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DINOSAURS IN PRISONS

Drive by a medium-security prison. Take away the razor wire, add a mascot, and what do you have? A public school. They both contain people whose attendance is mandatory. Both are managed by a top-down hierarchy. When challenged by change, both generate more rules. There are some differences: You can’t be expelled from prison. Prisoners can’t pack a lunch. Children can’t appeal their sentence.

Schools and prisons look alike because they are alike. Nature, engineering, and architecture all follow the maxim that form follows function. So a bird’s wing and a plane’s wing have a lot in common. Purpose generates design. We pick up a sharp piece of flint and notice that it looks like a knife. Their shared purpose generates their congruent design. Dogs’ noses have flaps that channel their exhalation sideways. That way they don’t disturb what they’re sniffing. We don’t have those flaps (most of us, anyhow) because we don’t need those flaps. The basic shape of schools hasn’t evolved much because the basic principles of education haven’t. Their primary purpose has been, and still is, to control and correct.

House of correction is a euphemism for prisons. A medieval gaol (jail) on a hilltop in Turkey follows the same functional necessity as a county detention center in Maryland. Like turtles and tortoises, they are more alike than different. And that necessity limits the evolution of schools. The more schools focus on regulating learners, the more they resemble houses of correction. The evolution is clear: the newer the school, the fewer the windows, the wider the moat (parking lots), and the more ubiquitous the closed-circuit monitors. Security concerns, uniform standards, and diminished respect for teachers support a mechanistic approach to building schools and, more important, to what happens in them. So schools, bus schedules, and curricula are organized for efficiency, like factories. Or prisons. In 1940 there were 117,000 school districts in the United States. By 1990, that number had shrunk to 15,000 . More efficient? Perhaps. Cost effective? Arguable. More creative? Hardly.

This theme of control and uniformity influences what’s taught as well. Test scores are principal in every public school as well as in most private schools. Test scores determine political support, real estate desirability, and funding. Test scores confine learning like a straitjacket, as though we graduate to a world of standardized tests and rote memorization. The focus on tests is merely a symptom of a greater blindness.

Schools can’t succeed in producing the kind of learners we need, and will need more every year, if we merely tinker—impose merit pay, adjust teacher certification, add in-service days, strengthen throw out tenure, create new administrative units, reduce class size, increase class size, remove classroom walls, put the walls back, promote creativity, institute back to basics, withdraw funding from low performers, pay students for achieving, eliminate recess, or pad student GPAs for skipping bathroom breaks. Does the last sound a bit farfetched? In 2006, this practice was recommended to imр rove achievement in several high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the top-rated school districts in the nation.

We are in the habit of throwing solutions against a wall and hoping one sticks. What we’re throwing may or may not have value. The quality of the solution is immaterial because we’re throwing it against the wrong walls. No new idea can find much life inside a detention center. So we look for someone to blame: It’s the teachers! It’s the parents! It’s the federal government! It’s the ’60s! It’s the children!

There are no villains here, just dinosaurs—ideas fossilizing everywhere in the real world, yet still flourishing in schools. These dinosaur ideas include the immense top-down-osaurus, the lumbering testocodopus, and the mindless controlodactyl, among others. They belong in museums as objects of curiosity, not roaming school hallways squashing it. These ideas were behind the times fifty years ago. The growing pains that pummeled public schools in the second half of the 20th century—integration, self-esteem, student-teacher ratios, the rise of the National Education Association (NEA), the explosion of post-secondary cost—all reflected waves caused by a seismic change in thinking and learning—until the next wave came along. All these waves, good or otherwise, broke against the retaining walls of our educational assumptions and left the walls largely intact.

The rise of open-source technology such as Wikipedia and Linux, the democratization of information through the Web, and the spectacular speed of idea flow and change may scare some. These changes may signal the end of a simpler time. But these changes are here, and new ones are arriving at increasing velocity, too fast for tuning. Adjustments won’t fix a system that has changed little since dismissal times were coordinated with crop harvests.

“Build it and they will come” is about rebuilding to attract a new they. And they are new ideas, generated in a new, holistic environment that enables learning flow by deconstructing barriers. What are these barriers? Any part of schooling that impedes the flow of ideas. Flow introduces transparency and useful chaos, like tides in the ocean that are necessary to life—in this case, the life of thinking.

