Teach the Future Fellowship – Transformational Education 2015 A Recap by Eric Nauert
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Do you have any scissors I can borrow?”
“Where do the washers go?”
“What should we use for ballast?”
“Do I get to make the sling?”
“I didn’t make it through Cub Scouts!”
Wham! Wham! Wham!
What might sound like a group of high school kids chatting during shop class is actually a room full of educators, innovators and entrepreneurs, intent on building model trebuchets, as part of the first gathering of the Teach the Future Fellowship, spearheaded by Kelley Waldron, the Assistant Head of School at St. Andrews School and Peter Ulrich, the Principal at The STEM Academy at Bartlett Middle School.
First things first, what’s a trebuchet?
A trebuchet is a machine used in the Middle Ages for hurling large stones at enemy targets by means of a long pivoting arm with heavy ballast on one end and a loaded sling on the other. When the ballast drops, the sling launches its payload, and the castle falls.
In under an hour, all the groups finish building their 18-inch tall trebuchets and start fine-tuning the instruments. For a while, a friendly battle ensues. But finally the group settles down to the serious business beneath this rather lighthearted exercise.
“I think we’re putting ourselves in our kids shoes a little bit, what they go through when they problem-solve,” says Allyson Morgan of the STEM Academy.
“I think it’s also making sure we understand the importance of hands-on learning as opposed to pencil-and-paper type of things,” chimes in Daniel Welch of St. Andrews. “This has been a ton of critical thinking and collaboration and cooperation and communication—which builds a lot more than doing something with pencil and paper.”
Allyson continues. “We need to prepare our students to collaborate and problem-solve in order to prepare them for the future, tinker a little bit here, and fix something that doesn’t work and make it better.”
“What we see in our school is…” Daniel pauses for a moment. “A lot of times kids are being prepared for jobs that exist, and we know that a lot of jobs that kids will be applying for in the future don’t exist yet. And so we’re trying to create problem-solvers and critical thinkers, so whatever job that they might be interested in, they’ll be able to do because of the skills that we’re building now.”
Other teachers reflect on the trebuchet paradigm, as well.
“I’m just glad I didn’t have to do it myself ‘cause I don’t enjoy following detailed directions like this,” says Lauren Brantley of the Savannah Arts Academy.
Jeremy Stringer of Savannah Country Day School concurs. “Yeah that’s true. Like, I shied away from the knot-tying, because I’m just not good at that, but I’ll go cut things because I can measure and cut.”
“I think delegating and dividing and conquering played a big part,” says Amanda Fox of the STEM Academy.
Jeremy examines the trebuchet box. “The box says it’s supposed to take two hours, and I suppose it would, building it by yourself, but with the three of us—one person building the box, one person measuring and cutting—it went quicker. In the classroom I think it’s the same way. Some complicated things can take a long time by yourself, but you throw a group together and you break it down into individual tasks, you get it done.”
The Teach the Future Fellowship is designed to establish connections among Savannah community educators, innovators and entrepreneurs. Held at Savannah’s The Guild Hall, the fellowship provides an opportunity for teachers of several schools to come together and share their ideas and experiences, and it offers them insights into potential community resources they may not have otherwise known about. The first gathering raises some rather challenging questions:
What are the purposes of education?
Why are you here?
Why is there a pressing need for transformation in education at this moment? (In your classroom, in your school, or in education as a whole)
What will you contribute?
Participants ponder these questions within their groups of three, and then the discussion broadens to an open forum. Educators ask entrepreneurs what qualities they look for in a new hire. Although answers vary, they all agree on several major characteristics: curiosity, creativity, adaptability, good communication skills, and the ability to think and to learn new technologies. Some proudly admit that they themselves are college dropouts; others are pursuing careers far afield of their college majors. All agree that it is essential for students to “learn how to learn.”
Kelley Waldron points out that technology is changing jobs, and the jobs of the future are not being taught in schools today. And so, in addition to baseline skills, it becomes imperative for educators to teach students to become aware of resources in the community, and to learn how to seek them out.
Clegg Ivey, CEO of The Guild Hall, stresses the importance of experimenting and trying out new ideas without fear. His career takes him regularly to China, where he has the opportunity to observe a very different style of education. There, he notes, students are taught to fear failure. He thinks this stifles their learning process. He believes students should have “a really comfortable relationship with failure, and an understanding of failure and how failure gives you data.”
Ivey looks for this comfortable relationship with failure in potential employees. “If I’ve got somebody who’s never failed, I’m like, well thanks. Good luck. Sorry, I can’t use you.”
He explains his reasoning. “If you’re too afraid to fail, then you won’t be comfortable trying out new things, one of which may turn out to be your secret gift. Failure is data! Collect that data!”
Bethany Armstrong, a graphic design professor at Savannah College of Art & Design agrees. On the first day of every class she tells her students, “I hope you fail a lot in my class. I don’t hope you fail my class, but I hope you put yourself out there and make a lot of mistakes. Take chances.”
Several other teachers agree, but point out the obstacles to radically transforming education in the classroom. Publishing companies fuel the policy of standardized tests. Parents have high expectations for their children. School administrators and state officials expect certain standards. All of these factors play a part in the teaching that takes place in the classroom.
“We know what we want,” says Peter Ulrich. “How we get there is why we’re going to be together this year.”
Kelley Waldron continues the conversation with a discussion of the difference between transactional and transformational education. ‘Transactional education’ refers to a kind of exchange in which the student contributes a certain amount of effort in order to receive a particular sum of knowledge. ‘Transformational education’ suggests a dynamic change within the student, a transformation that can lead to long term success. Waldron hopes this is the direction education is heading.
“Think of an educator who changed your life,” Waldron says. “I’ll bet what you remember most about them has little to do with whatever grade they gave you.”
Amanda Fox describes transformational education in terms of process. “The learning is actually happening during the process. And if you’re lucky, the lightbulb goes off at the end. There might not be that final project that’s amazing. Not all kids are going to get there, but the expectation’s still there. I still have checkpoints along the process, assessing and making sure they’re trying. Not everyone’s going to create a fantastic final product. What helped me was, at the end, always embedding in a self-reflection and peer review.”
Kelley Waldron hopes the Teach the Future Fellowship brings about a richer experience in classrooms across Savannah. With sessions and events scheduled to continue throughout the year, she feels the connections between educators, innovators and entrepreneurs will become stronger, but she realizes she may never witness the full extent of the transformation.
“These are just seeds that we’re planting today, and they go out and they’re going to grow in so many different fashions because of the different contexts in which different people work. And so it’s going to be interesting to see the way in which this is constructive for different people. There’s going to be this trickle out effect that we’re never going to be able to see. It’s like when you drop something into a pond, and the wakes circle out. If you’re right there in the middle where it’s dropped, you can’t see that.”
One thing is certain. Everyone in this room cares deeply about the education of young people. And they hold great hope for the future.