachers’ transformative learning with web 2.0 technologies and also served as an adjunct. She blogs at Connecting the Thoughts and tweets @GAllenTC.

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  • Michael Mitchell

    I like this read Gayle. Thanks. At Pecos River Learning Centers we use to discuss this idea of scarcity versus abundance with our clients regarding how they view leadership and the world around them. It is powerful. I do wonder though if in the public schools that limitations on teachers are evaporating. In some ways yes; they can connect with any other connected educator, collaborate, have easy access to resources and instructional materials, etc. In other ways no; imposed standards, more accountability measures than ever before and high stakes testing have limited their ability to be the professionals they know they are. They do feel limited in this way. I see this every day and its not a good thing for education. I wish the policy makers out there would look to other countries and other school systems such as Montessori or some more progressive and forward thinking schools when they look to improve schools. These schools should be the models in so many ways and limitations in these schools do not exist in the way they do in schools like mine.

    • Gayle

      Michael, thanks for your thoughtful comment. It’d be interesting to look at the abundance of curricular resources available, to then map out all the possibilities for opening things up, and then pilot some of these options. I think we’d learn a lot and that we wouldn’t have to keep waiting until the entire system changed – we could get some innovation started and learn from the experiences our students are having. What do you think?

      • Michael Mitchell

        I think so many of us are doing this and will continue to do so. I remind all the teachers that it is a great time to be in this profession for teachers and students and a lot of great changes are happening in spite of bad policy and the micro managing of the profession. My main point was simply that limitations aren’t really evaporating for teachers. This is true from what I see and experience daily in my interactions with teachers and other school leaders. More is being asked and expected with less time to learn, reflect and implement and that is what makes any of the changes you do see in education so much more impressive. It’s a testament to all the amazing educators you and I know, read about and work with. Regardless, your overall point regarding scarcity versus abundance is an important centering place for all of us; not just in out profession but perhaps more importantly in our lives.

        • Gayle

          How do you think we can address the limitations? Who’s overcoming them? How? What can we learn from them? You’re right – a lot of great stuff is happening despite them. Educators are unbelievably amazing.

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  • Elmer G. Vigilia

    I love the phrase “Click-through Curriculum” disrupting education as we know it. Great article to help shift the mindset to the paradigm of abundance versus scarcity of resources in education. Throughout US history, public education has always been the “normalizer” as well as the “equalizer” for the masses in our society. The challenge now for business leaders, politicians, and educators, is providing equal access– especially for MIMO technology, which again separates the have’s from the have-not’s bringing us back full circle to scarcity! Imagine someday of having a free global Wi-Fi world living in a digital utopia where education is only limited by one’s own creativity.

    • Gayle

      Elmer, thank you for your insightful comment. I couldn’t agree more – there’s the abundance of what’s available pitted against the access schools, students, and families have. We have to stay on top of this and work together to share resources to make sure we’re leveling the playing field. It’s crucial!

  • Jim Doherty

    Gayle – thoughtful and provocative. I wrestle with the gatekeeper model in schools but I also know that we are trying to strike a balance where we help kids craft a positive experience and – a sad reality – a ‘good’ transcript. When we have a course or a performance level as a prereq for something like an AP Comp Sci class we are, in part, trying to set up a system where those engaged in the class see success. Of course, as you point out here, success can mean many things beyond the grade in the course. The deeper questions (to me) are : (1) Why offer so few of these courses in our schools? (2) Why teach the course where these prereq skills are SO necessary? Can’t we teach calculus ideas even to those who did not master the trig and algebra skills in earlier courses? The research you quote certainly makes it seem so. This is one of those areas where I really wrestle with the difference between the reality we have and the reality we wish we could have.

    • Gayle

      Jim, you and I have had lots of conversations about this, especially when difficult placement decisions had to be made in relation to scant resources. I value your perspective. Today, though, students have more options – there’s so much available online. Our challenge is to vet the quality of the offerings and to pair the highest quality offerings with students who have the passion and the interest (and to intro these options to students who may not yet know they have the interest and the passion – hook them in). Instead of accepting these limits in our schools – number of sections, etc. – what if we strategized as if they didn’t and crafted a plan drawing on all that’s possible now?

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