Have you ever had issues you faced in your professional life come crashing directly against your personal beliefs? There are many examples of this throughout history: pacifists who were thrust into carrying out wars and tech executives who wrestled with their lives growing increasingly impersonal. While my profession may be less glamorous—not to say that non-profit education policy analyst doesn’t raise an eyebrow or two at parties—I recently experienced this myself: embracing a fully self-directed learning experience for my toddler at the Phoenix Children’s Museum.

Friends who know me well enough know that If (emphasis intentionally added) I’m going to pay for a vacation, I want to optimize all the coolest things possible about a given experience and make sure I get those down in a very detailed plan. It’s a combination of my undergraduate economics major (i.e. optimization) converging with my overall cheapness. And so, when the well meaning attendant at the front desk told me there wasn’t a map for the museum and that they encouraged kids to just explore what seemed interesting to them, my facial expression must’ve surely conveyed the low number of stars this experience would get on Yelp when I got home.

I was soon pleasantly surprised. My three-year old daughter, Ella, led me to the “Make a Mess” where the title said it all. As Ella (and I) wrote letters with paint on the ground and splattered paint on the wall, she commented that it was starting to look like a Jackson Pollock (she’s by no means artistically brilliant… we had just read this book recently). The attendant at the station yelled with delight, “YES!” Later Ella explored, scooped, and created dirt structures outside in the garden and started asking me questions about rocks, dirt, and plant life, in essence mimicking the scientific method without ever having learned it. And then, still later in the day, my wife and I caught her putting prices on items and weighing amounts at the pretend grocery store as she played with another child that she had just met. I consider myself a good parent, but I’d be hard pressed to identify a day in Ella’s life where she had explored so many concepts—literacy, math, science, arts, etc.—in such a short time and in such a deep, integrated, and memorable way.

On that flight home later in the week, I began to reflect on four lessons the experience reinforced about what I knew about educational best practice and what it could mean in terms of policy:

Lesson 1: Setting up educational  environments is as important as anything else we do. We often measure education by the time it takes to teach  a young person. Aligning education to the 21st century requires us to shift our focus to setting up learning environments where students can drive their own learning. We may think this will unleash chaos, but, if done thoughtfully, the emphasis on student agency can actually unleash more transformative learning experiences for all our students. Policies that incentivizes a stronger focus on frameworks like universal design for learning and/or facilitates different options for students to demonstrate mastery through opportunities that meet a high standard of rigor can help students claim a deeper mastery of learning.

Lesson 2: Educational technology’s role is debatable while human interaction is indispensable. In many reform circles, we often conflate technology and innovation. This misses the fact that organizations like the Phoenix Children’s Museum and many high performing schools use little to no technology in the actual delivery of learning. The reality is that innovation is not about products—innovation is about pedagogy. When it comes to educational innovation, every issue doesn’t have to have a technological answer, but everything must—at the least—integrate a human answer. For example, even if you are to invest in an effective tech platform, that platform must be coupled with training for educators to use it to strengthen their relationship with their students. This means that, rather than seeing technology as a replacement for this investment, policy makers must make strategic investments in educators as professionals and in strong professional learning systems.    

Lesson 3: Have an effective plan to communicate what you are doing. Despite my persistent advocacy for self-directed learning, I could still be disappointed when told that there was no map. Only later did I recognize that not having a map was part of the museum’s educational philosophy and that there were clear benefits to it. In my case, it was a four-hour visit to a museum. But in the case of many parents, the innovative approach being implemented reflects  a year or multiple years in their child’s life. This is to say that in both policy and practice, we may often lose supporters because we don’t take the time to effectively communicate to families what we are doing and why we are doing it.

In the end, there is something deeper to the act of learning than what we may see on the surface. As parents, students, concerned citizens, practitioners, and/or policy makers we must take thoughtful, creative actions to transform learning. Those actions often imply providing learners greater agency in ways that make us as adults feel more vulnerable. Yet, in the end, if done well, taking those actions will ensure our education system effectively prepares students for the challenges and opportunities they’ll face in college, career, and civic life.

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