One Good Question with Aylon Samouha: Is there a silver bullet for the future of “school”?

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Agency / Education Equity / One Good Question / School Design

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Thankfully, there is a lot of investment in education, both public and philanthropic dollars.  The sheer quantity of investment is a clear signal – we believe that our generation plays a critical role in the future world and deserves deep investment.  That siad, where does it go? There are lots of human capital investments that funders are making in all sorts of ways to attract, evaluate, and train educators.  These investments are animated by a critical need in creating great learning environments ; namely,  kids need caring adults around them who are effective at teaching, coaching, motivating, etc.

On the other hand, human capital  funding by itself may unintentionally reinforce the idea that the only  or best way for kids to learn is through teacher-centric models where students have little agency over their own learning.  With School in the Cloud, Sugata Mitra challenges the role of educators in the learning process.   Basically, he was a web developer who said « What would happen if I just put a computer in the wall here? » in a low-income neighborhood in India.  Kids started using it and they had never touched a computer before.  They looked up stuff and started learning things.  Then he said, let me do it somewhere where there aren’t a bunch of techies around.  And this time he gave the users a question to figure out.  When he asked for their feedback, they said « We have to learn English in order to use it. » And they actually did learn English to figure out how to keep accessing the tool!  This is an extreme but very instructive example that, with the right tools and motivations, students will self-direct their own learning.  So we have to ask oursleves, is it enough to invest in human capital when the underlying traditional model, by its design, under-leverages the innate motivation of students to self-direct their learning ? And what might that say about how we concieve of their place in the world ?

Another important and laudable category of investments go towards scaling « good schools. » This comes from a very good place and should continue – if we’re seeing a good learning environment in one place we should try to replicate that in more communities especially where educational opportunities are poor.  That said, an unintended consequences of scale investments is that half-baked things grow before they’re really proven and successful operators sometimes  grow faster than the quality can keep up.

Scaling education models is an efficiency play and lots of students and families have had significantly better education choices and experiences as a result of these investments. Counting and expanding « quality seats » is critical work. That said, what unintended narratives might animate these investments ? To what extent are we saying that we need quality seats so that our students can be « competitive » in the global marketplace ? Instead, how might we expand quality seats while reinforcing a narrative that an american student from New Orleans should be working with her brothers and sisters in China to make the world a better place and not merely trying to « outcompete » them ?  And when we scale into new communities quickly, to what extent are we « going fast alone vs. going further together » ?  This is all a tricky balancing act and I’m heartened to see so many « in this work » asking these questions more often and more publicly.

Education leaders around the world are asking themselves « What’s next ? »  Our industrial model of education is no longer preparing youth for today’s careers or knowledge economy.  Is there a single answer, silver bullet that will emerge in the next iteration of « school ?»

I definitely don’t think there is a silver bullet in terms of one type of school or kind of pedagogy. But there are some very provocative ideas and shifts that I think will help us massively improve learning across the world. Right now, I’m enthralled by Todd Rose’s work and The End of Average. I won’t do his work justice but a core premise is that « any system that is trying to fit the individual is actually doomed to fail. »  Waking up from what he calls the « myth of average » seems critical to resdeisgning the traditional model which essentially holds the « average » student as a foundational principle.  And just like there is no average student there are likewise no average communities. Taken together, we need to build models that respect and leverage the uniqueness of each student ; and, we need to scale those models and ideas in ways that communities can adopt and adapt into to fit their unique values, assets, etc.   Generic, cookie-cutter replication may work for enterprises where people have very basic expectations and where the stakes are low (i.e., Starbucks, Target). We don’t want schools or learning experiences to be like that.   Communities creating and adapting school models for their context – school models that provide students to adapt and create learning for themselves…maybe that’s a silver bullet?

Relatedly, I’m getting more and more excited about  the potential of truly  leveraging learning science to advance the way that we construct learning experiences.  Research on learning and motivation point to new insights every year — and we need to systematially use these insights in real daily learning environments!  To do this right now, educators – who are already stretched in terms of capaity – would need to wade through endless research papers, discern the « usable knowledge » and then figure out how to apply that knowledge with students. What would it mean for us to systematically create the bridge between research and application?  What if people designing learning experiences could benefit from and contribute to an ever-growing learning agenda for the field ? What if more « learning engineers » were building and iterating  school model components based in the science that educators could readily adapt into their communities? Ok, maybe that’s another silver bullet afterall !

Aylon SamouhaAylon’s One Good Question: How can we ensure that schools are wildly motivating for all students?

About Aylon: Aylon Samouha is Co-Founder of Transcend Education, a national non-profit committed to building the future’s schools today.  Transcend works with school operators across the district, charter, and independent school sectors. They provide and develop world-class R&D capacity that supports visionary education leaders to build and replicate breakthrough learning environments. The co-founders and founding board members published Dissatisfied, Yet Optimistic to put forward their theory of change.

Prior to co-founding Transcend, Aylon was an independent designer providing strategy and design services to education organizations, schools, and foundations. Most recently, Aylon has been leading the “Greenfield” school model design for the Achievement First Network, which is being piloted in the 2015-16 school year.  He also led the field research for Charter School Growth Fund and the Clay Christensen Institute for the 2014 publication, “Schools and Software: What’s Now, What’s Next”.  In 2013, Aylon pioneered the Chicago Breakthrough Schools Fellowship in conjunction with New Schools for Chicago, NGLC, and the Broad Foundation.

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: 7 books, 2 talks, 1 TV show and Al Pacino – what One Good Question folks are reading – One Good Question

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