Timeless Learning

Three nationally known educators that I respect a great deal – Ira Socol, Chad Ratliffand Pam Moran, all from Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools – have a new book out called Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools. It’s dynamite, and here’s what the three of them had to say about it, school today, educating young people, and hurling. Enjoy!

What led the three of you to write this book? What was its impetus?

The three of us have been talking with each other about education for almost a decade. We all “met” in the early days of Twitter, and we’ve been challenging each other ever since. In 2010 we began working together in Albemarle County, and in ways big and small, we teamed with great educators there to transform the learning experience for every child. We’ve written about these transformations separately and together and presented to groups across the nation – and beyond – separately and together. We finally decided that this was a story worth putting together, a story that could both inspire and offer hope to educators everywhere.

Why the focus on progressive education? What drew you to write from that perspective and about that topic?

As Chad says at the start of one chapter, “There are really only two types of schooling, that which is meant to assimilate and oppress and that which is to enlighten and empower.” So there is “progressive education” – which to us means paying close attention to the “timeless” ways humans learn – or there is what we might call “adult-centric formal education.”  Ira adds in that same chapter, “We don’t ask kids to develop ‘grit,’ we choose to surround them with whatever abundance we can muster. We don’t choose adult comfort at the expense of children’s. We choose to do what our kids need.” That’s our viewpoint. We disagree, in profound ways, with both the high-stakes test culture and the “grit narrative.” We believe in children, in childhood, in curiosity, in exploration, in collaboration, in play.

You begin each chapter with dialogue among the three of you, which is often about philosophy. Do you ever disagree with each other? And, if so, what about?

We disagree a lot. Of course we do. Ira and Chad actually debated fiercely with each other on Twitter in 2007 and 2008, as they worked toward an understanding of what was important to them – Ira coming from a postcolonial view, Chad from a more entrepreneurial, changemaker position. Pam and Ira, Pam and Chad, or all three of us – we have argued and challenged each other through all of our time together. We arrive from different school experiences, from very different adult experiences, and we’ve had very different roles to play. So we will argue about what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, about how we work with others, about strategies, but we are brought together in our understandings of the need to do better for kids.

Who is the book’s audience – and why?

Timeless Learning doesn’t read like the typical education book of these days. It’s a complex, somewhat circular narrative because none of us are linear thinkers, and all three of us are storytellers by nature. That said, we think this is a great book for teachers for the hope it offers and the support it presents. We think that it’s very important reading for educational leaders in any role because it presents proven-on-the-ground beliefs and actions. For those studying education – either as pre-service teachers or as graduate students in leadership – Timeless Learning offers a different narrative, a different way of thinking about how to make schools great places for kids to be – great places for every kid. Parents, too, are finding value in the book.  Many parents of young children came through school in the “accountability era” which, in many schools, was a double-down on compliance-based, test prep schooling, and they don’t want their own children to endure that.

You write in the afterword that you purposefully avoided focusing on data. Why, particularly in this day and age?

There are all kinds of data; people need to remember that. Measuring children – or schools – on linear, numerical scales is one way; we just don’t think that’s necessarily the best way. Ira has called the 2002 grad-school-standard text Scientific Research in Education “the most dangerous book published this century,” much to the consternation of some of his graduate school professors. He says the book implied that only one method of research really mattered, and that method reduced human children to numbers. But we see a very different kind of data as essential. It may start where one of our Australian collaborators does, “Where do we count the moments when a kid smiles for the first time?,” as Tomaz Lasic has asked. Chad watches for that “closed down” teen who joins a conversation with her peers. Pam rides school buses, sits on the floor in classrooms, talks to kids cutting classes in high school corridors, looking for everything from mood to relationships. Ira looks at kids’ feet as they sit in classrooms and counts the number of kids moving on their own through hallways to measure boredom and trust. Our book is filled with data, just not what people today think is data.

Thinking about the title: What do you mean by “zero-based thinking”?

Zero-based thinking is, in education, this idea: Imagine if you’d never seen a school, never heard of a school. How might you plan to get our kids from four-year-olds to 18-year olds, or 22-year-olds? What would you do? What would you want to do? That sounds extreme, but it’s the way real change is developed. Pam often talks about the “Bell Labs Moment.” In the very early 1950s an AT&T executive challenged the entire Bell Labs staff, “the entire phone system of the United States has been destroyed; now, how would you build a new system?” In those days of copper wire, rotary dials, and mechanical switching, the engineers developed – over the next 12 months – everything we now have in phones. They developed the basics of push-button dialing, cell phones, messaging, and microwave transmissions, because they were freed from, as Tyack and Cuban say“tinkering towards utopia.”

Now, there’s a balance. We start with observation and mapping the present state; find out where you are. Then – this next step returns to that research model because it’s never about one change but it’s about moving toward the environment you want (use of space, pedagogy, technology, etc.) – begin the changes that move toward that zero-based desired state. That desired state for every child needs to be your north star.

Lastly, just what is “timeless learning”?

Humans…well, everything is born ready to learn. Watch a two-year-old explore her world. Watch a four-year-old play in a puddle. Kids learn at this incredible rate birth to four or five, and then we impose “formal” education and the learning curve collapses – and not just during school hours. We literally teach most kids that learning is boring and painful and that it comes from passive information intake.

Pam and Ira visited a school outside Limerick, Ireland a few years ago – a small primary school, pre-K through grade six, about 40-something kids and two teachers. The verbal skills, the collaboration skills, the vocabulary, and the depth of understanding was astounding. We noticed a few things; one was the multi-age nature of the school (common in Irish primary schools), another was the peer mentoring and support, still another was the consistent complex adult vocabulary the teachers used with the kids, and another was the level of responsibility the kids were entrusted with. But here was the main thing: the school culture was predicated on the County Tipperary obsession with the sport of hurling. Every child had a helmet and “hurley” (the wooden stick the game is played with) under their desk. When they took breaks from the classrooms, almost all the kids engaged in a mass free-for-all version of the game. It was beautiful to see, and it built this great combination of competitiveness and camaraderie that drove things forward. But not every kid played, and that was fine too. Small groups of others just played catch with their sticks or just talked. Just as in the classroom, one highly dyslexic fifth grader videoed other students reading and talking on an old broken-screen iPhone. He gathered information and knowledge differently, and again, that was fine.

The point is that “timeless learning” is learning. It isn’t school. It isn’t really formal education as we know it. It is taking the natural routes of learning and giving those back to children.

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Get Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools online and from independent booksellers. And follow the authors on Twitter: @csratlff, @pammoran, @irasocol, and @timelesslrng.

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