New Book Looks for ‘Timeless’ Approach to Rethinking Schools

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New Book Looks for ‘Timeless’ Approach to Rethinking Schools

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Nov 20, 2018

New Book Looks for ‘Timeless’ Approach to Rethinking Schools

The key to reforming schools is imagination—and bringing the spirit of shows like The Jetsons or Star Trek to school design. That means throwing out all preconceptions and revisioning how school could be designed for today’s needs.

That’s the argument made in a new book, “Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools.”

EdSurge recently sat down with two of the book’s co-authors, Pam Moran, and Ira Socol, to better understand their argument, and ask what practical advice they have for teachers and administrators looking to transform schools. Moran is a former superintendent of the Albemarle School district, in Virginia, and Socol is a former school chief technology officer in Virginia. Between the two of them, they've probably seen more schools, more kids and more teachers than most people ever do in a lifetime.

Listen to highlights of the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Your book is about thinking practically about how children learn, and about what we've learned about children’s learning. How has that changed over the years for you?

Ira Socol: We're both observers of children. That's one of the things that brought us together. We come from very different backgrounds, and very different sort of educational experiences, but we spent a lot of time watching.

I was a former New York City police officer. I also have trained in art and architecture, and I think one of the things that I learned early in my education career was that while those three previous careers of mine involved a lot of learning how to see. Education has not included that real study of how you observe the world, and one of the things we started right at the beginning of our work was walking classrooms together and looking at how we saw children learning both inside and outside schools.

Pam, you actually studied as a field biologist. How did looking from the point of view of a field biologist change the way you look at a classroom?

Pam Moran: When I became an educator, and started to really process the way that education works, I realized that education is an ecosystem. We're a web. We are connected, and what one person does in one room, even though it may be very isolated from other people, it can have ripples all the way through the system.

I really believe that observation is key to what we need to learn to do well, that observation is what people do to study in the ecosystem. We certainly collect data, but it also has a qualitative side to it. If you're looking at a classroom of children, and you are focusing on that scientific model, which is about checklists of what makes this classroom efficient and effective, you may actually miss some of the nuances of the system.

You say this is timeless learning, and it's how imagination changes the way we think about schooling. Where does the imagination come in?

Socol: One of the things that's really important in transforming schools is to say we don't have to use research-based practices in everything because if they're research based practices, it means they're old. They've been [around] long enough to have been studied, and that's informative, but it doesn't describe where we need to go.

We're at this time of massive transition in our society and in our economies. The last transition this dramatic happened in the 1840s when the telegraph, the steamship, railroads and penny newspapers all changed the communication structure of society completely. That's when our schools were built, that's when our schools were created.

Now we're at a time where for the first time in human history, we've really achieved a very low cost of information, and students have access to all sorts of resources people never had before. And we have to imagine a future. You know, I'm old enough to have grown up in the ‘60s when, as funny as it seems, we were promised flying cars, and living under the sea. These were massively imaginative views of what was possible.

So many things have been completely transformed since then because of the imagination. The education system is the one thing that's truly lagged behind in that. I think we just need a much higher level of dreaming.

No need for research-based practices? That's an interestingly controversial comment these days. You don't want them?

Socol: I want research. I don't want to be ruled by the kinds of research that have dominated the last 50 years. One of the problems I have is the standards of research-based practices, and how you try to isolate a single element. I don't believe that an environment ever operates along single elements of change. What's funny is if you start to unpack these greatest research studies, the only significant thing you can pull out of all the research in the last 40 years that really affects student achievement is letting kids eat all day. Food and drink makes kids happier, and they work better.

But, surely we must have learned something else.

Socol: What we know about the human brain now is 100 times what we knew just 20 years ago. I think that's really important.

You mentioned imagination, and the ‘60s when we had shows like The Jetsons. When we look at some of the movies, fiction movies are often a way that we express our cultural imagination. We see two things right now. We see superhero movies, and we see highly dystopian movies. What does that say about our vision of the future?

Moran: For too long, we had a mass standardization of everything, and that comes from evidence-based practices. This is how you need to kind of lock step your work, and in the worst case scenarios in our schools, it looks like cookie cutter, or a curriculum where everybody's on the same page doing the same thing at the same time. We're on the same screen today. In the best case scenario, you know teachers have a little bit more freedom to experiment, but what we don't do is to recognize that teachers have been some of the most amazing imagineers, and do it yourself exemplifying sort of the do it yourself culture, because of the fact that when you have so many constraints on resources, teachers can imagine how to use things very differently than when you don't have those constraints.

If we really want to get to a place where we truly have equity of opportunity, equity of access, and equity of a rich learning world for all students, then we have to really look at the structures we have, and imagine what would it look like if those structures didn't exist. That leads to the other theme of our book, Observation, Imagination, and Zero-Based Thinking.

What is zero-based thinking, exactly?

Socol: Zero-based thinking is pulled from the corporate world, but it's based in the idea that in order to truly imagine a future that's different, to imagine something that's different, you have to erase from your mind that belief in everything that you know now.

Moran: I've seen this play out in a couple of ways. I walked into a classroom at the beginning of a school year a couple of years ago, and everything in the classroom was in the middle of the floor. All of the stuff that was on shelves, everything, books, everything was piled. It looked like it was going to be a bonfire, and I looked at the teacher, and I said, “Steve, what's going on here?”

And, he said, “Every year I have kids come to me and say, ‘Where's this? Where's this, where's this?’” And, he said, “I decided to start the year by putting everything in a pile, and saying to the class, Organize the room the way you think it will work for you."

Did it work?

Moran: His kids took all that stuff, they organized it, put it in the places, and I think continued to maybe evolve it over the course of the year. I was back a couple months later, and I said to him, I said, “So, how did it go?” He said, “I'm the one now that's asking the question, where do I find the ...” He said, “But the kids know where everything is.”

A bigger example is that when we started talking about building a new high school, we brought in a firm, and said, “We want you to do a really deep dive look at the work that we're doing, and at the needs that we have in terms of capacity, and come back with a solution for anew high school.” They came back with an idea that we didn't need a new high school because we said we want you to do zero-based thinking.

What they came back with was the idea of finding the potential for community-based centers, and maybe what you don't need is a comprehensive high school. Maybe you need a series of spaces where kids can move as they go through their high school experience out into the community, and that gave birth to Albemarle Tech, a 45,000 square foot warehouse that was empty rebuilt to serve three different purposes.

One being offices for a department for technology, another being a professional development center for the instructional programs for the system, and third, a small center environment as a startup where kids come there to work on projects that they wanna work on, and there's no...

Socol: No classes, no classrooms.

I bet that there are a lot of educators who would both love to work in an environment like that, and help build an environment like that. How do you get started though?

Moran: Try it out on a small scale, and then try to blow it up and figure out not how to scale it as the same idea in every school.

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