Make no mistake what I am personally going for at STEAM ... I want a 10 times better high school experience for kids, not just a 10% better high school experience. Most of the innovation I see in schools are people looking for a 10% better solution. They are mostly trying to maximize the efficiency out of existing models. There is nothing wrong with that at all. That is extremely valuable work, but it can also be draining as we try to squeeze more and more out of a model designed for a different time.
I really love this article from Google X's thinkers (and passed along by Scott McLeod) on how it can actually be easier to go for 10x than 10%.
I very much agree with this notion and my experience over the last 4 years developing STEAM confirms for me that not only are 10x opportunities possible within public schools, we can deliver them.
Take for instance the number of hours spent in internships in high school within Lexington. Last semester our kids (around 200) spent over 15,000 hours collectively. Pick any other random 200 high school kids in Lexington and they would be lucky to have 1,500. In fact, our small high school achieves more internship hours while in school than the rest of the city's public high schools combined. Honestly, it was actually easier to rethink our assumptions around when and how kids can leave the building than for a traditional public school to try to squeeze another 10% internship hours. At STEAM, we are going for similar 10x gains in dual credit courses, 10x fall in discipline rates, 10x project based learning opportunities. We are not actively trying to get those 10x gains, but when you are willing to get to the level of questioning assumptions and first principles ... those kinds of gains are possible.
The key is in the assumptions. Every model (including our new one) is based on core assumptions. It is in those assumptions that opportunity truly lies because the assumptions that worked 20 years ago or 100 years ago do not necessarily work today. Many of them may still work, but some will not. Yet, those outdated assumptions are locked into the models we operate in schools. Once you start to see the assumptions (which I call the "code") they are absolutely everywhere. We make assumptions about how teachers spend time, what makes them qualified, how they should grade, how they should teach. We make assumptions about structures from the size of a classroom to the timing of the schedule. And, of course, we make assumptions about kids. Those can be the most infuriating. If you really want to know where the achievement gap lives, it is not in the mind of the child (which is equally, beautifully intelligent) it is in the assumptions of the adults.
Getting beyond the assumptions requires a different kind of thinking ... one that does not come as naturally to us. No company in the world more clearly exhibits this trait right now than those of Elon Musk (Tesla and Spacex, we have a 10x better electric car, a 10x better battery, 10x better solar panels, and 10x better rockets). The key to getting those world-changing technological solutions time and again is that the people working in those companies reason from first principles, not from analogy. Elon (not the best speaker, be patient with him) explains below.
When you apply this same reasoning to schooling ... finding and achieving 10x solutions is actually not that hard. Of course, it takes lots of time and communication and hours and hours of modeling, testing, adjusting, remodeling, etc. ... but if you stick with it at some point you look back and realize that you've achieved something for kids in your context that has never been achieved before. Not even close. Your are not 10% better for the learners than it was before, you are approaching 10x better. It can be done and much more easily than people realize.
Now, a 10x solution is not the same things as a "magic bullet" and it is also still making incremental improvements overall ... but we will leave those connections for another day.
I detest school hallways. From elementary school to university ... the state of educational hallways in the United States stands at like a 1.4 out of 10. Abysmal. The hallways are shouting at the kids that they are just a number in a mindless institution. I scream inside (and sometimes externally) to school leaders I am with that have hallways that look like this. If it looks and feels like a prison ... then the kids will internalize the cultural message that it is a prison.
It does not need to be this way. It should not be this way. Every space sends cultural messages to the people within them. The absence of art is just as powerful a cultural message as an excess of art. Just because something is "neat and tidy" or "easy to clean" or "keeps the custodian happy" does not mean it is right for kids and learning. We should be better than that.
What message is your hallways sending to kids? A classroom is a cultural message from a teacher ... but a hallway is a cultural message from the school itself. The school's message sometimes can override the messages teachers are trying to send. So, if you are a teacher, it is just as important to send messages in the hallway as it is to send a message in the classroom.
