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The Role of Education
(Hint: not all education takes place in schools)

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

A tool-based approach to learning
Teaching is the demonstration that something is possible. Learning is the discovery that something is possible. At its best, education unites teaching and learning. But at its worst, it doesn’t really do either one of these. It teaches facts and tells students what to think—not how to think.

Teaching, like coaching a high school football team, can often be done best after a game has been played. Then players want to understand how they might have played better. It’s not necessary for a teacher to stand in front of a classroom for learning to occur.

Ask almost any 8-year old who’s engrossed in googling online. She’ll tell you.

“Stop bothering me,” she’ll say, “I’m busy learning!”

We don’t have to be taught something in order to discover it. Learning originates in the learner, not necessarily because of any actions taken by a teacher. Unfortunately, this attitude is normally not permitted in our classrooms. Nevertheless, this is how millions of children are learning. They are not waiting to be taught . They are on learning journeys of their own, using their thumbs as bridges of curiosity, connecting to parts of the world school-based teaching rarely takes them. They don’t need to be taught to learn. They teach themselves and they teach each other.

Our educational system needs to cooperate with the ongoing education children are already engaged in as they try to shape their place in a rapidly changing world. The problem in American education isn’t what students are not doing in school, as much as what our schools themselves are not doing —giving their students contemporary tools and helping them to build futures with these tools.

Information and learning technologies—which are revolutionizing higher education by enabling millions of adults to get degrees directly related to their careers via MOOCs—can be adapted for use in public schools. This will give schools new tools that are natural to students: information technology tools that provide interactive learning.

This may not be applauded, however. Teachers and unions will oppose it. Voters without children in school will oppose it. Politicians will oppose it. But students will support it.

They know that’s how they learn: on their own, outside schools’ structured way of teaching. Some parents see the value of this: that new learning tools and maps of the world can be the basis of an instructional approach—one that is grounded in the learning process, not the teaching process.

Perhaps an experiment should be attempted: corporations that see learning as the educational bottom-line can be convened to design a pilot project to demonstrate that learning can be brought into the schools, using the tools that students already are using: their computers and iPhones. Root skills—literacy, numeracy, and the larger skills of translating impersonal information into personal, embodied knowledge—can be strengthened in the daily use of IT tools, guided by students’ inherent curiosity. To ban these from the classroom seems silly—but using this technology needs to be shifted from toys into tools, so students can gain new skills by using tools that are already familiar to them.

Corporate participants can provide initial in-kind donations of tools, technologies, game designers, and trainers, so that a full-scale pilot project can be developed. Then this private sector team approaches school districts in which new schools are being built, to identify a few schools that can be developed as “learning magnets,” in which a learning-driven, tool-based pilot project can be launched. Tracking software can provide feedback to students, so they see where they’re succeeding and where they’re falling short. Rather than trying to remember and repeat what teachers say, students can focus on learning. And teachers can serve as coaches, not commanders.

The Homeroom Project
In most schools, homeroom is dead time. Kids fidget and look at the clock. Teachers focus on their upcoming day. No one gets much value from these morning exercises in frustration.

What if we used the time differently? What if teachers were relieved of homeroom duty to focus on their lessons? What if we brought in local business owners, nurses, plumbers, bankers, police officers, and other adults to lead mentoring sessions about students’ career aspirations and to hold students accountable for clarifying and achieving their personal goals?

To create variety and diversity, each homeroom could have a roster of 10 mentors. Each mentor would lead one homeroom period every two weeks, so doing this would not become a burden to the mentors, who would volunteer this time every other week. Mentors could post their observations of their students online—giving classroom teachers another perspective on these students, and perhaps offering parents another perspective as well. Mentors could meet to coordinate their work with specific students.

In the classroom, these mentors would talk about what they know: their jobs and careers—and for entrepreneurs, their businesses—focusing on what it’s like “out there.” They would give students perspectives on the worlds of work and business, helping students get a sense of different career possibilities. Over time, some mentors might even create internships for students, which would help these students get a first-hand look at the fields in which their mentors have built entire careers. Local groups such as chambers of commerce, churches, AARP, fraternal organizations, and professional associations would be invited to enroll their members in the Homeroom Project.

This would free teachers from what they often regard as babysitting every morning, enabling them to prepare for their teaching tasks. It would give students a seminar in reality, as they gravitate toward mentors with like-minded temperaments or backgrounds that interest particular students.

A Homeroom Project would bring more men into schools, something schools say they need. It would connect schools to their communities in a practical way. Business owners would get to know each other, as would members of different congregations. Parents and mentors would talk. Everyone would get more involved, including students, who would likely do better in school, knowing adults in their communities were taking an interest in helping them prepare for adulthood.

The cost of doing this would be minimal: an honorarium for mentors and a few luncheons to create trust and rapport among homeroom mentors, school administrators, teachers, and parents. As a country, we need more young people with the spirit and skills to start new businesses. Yet future entrepreneurs don’t just need teachers—they need models of success from whom they can learn.

Let’s start bringing these local business leaders into our schools in a way that helps teachers, inspires students and empowers future entrepreneurs.

Gabe Heilig has assisted over 5,300 people in advancing their careers. If you have a question, feel free to ask. Other people may have the same question you do and he may answer your question in print in a future column.
You can reach him at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com