Sam Chaltain moved into the neighborhood a couple of years ago. He is married with three children. He can often be found walking his old dog very slowly up and down 30th Street. This gives him time to think. And the future of education is often on his mind. He blogs, writes books and articles and gives talks on the subject. And he recently agreed to tell us more about his work.
Sam Chaltain: I’ve been working in education for my entire adult life, first as an English and History teacher in New York City, and now as a writer, filmmaker, and school designer. I believe the only way to understand the future of humanity is by understanding the future of learning – both the ways it will change and the ways it will stay the same. In that sense, my interest is beyond what we have traditionally thought of as “school,” and includes anything that can help people get curious, learn more about themselves, and contribute to the creation of a better world than the one we have now.
FHC: You talk about the need for a new model for schools, for educating students. That the old model will and maybe is not already fulfilling what students will need to be able to do in the future – for the work world that will be a blend of artificial and human intelligence.
SC: In the past, the goal of the student was to adjust to the needs and norms of the school. In the future, the goal of the school will be to adjust to the needs and norms of each student. This is only possible if we shake off the timeworn notion that graduation requires a set number of hours of “seat time,” or that every 11th grader needs to take American History at the same pace and via the same material, or, for that matter, that there should be such a thing as “11th grade” that is based solely on the year you happened to be born. We are developing the ability to personalize instruction in a way that has never before been possible, which can make learning the constant, and time the variable. But that is a huge culture shift, and it’s going to take time – and it won’t work if we feel that technology is anything other than a tool for creating MORE space for deep relational bonds between teachers and kids, not less.
FHC: Could you talk about what the old model is, what we have today?
SC: For more than a century, education has largely looked the same – a set curriculum, delivered by an instructor, to a group of kids who were born in the same year, who receive the material and proceed through it at the same pace, over a set number of years, with letter grades and a 180-day school year, and in buildings that are designed primarily to batch and queue young people through a system and into the adult world. In a previous era, this design made more sense. In today’s world, it makes almost no sense. And so part of our challenge is to find ways to actually prepare today’s young people for their future, as opposed to our past.
What would the new model look like?
SC: In states like New Hampshire, they’ve done away with Carnegie Units (aka the 3-credit courses that gradually add up to the 120 hours you need to graduate), and replaced them with a core set of competencies – skills, habits, and dispositions that the state feels its graduates will need in order to be successful, and which kids can demonstrate through all sorts of learning experiences, from a traditional course to a professional internship to a community-based project. In more and more schools, teachers are acting more like coaches and facilitators than strict content experts. In more and more schools, learning takes place anywhere and everywhere, not just in the classroom. And in countries like Finland, new curricula are moving away from siloed departments, and towards the idea of phenomenon-based learning – meaning that instead of learning, say, Biology and English and Environmental Science, you study “Water,” and through it, everything from water chemistry to poetry to scarcity.
FHC:Are there specific K-12 schools out there that you would consider good models to replicate? Are there any school systems which are taking up the challenge?
SC: There are many! A great place to learn more is education-reimagined.org – they have a great map of innovative schools from across the country.
FHC: Do you believe in standards – what students need to learn by when to be successful, given the brain is more elastic at certain times rather than others?
SC: I believe every system needs a certain amount of quality control, AND that the best work occurs when the people closest to the kids are both well-supported and trusted to make real-time decisions that can best bring those standards to life.
FHC:What about reading, writing and multiplication tables?
SC: Literacy and numeracy are the building blocks of a healthy mind. The problem is we’ve overvalued them in our current system because they’re the easiest things to measure, as opposed to the most important. It would be like becoming the GM of the Nationals and compiling a team based solely on finding the players who can hit doubles. Doubles are important, to be sure – but if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re going to miss a lot of other important stuff.
FHC: How does your model take into consideration how the brain develops in children and adolescents?
SC: That’s the thing – we know so much more about the brain and child development than we did when I was teaching 20 years ago. The problem is our practices and policies have not caught up to the science. The opportunity is that it really isn’t hard to do that if we have the will – there’s actually some pretty clear consensus around how people learn best, and from a wide range of fields.
FHC: Aren’t you talking about teaching students how to be active rather than passive learners?
SC: That’s a huge part of it. To a large degree, the brain is what the hands do, and the heart feels. Our schools should design their experiences for kids with these ideas in mind.
FHC: How would the role of teacher and principal change?
SC: The best teachers have always been people with a deep wellspring of knowledge, a contagious passion for their subject, and an ability to foster deep relational bonds with their students. That will remain evergreen.
FHC: How would you design an urban school system that would foster such learning?
SC: Simply put, our teachers need to be prepared and supported differently, and our students (and schools) need to be assessed differently. But if you want more specifics, check out the epilogue of my last book, Our School!
For more of Sam Chaltain’s thoughts on the future of work and education, here’s one of his talks.