Guest Column

Michigan is having the wrong conversation about improving education

January 10, 2020
| By Lou Glazer |
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The think tank I lead, Michigan Future Inc., recently co-sponsored “Outsmarting the Robots: Redesigning education from the classroom to the halls of Lansing” at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

The co-sponsors shared a belief that, by and large, Michigan is having the wrong conversation about how to improve education in Michigan. One that is focused on the question, "What do we have to do to improve standardized test scores?" That the challenge is execution. Schools getting better at teaching what is on the test.

The conference was organized around the belief that all schools and youth development programming need to be designed to build more rigorous and broader skills than what is on the test and that how we teach needs to be far more engaging and experiential.

The conference invitation detailed what we hope to accomplish at the conference:

“We hope you will join us for an exclusive conversation with 50 of Grand Rapids’ leaders in business, education, philanthropy, and the civic and political sectors who are ready to influence our education system so that it aligns with the outcomes that our economy, society and world need. Our premise? We don’t have an education reform challenge; we have an education redesign challenge.

“At ‘Outsmarting the Robots: Redesigning education from the classroom to the halls of Lansing,’ we invite you to join us in asking: How do we redesign our system for learning what matters to meet the needs of our children, economy, society and world? We know that employers say they hire most for rigorous nonoccupation skills like collaboration, communication and problem-solving, and that they increasingly need employees who are constantly able to adjust to the changing nature of work. We have designed this conference to explore what kind of education will build those skills in all West Michigan students, no matter what path they decide to pursue initially after high school.

“With this event, co-hosted by an exciting collaboration of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Kent ISD, the Kendall College of Art and Design, the Institute for Excellence in Education, and Michigan Future Inc., we will spark a new conversation to identify and do whatever it takes to redesign education for a successful future for all kids.

“Five hours in October is a big commitment for a conversation you might feel you’ve had before. But we aren’t planning a day of speakers in a ‘sit and get’ mode of education. We also aren’t planning to explain to you a particular point of view that we hope you’ll adopt or a specific policy recommendation that we think is a silver bullet. Rather, through an incredible and unique collaboration, we’ve designed a day that will ask you to engage deeply with other leaders, reflect on your own learning journey and successes, and exercise your creativity and courage.

“Our guide for the day will be Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz faculty fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the co-author of “Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children,” a powerful articulation of how humans learn vital skills for success.

“Dr. Hirsh-Pasek will help us make meaning of the experiential learning activities we’ve designed for the day, created by experienced facilitators. We’ll wrap up the day by asking: How can our individual interest in change become collective action for redesign? What areas did we discover as leverage points for redesign? How can we take that next big step for the change our community and, our kids, so urgently need?"

To be honest, we were worried about attendance. We only invited those in leadership positions, and we were asking very busy individuals for a half-day commitment on a topic that has been discussed over and over again. Boy, were we wrong. We ended up oversubscribed. We seemed to have tapped into a real hunger to discuss big-picture questions about the kind of schools and youth development programming we want for all West Michigan students.

The event exceeded all of our expectations. Those who attended told us they thought it was time well spent. And many attendees committed to further work on the redesign of teaching and learning for all West Michigan children. Quite encouraging!

We came away from the event more convinced that changing the conversation from execution to design is essential to getting the kind of schools and the kind of student outcomes we all say we want for all West Michigan children.

That it was time well spent because attendees were engaged in active learning with people who didn't necessarily look like them or think like them, rather than sitting and listening to those with answers. And time well spent because they were grappling with the important questions youth development conversations should be focused on: What are the foundation skills we want to develop in all West Michigan children? How should all youth-serving organizations be designed to build those skills? What is the state and local policy regime that will encourage that kind of teaching and learning?

These are the questions that all education conversations should be organized around — and the way those conversations should be structured.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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