We have a wicked problem. According to design theory, a wicked problem is one that is difficult, if not impossible, to solve because it is ill-defined and amorphous. Consequently, there is no simple or clear solution, or one correct answer. The “rules” don’t work to solve it.
The problem? Our current education system. This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in ConnectEd Canada, held at Calgary Science School, a school built entirely on inquiry. I was able to spend time observing the classes in session, and what I saw amazed me. An entire student body deeply engaged in learning, doing work that mattered, and articulate and aware of the process and their learning. How often does that happen? Not often enough, and that’s the problem.
I went to the conference with one question in mind, “Can this be replicated in any school, or does it need to be built intentionally from scratch with this idea in mind?” I found my answer. I honestly think it can happen anywhere, but a few things have to be present.
Calgary Science School functions as it does because of its culture, and this largely hinges on the administration. It’s a culture that requires sharing and collaboration, open-ended questions and deep engagement. Schools need administrators that are visionaries not simply managers. Being an administrator shouldn’t be about controlling teachers and students or maintaining the status quo; instead, it should be about unleashing a school’s potential. Maybe we need to start hiring a different kind of administrator than in the past. Maybe earning a Master’s degree doesn’t denote that someone is a competent leader. Maybe we need to start looking for pedagogical leaders who have a deep understanding of what is best for kids, who are able to ask tough questions and have difficult conversations for the purpose of establishing the learning environment our kids need.
So what does this look like? Students need learning environments that deeply engage them in work that matters. Enough with the worksheets. Seriously. Worksheets don’t provide the rigorous environment that our students need for their brains to develop to their full potential, or sometimes, at all.
Kids need experiences that encourage myelination. Quite simply, myelin is the white fatty coating that acts like insulation on a wire and allows signals to move faster, while making it less likely they’ll leak out. However, myelination is a process and much depends on how students use their brains. Connections that are continually used develop thick myelin sheaths that allow for better brain signals and create thick neural nets. There’s a reason neuroscience has the adage, “connections that fire together, wire together.” Kids become better problem solvers and more efficient at their own learning, if they spend a great deal of time doing so.
But here’s the thing, neuroscience research suggests that active engagement is necessary for learning. When learning occurs, it tends to enlarge the parts of the brain it continually uses; we call this plasticity. Worksheets don’t do this, nor does sitting in a classroom passively hearing a lecture. Research has shown that passively listening to lectures doesn’t even tend to alter the auditory cortex. So how does this happen? Student-centred, inquiry learning.
I get that changing things is hard. I’ve done it, and I’m still engaged in the process. There were times during the transformation of my classroom that the learning curve was so steep I thought I was going to shatter into a million pieces. There were other times it felt disasterous, but here’s the thing, we all survived. It’s hard to change; It’s hard to wrap our minds around something so foreign to the traditional school system so many of us are products of, but our students need us to engage in the hard work. I’ve found over and over that students are not only gracious during our learning process, they also do amazing things to give us the courage to continue on.
Finally, we need to encourage and support the risk-takers and innovators in our school systems. Too often the status-quo is supported because of the comfort level it affords. As Brian Harrison stated in a recent blog post, “…it is clear to me that we cannot sustain a great system of public education by rewarding those in our schools and systems who do not innovate at the cost of those who do.” Too often those who are engaging students in meaningful learning close their doors, so they can do what is best for their students. Why? To reduce the backlash from others. I know. I’ve done it, and I’ve listened to the stories of many other educators who have experienced this same phenomenon. If we truly want to do what is best for kids, we need to support teachers who willingly engage the messy landscape of student-centred learning.
The wicked problems ones are the only ones worth pursuing, not only for us, but our students too. Given the chance, my students willing and enthusiastically partnered with me to create the educational environment they needed. It wasn’t easy, but it was entirely worth every difficult moment.
Picture courtesy of cc, flickr: DonnaGrayson