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Challenging Ourselves

By Stephen Dexter Jr.
Challenging Ourselves

(Photo source: Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash
"If I asked people what they wanted, they'd say a faster horse." Henry Ford

I did a quick informal survey with a group of teachers last year to gather their perspectives on what they defined as our product. We don’t talk about terms like product in this business, but I like the word because it gets to the point.

Here are some of the responses:

  • To give students opportunities
  • Teach them to be global citizens
  • Exposure to new ideas
  • To be productive people
  • To be knowledgeable and confident in core beliefs
  • To be lifelong learners
  • To learn what they like and don't like
  • To be able to question deeply their surroundings

No one person mentioned university preparation. No one mentioned proficiency in a subject. Yet, that is our product. Look at any school profile and you will see a list of matriculations, a list of average exam scores, and a list of subjects. The long-suffering pandemic accelerated the disruptions to the food industry, offices as places to work, transport, health care, government services, and schools in ways that have forced all of us to redo our SWOT analysis for the foreseeable future. For me, the greatest existential threat to our product is the teaching of traditional, discrete subjects.

Job to be done: 

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma described a marketing campaign that examined breakfast and the morning commute. He discovered that more than any typical commuter breakfast, milkshakes were consistently the most popular choice. His curiosity piqued, Christensen examined the motivating factors behind choices people made during the commute such as compatibility with driving, length of consumption, and hunger satiation. In other words, the reasons people purchased the milkshake had little to do with breakfast or food but rather with a job to be done.  

Schools have a simple job, to prepare students for more school. We are not escaping this expectation as long as higher education continues to be the gatekeeper of careers and economic success. The challenge to ourselves is whether or not this preparation necessitates the teaching of subjects as we know them.

According to the NYU/Abu Dhabi description of the Core Curriculum for undergraduates, “The cooperation needed to address the world’s most pressing challenges depends upon a rich understanding of humanity itself, a sense of how societies and individuals have developed in relation to one another and to other species, to the environment, to technologies, and to ideas — both sacred and secular — about the universe.” 

The urgent needs of the planet and our globalized economies have transcended traditional school subjects just as the milkshake has transcended breakfast. It's no longer good enough just to prepare for more school. The job we are hired to do must be more aspirational than this. Yes, we have skills embedded in the curriculum and standards that we adhere to for assessment. Yes, we work very hard to ensure that content is rigorous and scoped as well as sequenced. Yes, we all have lifelong learning in our mission statements, whatever that means. We challenge ourselves by observing the quality of the learning experience over the course of an eighth grader’s day. Not by vertically or horizontally aligning, analyzing the gaps from our Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) results, or crunching the predicted grade numbers to squeeze the most out of HL Chemistry.

Challenging ourselves is uncomfortable and requires facing a lot of hard truths. It was difficult during the pandemic and it's no easier climbing out of it. We don't want to tell people that what we've been doing for so long is irrelevant and has been a waste of precious time. It has not. Many great things have come out of subject-based education. The problem is that we don't know what the alternatives are and many of our outcomes like Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme are heavily dependent on them. The job to be done must shift.

I challenge myself not by simply slipping back to pre-pandemic school, but by reflecting on the experience of why people come together to learn about things as opposed to staying at home and talking through a screen. I challenge us by questioning whether traditional subjects are the means by which we will meet the ends of the job to be done in the year 2022. 

Here’s how I have to challenge myself:

1. Shadow the learning flow/experience of a student from the beginning to the end of the school day, taking copious notes on everything from the purpose of what is being taught to what students believe they are learning, to how painful it is to sit on a lab stool for 90 minutes.  

2. A deep dive on a particular topic within a subject to determine why it's relevant or not as a discrete subject and what could be done more purposefully to get the most out of the learning as opposed to simply marching through linear epochs in our past. In 2022, I witnessed the exact same example from a well-intentioned teacher demonstrating primary and secondary sources that I used in 1995 (reports on Pizarro's massacre of the Incas).

3. Explore how collaboration time is used to see if it moves beyond which chapter we are teaching next Tuesday.

4. Enable the experts to consolidate the big ideas and think beyond subjects to create topics for deeper learning. If point of view is an important topic across our “subjects” then get the teachers together to work out those themes, consolidate those examples, and work together. If it ends up collapsing 30 or 40% of the curriculum due to redundancy or irrelevancy, then so be it.

We are too busy to challenge ourselves. We save that for the occasional brainstorming sessions in conferences or when consultants come to help us with strategic plans. Then it’s…

  • prep
  • teach
  • eat (maybe)
  • duty
  • correct
  • sleep (maybe)
  • repeat

I get it. It’s very hard. The way learning is structured requires so much student contact time there is little left to think about. It’s all we can do to deliver what’s in front of us.

In my 27th year in education, I am feeling more and more like the person standing on a dock trying to get into a boat that is not tied. The more I push, the more I feel like I'll end up in the water. The pandemic has shone a bright light on the disconnect between subjects as they are currently designed and the needs of this world, from climate issues to refugee crises, to existential threats and everything else in between that makes life on earth less easy than it used to be. 

Subjects are not going to be deleted overnight. It will take a lot of work to redefine our job to be done, to redesign how we spend time on learning about things that are not discrete subjects, and what it will take to prepare the next generation for something besides more school.

When I once asked a designer from the IDEO how to get started on a massive change project, he simply replied, “little x many = big.”

This piece is dedicated to Clay Christensen (author of Innovator's Dilemma) and Sir Ken Robinson (Do Schools Kill Creativity?), two giants that recently passed away and inspired much of my thinking about how learning can be organized.

A Massachusetts native, Stephen Dexter Jr. worked as a teacher and assistant principal in public schools for 13 before moving overseas in 2009. He has degrees from McGill, University of Massachusetts/Boston, and Boston College and currently lives in Zagreb, Croatia with his wife Stephanie and daughter Zoe.

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10/22/2022 - James Mattiace
100% agree and I am ready to jump in with any school that wants to go down this road. There are some really advanced ideas out there already happening like the Mastery Transcript and portfolios, and we need to keep spreading this message. Great article. I would add sustainability, both environmental and organizational as the missing essential component.
10/16/2022 - Paul McK
I've often speak with colleagues about this around the world and there is a real hunger for meaningful change. As a school leader, I don't want to leave the profession until we see these silos of learning cast aside and replaced with natural practices. Yes, the universities are the gatekeepers, but they don't operate in a vacuum. We must push for change or Education will continue to be limited by limited thinking. Speak to your colleagues about this at your schools, boards, offices... and get them questioning the same old path we continue to travel upon.
10/13/2022 - Ali
This article is the most relevant I’ve read in quite some time.