Guest Column

Today’s schooling techniques ‘frozen in time’

January 13, 2017
| By Lou Glazer |
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I recently had a chance to visit the Grand Rapids Public Museum School. Quite impressive. Clearly, the folks at the XQ: The Super School Project thought so, too. They chose the school as one on ten winners of $10 million from more than 700 national applicants. XQ’s mission is “to remake America’s high schools for today”.

The Museum School is located in the Grand Rapids Public Museum and is a partnership between the museum, Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art & Design/Ferris State University, city of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. It will ultimately serve grades 6-12. It’s open to all Grand Rapids students chosen by lottery. It’s not a test-in school.

What makes the school special is its design. The principal told me they designed the school backward from the skills they thought students would need to be successful in life and work in 2050. Wow! That’s exactly the perspective we need in designing schools. Thinking about what capacities today’s kids will need over a lifetime in a world which is going to be constantly transformed by smarter machines increasingly able to do what humans do today.

The answer they came up with is far beyond what is on the standardized tests that dominate how our schools are designed today. They have designed the school around creativity, curiosity and collaboration. The school’s website provides an example of how the school will build these broad lifelong skills:

“Design challenges will help students dive deep into a subject and practice creating innovative ideas. For example, during a unit on health and nutrition, students may be asked how to improve the health and nutrition of children in Grand Rapids. The learning process may look something like this:

“Frame it: How might we improve the health and nutrition of children and youth in the Grand Rapids area? Students will consider what they think about this and what they need to find out. The students will influence the direction of the study.

“Find it: Walk to the Downtown Market and interview a chef and a nutritionist. Invite a panel of pediatricians to be interviewed about health. Find examples in the museum collection of how our culture encourages or discourages health. Head to the YMCA and experience a workout led by a personal trainer and interview them about ways to be active. Make surveys about health to give to kids in Grand Rapids. Look up data online to discover trends and statistics.

“Play and plan it: Students take the experiences and learnings from “Find it” and brainstorm! After they have generated many ideas, they will vote on what ideas to pursue further.

“Make it: Students work in small groups to tinker and build the chosen ideas to address the design challenge. One group decides to make a new lunch tray that encourages health. Another group decides to create a podcast about how to make your own healthy after school snack. A third group decides to work with a local organization to offer outdoor exercise.

“Try it: Students’ families and the organizations who have worked with them along the way are invited to a presentation of ideas and give their feedback. Students choose one of the ideas to develop to the next level.”

The folks behind both the Museum School and XQ: The Super School Project understand — unlike far too many educators, policymakers and business leaders — schooling needs to be fundamentally redesigned to build broad skills rather than just narrow content skills that are on the test or skills specific to an occupation. The reason why so many high school graduates are not ready for either college or a career is predominantly because schooling is designed to achieve, not execute. Yes, we need schools that are executed better. But better execution of the current design still will leave far too many high school graduates not ready to succeed either in college or a career. 

The Museum School has defined the foundation skills needed for life and career success as creativity, curiosity and collaboration. XQ has defined them as masters of all fundamental literacies; holders of foundational knowledge; original thinkers for an uncertain world; learners for life and generous collaborators for tough problems. Either definition requires fundamental change in what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (pedagogy).

It’s far past the time when we should have rethought high school, actually, all schooling. As the XQ folks say: “We’ve gone from the Model T to the Tesla and from the switchboard to the smartphone. Yet, high school has remained frozen in time.” That needs to change quickly.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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