I started reading Gladwell‘s new book Outliers this week, and as usual he shares his thought-provoking research in what is almost a story-telling style. But I got to thinking about the first Gladwell book, the one that made me a fan: The Tipping Point. It’s a great book and a must-read. Without going into too much detail, the basic premise is that there is an event or a moment in time when a certain change is unstoppable, and all things up to that point contribute to the momentum. So as I think about our economy, the government bailout of The Big Three, and massive cuts to public eduction on our doorstep, I wonder: are we nearing a tipping point? Consider Friedman’s contention in The World is Flat, that any job that at its basic element is routine can be “off-shored” and done by workers in countries where their populace is being prepared for this work, and at a much lower cost. Consider also Wagner’s reminder that due to sheer numbers (population), there are more honor students in China than we have students. Are we nearing what my parents would refer to as the point of no return–or what Gladwell calls the tipping point? Holiday travel afforded me a lot of thinking time while trekking across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Imagine what schools could do with the money being given to banks, financial insitutions, and the auto industry. We could get webcams so our kids could use Skype on individual laptops. We could abandon textbooks and subscribe to relevant websites that aren’t obsolete when the kids access them. Maybe we could even purchase a real statistics software package like SPSS that our kids could use to input real-time local data to record, analyze, and report and draw conclusions from the trends they see. But wait–we have the same problem the auto industry no doubt faces as it tries to “reinvent itself”: those on the front lines have to get it. Teachers have to know why a shift in this direction is absolutely crucial right now. Are we ready? Can we count on “Yankee Ingenuity” to save us once more? Or is Yankee ingenuity a 20th Century concept?
I spent a half a day today doing Learning Walks in one of our high schools. My Career and Technical Ed (CTE) Coordinator and I spent time in several CTE classes, talking to kids and questioning teachers. What I came away with is that we can learn a lot from CTE teachers.
The first teacher we visited is a tech ed teacher. He has his kids work in teams problem-solving designs. They huddle around a computer screen creating simulations, performing strength tests and determing the minimum thickness of metal or aluminum they can use on whatever they are working to create. They do this without ever actually building a real model or prototype–it’s all virtual. They can discuss the application to, say, the auto industry, who no doubt uses the same type of program when designing a vehicle, trying to minimize its weight and maximize its gas mileage. But the real story here is what happened at the end of class. Each student had to journal about what they learned and observed–not about the content, which is what I was expecting, but about the process of collaboration. So they are thinking metacognitively about the teamwork–everyday. The idea of having them reflect on the process of working together helps them hone their skills, process through whatever issues might arise, and become a more effective team. This was 21st Century learning, right before my eyes!
Collaborative problem-solving and creative thinking were just about the theme of the day as I progressed through the CTE courses. Sure, there were two classrooms that were less dynamic, but most were working together to determine why their small engine wasn’t working properly, to create funny pictures of teachers and classmates using Photoshop, or to design a logo for a mock website.
I have conducted observations of CTE classes before, but I have never done learning walks of this many all at once. As I was leaving the school, I realized that these guys do this stuff naturally. They get it. Dan Pink, Alan November, and Tony Wagner would be proud!