So, how to fix this ... well, I love this video to help you start thinking about how to bring curated art into your spaces (inside and outside of classrooms). Don't be afraid of trial and error also. A willingness to try and fail is just as powerful a cultural message to kids as museum quality art.
Today, the ultra high profile XQ America "super schools" were announced. None were in Kentucky, including here in Fayette County Public Schools of course.
But, Lexington and Kentucky already has a "super school" ... it is called STEAM. When we looked at the Super School priorities ... we were already doing most of those things but because we were an existing, homegrown school, we could not apply. Now, obviously there is no existing facility so maybe on that front we are still a startup. (If only the district would invest in a "super" facility for their "super school').
In fact, Kentucky already has a developing group of super schools spread throughout the state and I'm proud that our work in the University of Kentucky Next Generation Leadership Academy helped in that. There is the Owensboro Innovation Academy, the ILEAD Academy, the work in Trigg County High School, The Boone County Schools, Eminence Independent School District, Taylor County Schools, Paris Independent Schools-Paris, KY, Marshall County Schools, Shelby County High School, the work of Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, and I could go on for quite a while and that is just big projects. Teachers across the Commonwealth in groups like Hope Street Group, JCPSForward, Edcamp Kentucky are moving individual classrooms toward developing Modern Learners. Together, these local super schools and classrooms are already transforming education in Kentucky.
What we do not have in Kentucky, though, is a collective sense of this transformation and a collective, sponsored effort to get the #NextGenHS we all seem to want. Where is our "Super School" coordinated effort like XQ? Top flight educators are doing what professionals do and trying to move the work forward, but there is no coordinated effort. Groups like Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Kentucky Association of School Administrators, Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, The Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky, Kentucky Education Association, KSBA (and more) need to help. Perhaps we need a new entity, such as the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN) or the NC Friday Institute for Educational Innovation or the Oklahoma K20 Center (many states have coordinated approaches). Maybe some existing unit can make it a huge priority. It is a huge priority for us at University of Kentucky College of Education but we are maxing our capacity to support this work. I'm open to ideas. Is there an existing group that I am missing?
The lesson is, though, that the seeds of innovation have already been planted and they are already growing all over the state. But, those efforts need watering (ahem, building please for STEAM), those efforts need to be evaluated, those efforts need to be networked more tightly, and the seeds from these efforts need to be spread formally and systematically. There needs to be collective expectations (and deliverables) for #NextGenHS redesign all over the state. To expect that though, we have to help them get there at scale. We need to produce start-up guides and transitional supports. We need large scale professional development to retrain our education workforce. We need support in tough meetings where issues like dual credit are not just tweaked or incentivized, but fundamentally rethought. There are a thousand things to do, but we are not embracing the task head on. At best, we are playing on the edges.
Now, Kentucky knows how to reform ... at least I hope it still remembers. And, generally, Kentucky is great (not just good) at working together to solve problems. For these reasons, and because of our work to already sow the seeds of innovation, we have been specifically targeted by national reform leader Ted Dintersmith as a place where magical things might be possible. He will be in Kentucky in 2 weeks to help us start some of these conversations, so please find a showing of Most Likely to Succeed and hear what he has to say.
Kentucky, while XQ drops millions on a few "super schools," without any major financial support we have already developed our own homegrown examples of what the schools we all seem to want look like. We can continue to exceed outsider expectations and continue to be a global leader in education reform ... but we need to take the next step. I'm open to any feedback to help us do that.
like this ...
This is how a school district should respond to Most Likely to Succeed. Huge kudos to the team at Albemarle County Public Schools under the leadership of Pam Moran and specifically to the principal Jay Thomas for making it happen. For us in Kentucky, I think only Marshall County had an immediate, similar response as a district (and I am proud of them also) and a few schools like Royal Spring in Scott County might also be in that group. But, for almost any school leader that watches that film and then returns to school the next day to face those 9th graders they know will struggle (and to those in high schools, they know what I'm talking about) ... well, Team 19 should not be exceptional, it should be normal.