The fractured flow of ideas in public schools impedes the life of thinking. These impediments include classrooms; grades; grade levels; a uniform curriculum; departments; districts; time periods; and separation of teachers, students, and administrators. They go against every bit of current research on brain function, cognition, and emotional intelligence. Learning is organic, inclusive, boundless, and harmonic, “not like the parts in a machine but like the instruments in a symphony orchestra combining their tenor, volume, and resonance to create a particular musical effect.” That musical effect needs rehearsal space—classrooms—designed for symphony (sounding together).

Once that symphony becomes the desired state, schools can be reverse-engineered with a new generation in mind, not only a new generation of learners, a new generation of ideas. These ideas need not be threatening. It’s not about belief. Wherever you stand on Darwinism versus creationism, it’s clear that things change. We change. The weather changes. Change moves away from one set of parameters and toward another. But the dinosaur ideas—memorization, right or wrong answers, competition—that generate the philosophy of incarceration have been locked in place for decades and longer. Attendance is mandatory. If schools are such great places, why do we punish misbehavior by making students stay longer? Detention is the ultimate terror. How many otherwise intelligent parents have bought into the crazy idea that taking their children out of school is not merely bad, but that it meddles with their kids’ futures? Even if it’s for an adventure such as travel (a.k.a. extracurricular learning).

Do schools reward learning? Not really. They reward accumulation and regurgitation. That’s not the same as capacity. Grades, promotion, attendance, tests (including the SAT and the rest of the regurgitate-for-profit bunch), and awards all measure what students have gathered, not their capacity to gather in the future. That leads to forcing our youngest learners, those with “lantern consciousness,”  to turn off their capacity early and focus on pre-admission exercises (to an Ivy League school) that cauterize their curiosity.

This philosophy, focused on testing, misses the point that capacity can’t be taught. It can only be learned. When we force inquisitive minds into the acquisition of rote learning, we do indeed ready them for school. They arrive on the first day of school pre-programmed for incarceration. That’s right. Barely out of diapers, they have already accumulated a list of check-offs for admittance to pre-pre-pre-school. No time off for good behavior. Perhaps a long time ago, that kind of rote repetition made sense. It doesn’t work now.

Before written language we carried information around with us internally. Writing (and reading) allowed us to archive information, to safeguard numbers and messages, and opened possibilities for commerce, history, and tradition. Writing and reading also created the opportunity for a new, exclusive class. Learning these skills was not easy; few could master them. So schools arose. Some focused on democratizing reading: The humanist impulse. Others focused on controlling reading: The exclusive impulse. The education movement has always had these twin threads—democracy and control. The point of Learning Chaos is to derail the second. By focusing on capacity and information engineering, we can reduce control and flatten access. After all, in a cloud-based data universe there is no practical limit to information and knowledge access.

What’s unsurprising today would have seemed preposterous just fifteen years ago: an English-speaking thirteen-year-old in Zaire who’s connected to the Internet can find the current temperature in Brussels or the closing price of IBM stock or the name of Winston Churchill’s second finance minister as quickly and easily as the head librarian at Cambridge University.

We’re experiencing such a quantum growth in access that the profit-through-control motive may be the greatest dinosaur of all. It’s not information that schools and teachers need to provide, it’s information engineering, the technical term for meaning. We’re not starved for information, we’re starved for stories, the stickiest of learning experiences. And stories can be passed on without teaching. Simply sharing a story invites learning.

Teaching and learning have always coexisted, though not always functionally. We can learn because of teaching; we can also learn in spite of teaching, because teaching and learning are fundamentally different. The chart on the next page suggests a continuum along a line between pure teaching and pure learning. The two are symbiotic. The chart is about balance. The left side is more disciplined and academic, the right side more chaotic and fluid.

Learning is better than teaching because it is more intense; the more is being taught, the less can be learned.

Taught Learned
Navigation Seamanship
Acting Improv
Statistical Analysis Meaning
Management Leadership
Right Answers Possibilities
Rigor Interest
Jokes Humor
Thoughtfulness Mindfulness
Planning Preparation
Reasonableness Sanity
Storytelling Stories

When the left-hand column dominates, it generates a fear of ambiguity, the illusion of control, a suspicion that fun has no place in learning, and the notion that laughter shows disrespect rather than surprise. It implies that authority is the antidote to the risk of uncontrolled curiosity. It’s the penitentiary mindset—prisons and dinosaurs intersecting. Learning Chaos is about keeping the right-hand column as the goal in every school, finding every opportunity, no matter how unconventional, to give way to learning. First and always, to give way to the beauty of unexpected connections, “wild geysers of creative energy.”

