Once again I am inexorably drawn to the root cause of our dissatisfaction with the current process of education. It remains deeply ensnared in a manufactured, assembly line design when our instincts as educators, our vision, our understanding of the information age, all tell us that we should attend to the lessons of the natural world, that learning should exhibit the character of ecosystems, not assembly lines. Is the idea of rhythm and frequency a key to aligning learning with the world, rather than artificially isolating one from the other?
Yesterday, in response to a poignant narrative from Holly Chesser, I wrote:
“…we all resonate to different rhythms and frequencies. So a teacher, who has to teach dozens or scores of students, has to find a set of rhythms and frequencies that work both for the individual and for the group. This is not easy, but it is doable; just ask John Hunter or any other really great teacher.”
My friend Bo Adams, who is really one of our leading lights when it comes to re-imagining learning, commented:
… I love the idea of “rhythms and frequencies.” My mind is racing for metaphors that capture the key elements. I keep coming back to the difference between scripted music and improvisation. Two past learning experiences come to mind for me. In one, in a TED talk, a jazz musician explains how his quartet must respond to each other in three-way and four-way conversation with the instruments. For any one of them to feel in the “lead” (or teacher) role would be inadequate. All of them are teaching and learning simultaneously and synchronously. They are at one time listener and speaker. To me, the greatest teachers are the most committed learners – those who know what it is like to not know…to be frustrated by not knowing…to be hurt by self-doubt. From such a place of empathy, we can serve learners better, because we better understand how we would want to be served.”
Rhythm and frequency, periodicity, the measure of cycles; they measure how often something changes. We measure sound waves or electrical current by the number of cycles in a second: 60 Hertz means that 60 peaks and troughs pass in a single second. On an assembly line, cycles are measured by the passage of units, parts, completed items, the coming and going of the day and night shifts. We program the machinery and the people to work in rhythm, to efficiently cooperate in order to achieve our manufacturing goals.
Our system of education is, unfortunately, essentially the same. We program the system to instill a pre-determined quantity of knowledge into our learning units (students) over a certain period of time. External influencers program the process. Re-programming is difficult, and therefore rare. Teachers transmit the programming, they rarely develop it in concert with their students. The cycle of education has changed little in decades. The rhythm beats on.
But we know this is utterly wrong. Is this not why we bristle at the rigidity of AP courses that are challenging but rarely changed; unyielding standardized exams that look almost the same today as they did 50 years ago; static curricular sequences in a rapidly changing world? Think of the world outside our school walls in the last twenty years: a complete upheaval of world politics driven by an expired Cold War; the meteoric social and economic rise of China; the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world from one set of nations to another; a ballistic increase in technological and scientific discovery; a massive, once-in-a generation economic upheaval that has re-written the legacy of the American Dream; the longest-running war in American history; and unprecedented global environmental change (man-made or not). As this was going on, how much of our learning inside of school changed? 10%? 20%? Less? Much less?
After September 11, arguably one of the most important watershed events in the history of the country, our schools paused for a few moments or days of sorrow and reflection, put our heads back down, and re-joined the rhythm of education.
Shouldn’t our learning be attuned to the rhythms of the world around us rather than isolated from them? And not just at the margins, but at the core? How many teachers, given a blank score upon which to compose their lesson-learning would select the same march they taught 20 years ago, and how many would choose to co-create jazz with their students?
Ecosystems are firmly connected to the world in which we live. Not only do they respond to the rhythm and cycles of the world, they are strengthened by those responses. The natural cycles of sunlight, seasons, warmth and cold, birth and death, famine and surplus, flood and draught, migration, growing and molting—these are embedded in the organisms and processes that thrive, and the system is strengthened by them. Successful species and healthy ecosystems are not programmed by an external force in response to environmental change; they self-evolve and adjust in real time.
Is it not crystal clear that in order to truly support the needs and aspirations of the individual child, great teachers entwine the rhythm of the child with the rhythm of learning about a real world? I think this is the empathy that Bo speaks about. This empathy will never blossom if the system as a whole largely ignores the outside world, and relies on external Programmers (capital intentional). The learning experience must self-evolve in concert with, in empathy with, not separated from, the complex, ever changing, beat of the dynamic world in which we live.