‘Our Common Core’

What if we trusted students as a default and dealt with transgressions when and if they come up? What if we gave them web-accessible devices without filters but taught them common sense and used transgressions as teachable moments? What if we even gave learners of every age a bit of agency in the shaping of their own curriculum — above and beyond recess and show-and-tell? My own 10 years as an instructor of undergraduates and graduate students have been an ongoing lesson in how much more we all learn when learners know they are trusted. Ira Socol, assistant director for Educational Technology and Innovation for Albemarle, Virginia public schools, is one of the leaders of an effort to bring educational change that involves technology but also includes radical changes in pedagogy involving shifts in learner agency, teacher trust, and the place of informal learning in the curriculum.

When I first asked Dr. Socol what his organization does, he remarked that it was “committed to fundamental change among a diverse population.” Albemarle County School District covers 746 square miles on the edge of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. “We have 26 schools spread across this massive area — our school buses cover thousands of miles a day. We have extreme wealth — we have parents who play polo on a daily basis. We have extreme poverty, both urban and rural.” To address this variety of circumstances, Socol and colleagues are “rethinking from the ground up what education looks like for our students. And, we want every one of our 14,000 students to have the same range of experience.” Socol’s group is working simultaneously with changes in technology, changes in the physical layout of classrooms, changes in pedagogy, and changes in the way schools are organized: “We think those all go together.”

Socol started thinking about what educational change should look like long before he was in a position to implement it on the scale he works with today. In a 2008 interview, he established his pedagogical roots of his quest in the Neil Postman inspired high school he had attended, led by “the best educator I know in America, Alan Shapiro.” The Postman program is based on a few assumptions: “(1) that learning takes place best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that problems and personal interests rather than subjects are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them.”

Encouraging students to learn how to find their own way, rather than defining every aspect of their learning, from the filters on their web access to the specific activities required by the teacher and the syllabus, in Socol’s view, is not utopian but necessary. He believes that skills in way-finding, meaning-making, taking responsibility for one’s own learning are necessitated by today’s rapid pace of change: “Education ‘as we know it’ is about social reproduction. We are trying to produce students who are ‘just like the teachers.’ And, there is a sad feedback loop in this, educators see, in the students who succeed in these reproductive schools, people just like themselves. But, we need to be better than that — not because our standardized tests prove that only about one third of our students achieve proficiency (or ever have, you can look back at the stats at least to 1867) — but because our society needs to change, because it is changing, and schools need to support that.” (As an intriguing aside, recent research has provided evidence that students do measurably better when they are told that they can do measurably better.)

If you spend more than a decade thinking and talking together about how education ought to be reshaped for the present day, what are the skills that schooling really ought to provide — and what would a school do differently to enable students to gain proficiency in those skills? Socol and I spent 14 minutes talking about this question in this video interview. It starts with what Socol and his colleagues call “our common core.”

Banner photo credit: Samsung Tomorrow