Sunday, February 19, 2012

Big Spirit

The scary part about biking on thin ice is that, well, you are biking on thin ice.  With the bright sunshine and temps nearing 40oF, the snow on the lake today was just squishy enough to allow the fat tires of the Moonlander and the Pugsley to make their way across Big Spirit.  One nice thing about biking on a lake is that there is very little traffic.  Oh, and you can’t really complain much about the hills.

Still, it is unnerving to think about what lies beneath the soft white snow.  The waters of Big Spirit are deep, and cold.  Every once in awhile, we would hear the loud cracking of the ice, and I would pedal faster.  My hope was that if I biked fast enough, the Moonlander tires would float just long enough to wheel me to safety.

Lately, my mind tends to spin in circles just like the pedals on my bike as I think about the many different reform directions that institutional education finds itself being pulled.  Brain Research Shows that too many options can lead to “decision fatigue” from information overload.   As educators, we’ve been invited to an “all you can eat” buffet of school reform initiatives including Project Based Learning, Competency Based Education, Blended Learning, technology integration, flipped classrooms, Core Curriculum, Career and College Readiness, Value Added Measures, 21st Century Teaching and Learning, PISA, Waivers and Charter Schools—and that is just the beginning of the Governor’s Recommendation for the ever-elusive World Class School.

In some ways, I wish there was a clearly marked road to follow.  I wish someone, somewhere had figured out exactly how to deliver the best possible high quality public education for every kid, every day.  I wish I could just Google the words “Perfect School”, and then bookmark it, tweet it, blog it and do it.  I would buy everyone a ticket on the Perfect School Train and we would all jump on board.

On the other hand, maybe I don’t wish that.

As I biked across the frozen lake today, in the stillness of the snow and the almost blinding brightness of the sun, I realized that the magic of this experience was the incredible freedom of biking without boundaries.  No roads and limitless directions to choose from.  No stop signs, no rules, no trails and no maps—just a warm wind at my back and a world of possibilities.  Along with that freedom comes risk.  The risk of making a mistake, of falling, or of growing tired before the ride is complete.  Maybe even running into open water, dark and deep.  But it is worth it.

Oh, it is worth it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Machine

“I felt like a science geek today, Mrs. Webb.” 

After spending an entire day at the Rube Goldberg Competition, I can see why.   The judges (physics profs and engineering students) wore matching purple t-shirts and carried clipboards.   The Minnesota State University (Mankato) hosts were easy to identify because they had balloons wrapped around their heads.  The students at the competition were focused and intense as they painstakingly prepared their Rube Goldberg machines for the three trial runs.

A Rube Goldberg machine is an engineer’s delight:  hundreds of moving pieces, and mind-numbing complexity.  The task for this year’s competition was straightforward:  blow up a balloon and pop it in at least twenty steps and two minutes.  Simple goal, but circuitous path.  When you think about it, a Rube Goldberg machine is sort of like the American education institution:  grow up a kid and educate it in at least forty-eight credits and four years.  Simple goal, but circuitous path.

I am beginning to think that a lot of what Americans have accepted as the institutional standards in a student’s education may in fact be a part of the unnecessary complexity of The Machine we call School.  Forty-eight credits lined up in a row:  if one falls out of line, we mark an “F” on the transcript, and wait for the cascade.  Each semester, the kid at the center of The Machine must juggle hundreds of points, manage countless deadlines, and coordinate a complex schedule to complete dozens of unrelated tasks.  The growing kid is bounced off of walls, swung by pendulums, strung up with pulleys, launched off of ramps and funneled through tubes as The Machine moves him like a rolling marble toward graduation. 

The longer I study The Machine, the more I find myself getting hungrier and hungrier for simplicity.  The industrial model which pushes kids through the school factory via an assembly line of curriculum and testing doesn’t need to survive another century.  The Mac in every backpack may let us walk away from The Machine and open the door to something refreshingly different.  No bouncing marbles, no falling dominoes, no push-me-pull-you system.  Is it possible?  Perhaps.

This past January, I think we caught a glimpse of what school could be like in the absence of The Machine.  I am not sure what the future of education holds, but I have a feeling it will look something like what we created for Spirit Lake last month.  Passionate, engaged, eager students.  Collaborating, guiding, motivating teachers.  Differentiated, rigorous, relevant learning goals.

At the end of the Rube Goldberg Competition, the kids disassembled their machines, tossed the broken pieces into the dumpster, gathered up the marbles and drove home.

It was time for something new.