Have you seen the video by Jacob Barnett at the TEDxTeen Event? The video has been online for over a year, with close to two million views on YouTube so far. If you have not seen it, I encourage you to take twenty minutes and watch it.
I first watched the video a little less than a year ago, but one idea from it continues to occupy my thoughts. Throughout his presentation, Jacob makes the case that great things happen for people when they stop learning and start thinking. Educationists who watch the video might get trapped by critiquing his word choice, arguing that thinking is a form of learning, but that misses the spirit of the message. By “learning”, Jacob is referring to schooling and the formal trappings of learning in schools and more formal settings. He contrasts that with times when we just think and explore a question or curiosity. As an example, Jacob describes Isaac Newton, when Cambridge University closed due to the plague. According to Jacob, this was critical for Newton, because it forced him to “stop learning and start thinking.” It was during this time that several of Newtons discoveries took place.
I often think about Jacob’s comments when I”m walking through the hallway of a school. I hear students talk more about schooling than they do about ideas. They talk about how much homework they have, the need to prepare for the next test, anxieties about school, what grades they did or didn’t earn, what they do or don’t like about a given teacher, about meeting to study with one another, about what courses they are taking or want to take in the future, about their class schedules. And these are the conversations that I hear in the “good schools.” Notice that all of these conversations about are schooling, not about learning or thinking about ideas, problems and possibilities. It is with this in mind that many critique modern schooling as teaching about schooling as much or more than about content, ideas, and possibilities.
In these sorts of schools, when students are not talking about schooling, they are usually talking with each other about life outside of school: family, friends, relationships, gossip, sports, entertainment, and other out-of-school activities. These are the conversations where I see student interest ignited and they begin to use their mind in creative ways as they imagine, collaborate, solve problems, give one another advice, support, encourage, tell and listen to jokes, argue, experiment, and think. As I think about it, these are rich, important and authentic thinking experiences. Students learn a great deal from such times, even though they happen amid or outside the planned structure of a schooling experience. Lunch periods are just long enough to get through the line and eat your food. Time between classes is just enough to get your materials and move from one class to the next. These happen despite school, not because of it. It is simply the fact that school brings them to a common place that makes these sorts of interactions possible, something that could just as easily happen through any number of community hangouts or events.
At the same time, I’m honored to visit many schools, and it is a delight to visit some where the conversations among students are about what they are exploring, learning, and doing. This is not about grades and homework. It is about ideas. They talk about dreams and aspirations, questions that interest them, how to address needs in their own lives, their friends lives, the community and the world. They collaborate and discuss issues and creative projects. They are not just a schooling community. They are a thinking, learning and doing community. The ethos of these schools is qualitatively different, places where the participants/learners value ideas and the intellectual life. They value creating, solving problems, and life in the present. While they have dreams and aspirations about the future, they also embrace the current moment as meaningful, not just as a preparation period for some preferred future condition. For them, school is not purgatory.
It is encouraging and inspiring to see such learning communities in the physical and online world. This leads to an important question. How do we encourage and facilitate the formation of schools as learning, thinking and doing communities…not simply schooling communities? There are many answers to that question, but I’ll offer 11 suggestions.
1. Revisit or downplay the role of grades as motivators. As long as the goal is about getting or avoiding a certain grade, we are not going to make progress toward a genuine thinking and learning community. It will be about the school trappings of grades and GPAs.
2. Create space and time for free and open conversation and communication. A tight schedule is the enemy of creativity and collaborative work (unless it is highly structured collaborative work like people on a factory line).
3. Provide room for student choice. Giving learners places in the school day to explore, create, design, imagine and discuss topics of deep personal interest is critical for a thinking community. These things are not necessarily in line with a formal curriculum, but as students explore, they will also discover the need for and value of traditional lessons about reading, writing, calculations, logical thinking, the scientific process, strategic planning, and any number of important skills.
4. Create room and opportunities to experience novelty. A great way to provoke creative thought is to put ourselves in a place that is new, one where we don’t have an existing vocabulary to describe or analyze it. Then we are less likely to fall back on lifelong habits and routines. It challenges us to think, analyze, and create.
5. Get out of the classroom. Move learning into the community, hallways, libraries, the front yard or somewhere else. These places do not conjure the same thoughts about homework, grades, hall passes, and raising your hand to speak. They offer a chance to reconsider how we think and interact with each other.
6. Consider a 1:1 program. Giving a web-enabled device to every learner instantly connects everyone with a massive body of knowledge, an immense number of people with whom to collaborate and network, and a powerful tool for creation and reflection. It also frees the teacher to imagine learning experiences that are not focused upon controlling students but about challenging them to think, learn, and do.
7. Teach with questions, especially questions that start with what if, why and how. Encourage students to ask and seek answers to these questions as well.
8. Give students a chance to learn through projects, as least some of the time. Projects have a way of drawing us in, especially projects prompted by a good driving question. They are also the things that many of us most remember from our own schooling experiences, and they spark wonderful idea conversations among students, even between students and their family members.
9. Tackle real-world problems together. This sort of authentic problem-based learning immediately makes school about something bigger than grades, degrees, credits, and transcripts. It becomes about life, and that motivates us to think, create, and do.
10. Talk about ideas. Make it a point to model the life of a person who loves to think, learn, and do. What do teachers talk about at lunch, in the hallways, before or after school? Is it just about schooling things and sports? Or do they enjoy great idea conversations as well? Students see this, and it makes a difference. In fact, why not invite the students into these informal conversations? Those were transformational experiences for me in high school, informal idea conversations with teachers before and after school.
11. From the concluding remarks of Jacob Barnett, don’t just be a student of the field, be the field. In other words, don’t just talk about studying biology. Invite students to think and act like biologists. The same going for being a writer, scholar, musician, historian, artist, psychologist, and mathematician. Granted, learners will not be brilliant biologists at first, but this has promise to change the culture as biologists, for example, don’t just learn about biology, they do and think biology. If our goal is a learning, thinking, and doing community; this sort of disciplinary thinking is a great start.
From learning to thinking
Instead of being a student of that field, be that field.