What does learning look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like?
How does a five-year-old learn? A 13-year-old? A 17-year-old?
And… if a child had never seen or heard of a school, what would his or her learning experiences be as they move from age four to age 18? What would those 18-year-olds be like? What might they know? What skills might they have? What abilities? What understandings?
Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools, a new book co-authored by myself, retired Albemarle County CTIO Ira Socol, and Albemarle County Lab Schools Principal Chad Ratliff, features these questions at its heart. Our zero-based design lens on innovation tells us first to ask the questions to find the root of the change we hope to make, and to leave aside what we have been taught that school is “supposed” to be.
As UVA Professor Edward Hess notes, the Smart Machine Age rising in our homes, communities, schools, and workforce is fundamentally altering society, culture, and learning. We, like many, have found that unflinching perpetuation of an industrial schooling model doesn’t support learners to develop critical competencies needed now or in the future. We began our zero-based design journey to transform Albemarle County Public Schools by asking: How might we educate contemporary learners, Generation Z, for lifelong learning and not just for school?
As the three of us came together to work in schools in Central Virginia and beyond, we were, at our core, observers. We came from three radically different places and three radically different life and career experiences. We met on Twitter, in the early days of that social network, sharing observations and debating solutions long before we ever physically met. Those diverse viewpoints—think of an insect’s multifaceted eyes—-allowed us to walk through school systems in new ways, react in new ways, and support innovation in new ways.
I believe we should never miss an opportunity to engage, never miss an opportunity to support, and never miss an opportunity to create an opportunity. My colleague Chad sees those opportunities through an edu-entrepreneurial lens, always looking at what learning need isn’t being met and how to shape a response to the human needs inside our schools; in doing so, it shifts power from teacher to learners. But, as Ira notes, even though schools of art, architecture, medical, and even police work teach how to observe and how to see, schools of education often do not.
When we first walked through schools together, Ira saw kids who were bored and not attending. When I pushed back on this, Ira pulled out his phone and showed me the videos he’d taken that day. He said, “From the time they are seven, kids can ‘look’ compliant to teachers and keep their upper bodies looking tuned-in, but their feet…” Their tapping, twisting, shaking feet told the “I can’t wait to get out of here” story.
Our vision lies in the art of changing schools in response to real understanding of how humans learn, how they have always learned, and how the new possibilities created by new technologies make that learning available to every child. This vision also led us to join the League of Innovative Schools, where we have both informed and been informed by many incredible school leaders innovating to find solutions to the grand challenges facing all educators.
Great learning places are possible, and we have worked with great educators to create them from every type of school. Timeless Learning builds on the best of how humans learn—storytelling, movement, making with tools, creating through the humanities, building and engineering, and apprenticeship—while keeping human-centered learning design at the center of digital advances.
Timeless Learning is not a “how to”; it is also doesn’t easily present “10 ideas to fix your school.” Rather, it is the narrative of a difficult process, a process of educators learning how to learn all over again and how that learning transformed a highly diverse group of good schools into a highly diverse group of constantly innovating learning communities. This journey demonstrates some answers we have found—multi-age elementary school spaces, high school team programs with the four core subjects taught together, libraries transformed into active Learning Commons, and technology tools that facilitate connectivity with the world, creativity and production, and interactive project-based learning. What is important in the story we tell are the shifts in thinking that happen when you observe deeply, and when you mix pragmatism—the currently possible—with the magic of Zero-Based Design.
You can find Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking at most booksellers online. You can find the authors on Twitter at @pammoran, @csratliff, and @irasocol, where we are always willing to engage with educators on a journey to transform schools.