Vail Daily column: Deeply engaging education
My wife, Sarah, and I have two children. Our daughter just turned 4 and our son will be 3 later this week. While there is certainly a level of exhaustion that comes with being working parents, I can also say there is a remarkable joy in watching children grow and learn.
Of all the lessons my children have taught me, perhaps the best one is their unbridled love of learning. The avalanches of questions and more questions, so many of which we don’t have the answers to! They are fascinated by the world around them.
The signs of spring — things like bugs, warm wind and sun on their faces, just emerging flowers — these all create deeply engaging experiences that keep my children entranced. These moments are often aesthetic experiences, in which their senses and emotions are fully engaged in a moment.
As adults, the frequency of moments like these seems to wane, as we get older. But, their occurrence can bring meaning, purpose and joy into our lives. Getting lost in a song, a dance, a book, a piece of art, an idea or even a drink with an old friend — are all-too-fleeting moments that we cherish and wish we could hold.
I’ve been thinking a lot about aesthetic experiences and how they relate to learning. It seems to me that, as humans, we learn best when we are deeply engaged in our experiences. Sure, interest ebbs and flows and really deep learning takes commitment and focus. But we learn best when our curiosity and passion collide, when time and the rest of the world just slides away, as we become immersed in something of deep interest.
Noted education thinker Sir Ken Robinson has spoken about these sorts of aesthetic experiences and their connection to education. Robinson notes that we live in the most interesting, engaging and extraordinary time in human history and that the ability to engage with and learn about our world is literally at our fingertips. If this is indeed true, how is it possible for us to have students who are disengaged in learning and checked out?
What is needed is a fundamental change in education that can only occur at the very micro level where student, teacher and content (the subject matter being studied) collide. Imagine if we redesigned education so that students were given literally thousands of opportunities and moments to fully engage in meaningful work, where aesthetic experiences became the norm in their learning. Wouldn’t that be better? Of course it would.
Now, the cynics will say something like “this is impossible — every student cannot be engaged all of the time.” A different kind of cynic may say something like, “I had to sit through all that memorization, complete all those worksheets and tough it through some pretty boring stuff — it’s character building and good for kids to go through that.”
Perhaps the cynics have their points. Maybe it would be incredibly difficult to design an educational process built on creating aesthetic experiences and true engagement for students. But have we really tried to design toward that outcome? I don’t think so, but I do think it’s worth the effort.
Here in our schools, we’ve got a long way to go on this front, as does the rest of the world. We are getting intentional about lesson design and aesthetic experiences for our students. We can make learning irresistibly engaging, as well as provide our students with the ability to practice the global-ready skills that are a focus of our organization. Things like (as Harvard’s Tony Wagner puts them) critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leadership, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information and curiosity and imagination.
Maintaining a focus on creating these sorts of student experiences is the genuine and real work of reforming schools. It happens in classrooms and communities, not in think-tanks and ivory towers. It happens up close to the student, not in committee rooms or ethereal position papers. And, it happens down deep in the content, and not through a drive-by acquisition of simple facts and recall efforts.
Making these kinds of shifts is profound and difficult — and also incredibly necessary if we are going to transform education to be what our children will need for their future.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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