The quality education that we need isn’t about what other people have done. It’s about what current students will do.
Having just listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on the topic, let’s take Elizabeth Thompson as one extraordinary example. She painted The Roll Call in 1874. She was an unknown, and, importantly for the time, female painter. This painting made her famous throughout Europe. She followed The Roll Call with a series of other critically acclaimed paintings, and over her career was nominated three times for full membership in the Royal Academy.
Thompson helped change the perception of female artists in Europe. Her art was purchased by Queen Victoria herself. She created numerous masterpieces. But she was never accepted to The Royal Academy, in large part due to her gender.
During Thompson’s time it was just becoming possible for women to enter the European art scene. Thompson achieved all that she did through her willingness to find her own path.
I think its important for us to remember this when thinking about education. What others have done is important, sure. That’s the foundation you build off of. But what you do is what determines your success, your impact, and your happiness.
At Beagle, we’ve been spending a lot of time trying to clearly articulate what exactly we mean by this, and what this means for education.
Conversations about how to teach and how to learn are complex
We have a billion different words to describe what we need to do. Inquiry-based, exploration, learner-led, personalized, metacognitive, critical-thinking, communication, inter-personal, soft skills, STEM, STEAM, creativity, grit, analysis, persistence.
We decided to split everything into three buckets that we feel clarifies this picture. Them, Me, and Us.
One of my favorite college classes was Gim Hom’s great digital electronics laboratory class at MIT. (Take a look at all the class projects running back to 2005!) Let’s take that as an example.
First we did a lot of them learning. We learned the basics of digital circuits, what a flip flop was, and how to think through designing a circuit. All of this content came in the form of a lecture, and it was largely passive.
Me learning came next. We were given a series of projects to work on. We went into the lab and spent a few hours working through how to design a car alarm or a stop watch. During this process I had to do something really important. I had to practice applying the processes that we talked about in class. I had to struggle with not knowing how to solve a problem. It’s the equivalent of practicing penalty shots in soccer. You can’t just learn the theory.
Finally, Gim had us do a bit of us learning. He put us in pairs and asked us to come up with and complete a project of our own. We had to practice communicating ideas, expectations, and preferences to one another. We had to practice being the teacher by explaining ideas to one another.
What made this class so special was that final project. Chris and I were able to build something we imagined from scratch. We practiced applying all those them skills that Gim started the class off teaching us. Because we had practiced using them ourselves, we remembered them more clearly.
Its important to note that these three levels — them, me, and us — are far from independent. We needed all three to complete that class, and students need all three to succeed after school.
As much as possible, this blog is about how. In today’s world with today’s tools its very difficult to provide me and us learning in large classes. Gim had three teaching assistants helping him teach a class of just 26.
So how do we up-level our education?
How do we keep teaching about the successes of others while simultaneously teaching students what they are capable of, and how they can work with others for even greater benefit? I think we can take some very simple first steps to jump start the change.
Ask students to keep and hand in a journal where they mention any times outside of class that they used techniques learned in class. This should help students understand the relevance of their work and identify times where they are already practicing me skills.
Give students a methodology and permission to try and read things that are harder than they can really understand. This gives students a method for building their own understanding and remove the fear that not knowing is failure. Remove this fear, and students become so much more willing to practice struggling with new ideas — to practice me skills.
We haven’t tried this one yet at Beagle. Ask your students to work on an open ended project of their own creation alongside an existing class. We all have hobbies. Think of this as your student’s hobby. Give students advice at a regular interval. Ask each student to write a summary at the end of class sharing how far they got. If your students would respond well to this, let them do it ungraded.
I think that many, if not all, of the problems preventing us from easily teaching me and us skills are solvable. Let’s teach everyone how to be like Elizabeth Thompson.