From the Signature Room atop of the Hancock Building at 875 N. Michigan Avenue we could look down on Lake Michigan and its beaches stretching all the way to Evanston. We also looked down on Lake Shore Drive filled with cars.
Sixty of us were gathered as part of a city-wide discussion to consider plans for the mile-and-a-half stretch of shoreline where millions of people interface with the inland sea we call “The Lake.” The central problem, of course, is how to give people better access to a potentially beautiful beach and improve this major traffic artery of the city at the same time. We citizens of Chicago (I moved here last month) were taking responsibility for confronting a complex problem and collectively contributing to the creation of something new.
A few hours earlier a mile to the west, classrooms of “inner city kids” were doing the same thing. In algebra, literature, urban planning and writing classes small groups of students worked elbow to elbow with an even higher level of engagement. They, also, were taking responsibility for confronting problems and collectively contributing to the creation of something new.
This was a typical day at the Global Citizens Experience, an extraordinary high school blazing a path through the confusion of educational reform. Colleges gobble up the graduates of GCE because they know, what we all know; i.e. that young people who can collaborate with others to create new knowledge and solve new problems will be successful, productive citizens.
I met 15-year-old Mateo in a kitchen the size of big closet and asked him to tell me about the school. He said, “Here there is no faculty lounge and no student lounge. This is the school refrigerator. Teachers and students can keep food in here, but you have to put your name on it. When we have a problem, we have a meeting about it. It’s our school.”
“What sort of problems have you had in the kitchen.”
“Like people not cleaning up after themselves. Everyone is suppose to take care of their own mess, but I was like, ‘but people will be in a hurry and forget. Who is going to make sure?’ We talked about it and agreed to rotate the job of kitchen monitor. This is my week.”
GCE was Mateo’s school. He felt it was serving his need to make something of himself in the world; so he took responsibility. I could see this same ownership in the eyes and the behavior of everyone I saw. Discipline problems? Negligible.
For education to change, we need to refocus from what we teach to how we educate. You can teach kids whatever you want, but they will learn what they do.
Colleges and employers complain that schools are graduating students who can’t write. Will standards and tests help them to write better? No. It’s about ownership and practice. Kids need to write a lot, about something meaningful and get a lot of feedback. We learn what we do.
Each of us in the Signature Room communicated our hopes, visions, ideas, and feelings. We listened to each other and built on each other’s ideas. We took risks as we spoke up to strangers, we connected with each other as we disagreed, and we synthesized these divergent brains into some reportable set of ideas that others could use to solve a very complex problem. We communicated and connected with each other in order to collectively create new knowledge that might be valuable to others.
These are the real basics. Academic achievement rests on the student’s ability to take on challenges, take different perspectives, connect, communicate, create, think critically, and contribute. To deliver on this requirement of the world today, our vision of schooling needs to be overhauled so that the culture of our schools serves these educational objectives; for culture is the delivery system. If we were to look at our classrooms and our hallways as anthropologists would, what kind of culture would we hypothesize our young people are being prepared for?
Watching Mateo and his classmates in action in their school it is obvious that thirty-some years from now they might well be in the Signature Room with a group of leaders working with others to contribute to a better world. Visiting other schools it is just as obvious that millions of other young people are being taught in a culture that expects very little of them.