Oxygen-Deficient Schools & a 12-Year Personal Strategic Plan to Co-Create the Future of Education

A couple days ago I had the pleasure of joining a group of colleagues at the University of Nebraska Lincoln to discuss the future of education, and how to better prepare teachers to thrive in innovative learning environments. At one point, each of us were invited to share some of our current work in two minute lightning sessions.

I decided to test out my thinking about the need to shift from the 7 dominant industrial age priorities that shape so much of what we are doing in education. These include standardization & uniformity, mass production & scale, efficiency & order, quantification & measurement, centralized power & authoritarianism, mechanization & automation, as well as technology (applied scientific knowledge). I explained that these are all good and important aspects of modern society. They bring about countless benefits and innovations for humankind. They are not, however, an effective foundation upon which to build schools, learning communities, and classrooms.

Why don’t they work? It is because humans were not designed to crave these things? Design environments with these industrial / digital age priorities as the drivers and you get measured, orderly (sometimes), high-tech environments, but they lack humanity. They are incapable of breathing life into people. They cannot produce a contexts in which students are experiencing engaged, deep, lasting learning.

Again, these are all valuable, but not as the foundation. If these 7 priorities represented the air that we breath, it would be oxygen deficient air. When there is not enough oxygen in the air, it starts with subtle physiological changes, perhaps not even noticeable to most people. Then we start to see impaired thinking and attention. People have to work harder to accomplish tasks that were otherwise easy. From there we get to poor judgment, decreased coordination, fatigue, and an inability to manage emotions. Lower the oxygen enough and people might even fall asleep or eventually die. Perhaps that last step sounds a bit drastic, but do any of the others sound familiar? We see these same symptoms in schools and classrooms all over the world when they are built upon the industrial age priorities.

Instead, I proposed that we re-imagine an education system with a completely different set of priorities, ones that are so deeply embedded in the human experience that it is hard to deny their importance and relevance. Some might call this radical, but only if you consider the human experience radical. They are supported by both ancient wisdom and modern research. These priorities are so central to some of our most fundamental human yearnings, that most people can probably figure them out without access to research or ancient texts. They include adventures & quests, agency & action, compassion & connectedness, experimentation & play, mastery & growth, meaning & purpose, as well as wonder & mystery.

Now these are oxygen to human learning. Pump a classroom or learning environment with these priorities and people come to life. They are motivated, focused, curious, driven, alive, even inspired. These are not niceties to consider if we have extra time. They are not just useful tools for a good hook or introduction before you get to the main part of the lesson. When they are at the core of a learning experience, we see inspired human learning and flourishing.

If we are serious about improving and enriching schools and classrooms, then we must revisit our priorities. These 7 human-centered priorities work because they are in line with human nature. When we align our lessons and environments with how humans are designed, amazing things begin to happen.

Put a fish on the desert sand and it might flop around for awhile, but it eventually dies. Put it in water, and that same flopping, dying creature becomes full of life and movement. We can insist that deserts are better than ponds. We can demand that fish must learn to live in the harsh realities of sand. We can call for different types of sand or blame the providers of the sand. We can put fish in a glass for an hour a day while making them spend the rest of the time in the sand. We can hire people to walk around with spray bottles to keep the fish moist while still slowly dying…in the sand. None of this will change the fact that our environment is not aligned with the fish.

This is what we are doing in too much of our education system. People need oxygen to breath because that is how they are designed. In the same way, learners need certain human-centered fundamentals to grow and thrive. These fundamentals are like oxygen to the learning self.

Yet, we’ve been living in oxygen deficient schools for so long that we’ve come to think it normal, necessary, even good. If we are going to transform the system, then we need to rebuild on this new foundation of human-centered priorities that are so central to the human experience that they largely transcend time and culture.

Here are 10 ways for us to get started:

  1. Create new resources and experiences to reconnect teachers and school leaders with the 8 human-centered priorities in their own lives. Remind them what it is like to breath deeply from an oxygen rich environment.
  2. Create and share guides and templates for human-centered lesson planning. This means a lesson plan that emphasizes the 7 human-centered priorities over the industrial age priorities.
  3. Create and share guides and templates for human-centered curriculum development.
  4. Design & offer online and/or in-person training for launching new schools and programs focused upon the 7 human-centered design priorities.
  5. Build a consortium of schools committed to supporting one another in human-centered learning experience design.
  6. Create & share a collection of lesson, classroom, and school exemplars.
  7. Design & offer focused online webinars, workshops, and unconventional training experiences focused upon each of the 7 human-centered priorities.
  8. Design & host X-Prize -like competitions that celebrate, reward, and encourage the design of innovations focused upon the 7-human centered design priorities.
  9. Offer training and consulting for schools, groups of schools, publishers, and education companies seeking to build research and development (R&D) teams that produce the next generation of resources that celebrate the 7 human-centered design priorities.
  10. Create tours and opportunities for people to visit and witness the wonder and power of schools that are truly built upon the foundation of the 7 human-centered design priorities.

I’ve been writing, designing, and thinking about so much of this for decades. What I just shared with you is the draft of a framework, a sort of personal strategic plan that I intend to use as a way to focus my effort and influence. I’ve decided to turn this into a template for my independent writing, designing, and speaking from 2019 to 2031. It is a systematic, slow, steady, 12-year personal strategic plan. My mission is to inject as much oxygen as possible into the modern educational ecosystem.

In November I joined a higher education community that embraces so many of these priorities. Now look for my personal writing and passion projects to focus on these areas as well.

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