What if the future is already behind us, and we just don’t know it? While this sounds like Twilight Zone fiction, I think the future may be a relative term for school leaders. What is an improbable, fuzzy vision fraught with big obstacles, uncomfortable transitions, and unknowable outcomes for some schools is already in the rear view mirror for others. “School” is starting to radically differentiate, and yesterday I saw one of those futures in the gym at Val Verde High School at the district’s elementary-secondary STEM fair. The future of education lies with those who find the intersection of Chaucer and robots, and you have to decide if your school and your students will be part of that future, or left behind.
Cool stuff made by kids in robotics classes is nothing new, so why am I highlighting this fair? A couple of decades ago, what is now Val Verde was an off ramp on highway 215 between San Diego and Riverside, a brown patch of flat sage brush and dirt, dry farm land, trailers, and fast food stops. Land got sparse and expensive in California, and the population just kept growing, so places like Menifee and Perris have grown into a new suburbia. They are largely Latino and relatively poor; in other words they are the face of a growing part of the American landscape. 90% of students I met yesterday are on free or reduced lunch and blond hair is rare. Roughly 10% of the proud parents who turned out to help their kids showcase their work have a college degree. Several parents admitted to me with a smile that they have no idea how their nine and ten year olds are able to do what they so enthusiastically do. Communities like this have not traditionally been on the leading edge. Well, watch out.
I talked to 4th grade girls who could explain the difference between reflective and laser holograms. A little boy decide to plug carrots and portobello mushrooms into a computer to make a drum set because of the stick-like nature of the carrots. Two high school juniors joined the robotics team and said they wanted to major in engineering in college. Two seven-year olds whipped together blocks into some kind of a moving mechanical chunk and looked at me like I wasn’t very smart when I questioned how they did it. A middle schooler confidently taught me how to control her tractor-bot. Two girls explained how their Rube Goldberg contraptions helped them understand geometry. And when I asked two 5th graders if they could incorporate writing, maybe stories or proposals or journals, into their electronic-musical wind chimes, they excitedly turned to their teacher and asked “Yeah, we can do that; how come we aren’t doing that?”
The future that is possible is a bunch of kids from a traditionally underserved community getting fired up about coming to school and learning how to learn. Sometimes it takes gadgets to build engagement and teachers who told me “we just have to either get out of the way of learn beside them”. I compare that to the conversation I had heard 12 hours earlier: a “long -tenured” high school English teacher who just could not understand how The Canterbury Tales were not critical path to a young person’s preparation for life. The dissonance is too obvious to belabor. If students can build Chaucer into their ownership of learning, great! If not, get the heck out of their way and let them create music with some wired-up vegetables.