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that [this] fecundity (“wild geysers of creative energy”) is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-edged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Schools need to become hotbeds of exploration and ideas. They may not manufacture Bachs and Einsteins, but they must provoke creative ideas in large enough numbers to engender a “probabilistic function of quantity” rather than a critical mass of regurgitation. In this environment, questions are more important than answers, ambiguity replaces certainty, and there are no wrong answers, only increasing possibilities.

Curriculum must disorganize and evolve through currents of diverse ideas. In the spirit of democracy, these currents must apply to administrators, teachers, staff, and students—universally and without bias. After all, capacity exists outside of accumulation. A degree from a university represents significant accomplishment; it may not signal significant capacity. Everybody in the building has one job. To learn.

Chaos is necessary to short-circuit the delusion of control that still dominates learning in schools. In fact, that delusion dominates most of our organizations. That delusion promotes fear, and that fear stifles the tendencies that make us human—primarily, the basic need for unfettered exploration. Learning Chaos confronts that fear, embracing the paradoxical safety of uncertainty. The more schools are planned and ordered, the less students can explore.

Exploration is the default setting for the human brain. Over millions of years, we have been on the alert, learning and investigating. We’re infernally curious, asking “What if …?” when we see even the possibility of possibility. To scratch this itch, we invent and create. We are the only creatures that continually and consciously shape our environment, for good or ill. Balancing this exploratory need has always been the need for security in a world well stocked with things stronger and much faster than we are. For millennia, fueled by instinct and adrenaline, we fought through emergencies by running for cover, grabbing a stick in deathly desperation, the stick become a club, an ax, a spear, an atlatl, a bow, a rifle, a cannon, the atomic bomb. We invented to protect ourselves, to survive.

Today, this pressured kind of exploration—stress, anxiety, fear, competition, survival, eat or be eaten—is misappropriated in schools and in the workplace with grades, tests, measured achievement, college applications, job interviews, firing, and performance appraisals. It replicates the panther world where a moment’s inattention, even in reflection, might impede the adrenaline stream. The fact is, we don’t need to climb trees anymore; panthers are rare and elusive. So why do we impose pressure on ourselves, and worse, on our children, to perform? Why does learning only count if it meets an imposed standard? If curiosity’s our default setting, we don’t need to make learning happen. Yet schools persist in developing impediments to intrinsic learning. As educators, we need to get out of the way and let the innate hunger for learning prevail. It will always happen because it’s the human condition. Schools, in trying to impose learning, impede learning.

The reason for learning anything, whether it’s guitar, Guitar Hero, or Mandarin Chinese, isn’t perfection or virtuoso skill. The motive is far simpler: bliss. Learning makes us happy and it provides us with feelings of control and novelty that are crucial to our psyches. “Maybe, just maybe,” Gary Marcus says, “the art of reinvention and acquiring new skills can give us a sense of a life well lived.”

Schools are still replicating the law of the veldt where we dared not lose, so we dared not risk bona fide exploration—discovery motivated by curiosity and reflection, not by fear. We’re still afraid of deviation from these fear-based rules, as if those rules still reliably protect us from claws and teeth. In that survival-ordered world, anything new might be a threat, so it’s best avoide. That mindset is still so prevalent that it litters our language:

Better safe than sorry. … Mind your business. … A stitch in time saves nine. … Better the evil you know. … Perfect planning prevents piss-poor performance. … Have a safe trip. … Be careful out there. … Let’s not reinvent the wheel here. … If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. … Do it to them before they do it to you. … Winning isn’t the best thing, it’s the only thing. … F is for failure. … Caution, curves in road. ….

We feed this withdrawal from our own best nature of fearless imagination every day with habits and words left over from the panther world, the world of protection in trees, caves, the boma, fortified villages, castles, moats … and schools.

Learning Chaos is about introducing a safe level of disorder. Why? Because the world has changed; panthers no longer roam. Fear is no longer a useful catalyst. In a setting based on the principles of Learning Chaos, the motor of exploration develops internally; it’s not imposed and restricted by authority. In a community of shared learning, we can explore and develop our native ability to question, seek, and construct. That natural, innate learning rests on the first of the four principles of Learning Chaos: discovery.

Learning Chaos

Bringing the Classroom to Life!

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