School in a Time of Manufactured Ignorance

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Canadian Crew from Maples Met and Seven Oaks Met at Big Bang 2018

My Christmas comes in July. (As a European mutt, this pagan/Christian event resonates within my experience as a generally positive one.) As a principal of a Big Picture Learning school in Winnipeg, Canada, I relish the opportunity every summer to head to Big Bang, the BPL conference where educators who care deeply about learner-centred learning come together to exchange ideas, refine our practice, and engage in conversations which focus on creating powerful and educative learning experiences for learners.

At “The Bang”, we don’t speak of test scores, discipline, or timetables. Our shop talk is focused on learners, on advisories of learners, on deep internships which produce rich and authentic opportunities for growth and transformation, and on developing schools and learning environments which seek to foster curiosity, learner agency, and where flourishing young people is our priority. (And learners come to our conference, offer sessions, and even emcee our plenary sessions.)

There are also opportunities for mischief each year, which may or may not result in a group of 600 educators and learners being led by the South Atlanta High School Marching Band through the streets of downtown Atlanta. But this has yet to be confirmed.

 

If you are serious about impacting young people and providing them with authentic, real-world, and rigorous learning opportunities, you need to visit a BPL or Met School (There are two in Winnipeg) and/or head to Big Bang next year.

Beyond the deep sessions, the Leaving to Learn opportunities, advisory, and the impromptu conversations with outstanding leaders in the field of education, I look forward each year at Big Bang to the deep thinkers from across the world who tend to gravitate towards this conference.

This year I was really excited to see that Ted Dintersmith, the creator of the book and film Most Likely to Succeed, was being honoured by Big Picture Learning. Ted recently published another book, What School Could Be, based on a year of traveling throughout the United States and gathering narratives of what innovative educators are doing in order to prepare learners for a changing world. In this book, Ted argues that the world learners are entering post graduation has nothing in common with how the majority of schools are currently designed.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

The industrial model of 1893, which is still alive and well in the 21st century, is not able to prepare learners for a future where climate change is and will impact us all, where technology and AI will make many jobs obsolete and where they will fundamentally change how we live and interact with each other.

Simply put, multiple choice tests, compliance-based curricula, and worksheets will not prepare learners for a world that Ted argues “where machine intelligence excels in manual and cognitive tasks: a world stripped of the routine white and blue collar jobs that are the backbone of today’s society. This is happening faster than we think.” (2018, p. 13).

Coupled with this problem is that our schools also need to prepare leaners for what Henry Giroux, famed educational philosopher and pedagogue, calls in his new book American Nightmare, “manufactured ignorance.” Giroux, who eloquently outlines how the United States has become a fascist state under Trump, speaks to a need to shift education towards deep, critical thought that is based in historical and critical analysis. What we have created in Canada and the United States is an environment where consumerism and self-interest are celebrated, tweeted, and emulated, while racism and intolerance are on the rise. This is all at the expense of the most vulnerable and the planet itself. Destruction has become normalized.

As Dintersmith and Giroux collided in my mind, it reinforced the fact that Big Picture Schools are well-situated to provide learning environments which not only foster the critical and historical thought necessary to combat fascism, but also to prepare learners for an uncertain future. Climate change will create greater instability, human suffering, and as we see, greater frequency of global conflict.  Technology will most certainly increase to the point where food, healthcare, transportation, manufacturing and countless other fields will rely on robot power and not human.

The antidote to this manufactured ignorance, a society focused on shortsighted decisions and instant gratification (akrasia), potentially rests in learner-centred schools where the standards of a past century are replaced with a new imperative. Dennis Littky the co-founder of Big Picture Learning, referred to this new imperative at Big Bang as a line of questioning that had young people ask themselves: “What pisses me off?”

Don’t we want learners of all ages to be asking questions about poverty, inequality, climate change, the inequitable distribution of wealth, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, etc.? Big Picture Schools are uniquely designed to allow this space for learners to identify a problem, research its origins and then propose, prototype, and launch meaningful solutions.

We are also in a position to help our learners dive deep into critical issues of justice — be it social, environmental, economic, or otherwise — so that they are able to deconstruct the onset of fascism through an historical and critical lens. Don’t we want learners who are media literate, who care about the planet, who question government policy, and who are actively engaged in creating democratic discourse and spaces? And this is not a Left versus Right discussion. I have many conservative friends who perpetually argue for these elements to be be cultivated in schools.

In order for this to happen, learners need time and space to think, they need the opportunities to engage with experts in the field, they need internship opportunities where they can be mentored by adults with integrity. Their curiosity and passion need to be cultivated and unleashed. Their understanding of the universe needs to be challenged and broadened to create solutions for a better and more just world.

They need to learn skills and mindsets, as Ted argues, that will provide fulfillment in an automated world.

This is not to suggest that my school or any other BPL school has mastered this. Far be it. But at the Big Bang, these are the conversations which I am drawn to. The ones started by Dintersmith and Giroux which are carried out in quiet discussions between passionate educators who wish a better future for the young people who are in our care and who we care for deeply.

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Ken Robinson: A Demonstration of Ecological Literacy

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Four of the five educators of the Maples Met School at Big Bang 2016 in Orlando. (Will, Michelle, Sara, & Matt. Sopear was holding down the fort in Winnipeg.)

In recent months, I have been tasked, along with four highly skilled educators, to open a second Big Picture Learning school within the Seven Oaks School Division. The Maples Met School housed within Maples Collegiate and has been heavily supported by colleagues at both Maples Collegiate and the original 7Oaks Met School.

Given the newness of our school, we were invited to travel to Orlando and participate in the annual Big Picture Learning conference commonly referred to as Big Bang. The conference offers critical sessions on the components which make Big Picture schools unique, namely sessions related to exhibitions, advisories, internships and the education of one student at a time. All these sessions occur within the foundation of the Big Picture: Relationships, relevance, and rigour.

Not only did Big Bang afford us with outstanding opportunities to make sense of our roles within the life of a student, but it also allowed our small staff to bond and connect with itself. Similarly, we were also able to make powerful connections with the other Met School just down the street. We had tremendous discussions in between sessions, at meals, and in long layovers at dreary airports about experience design, assessment, and how to ensure that our learning environment was both rigorous and vigorous. many of us are also heavily invested in sustainability and ecological literacy, and began discussing how our school might champion these notions.

As part of Big Bang 2016, we were also treated to a talk from Sir Ken Robinson. As most educators are aware, Robinson is famous for a couple of brilliant TED talks and equally compelling books related to learning, schools, and creativity. His most recent book might be one on all of our reading lists. I had seen Robinson a few years ago in Winnipeg and so I was really excited to hear what he had to say.

Robinson was clearly a fan of of Big Picture Learning schools as they focus on the passion of the learner and allow time and space for learners to take control of their own learning. Robinson received the annual Disruptor award from the founders of Big Picture, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, with grace and humour.

What was most interesting regarding Sir Ken’s remarks was his focus on the state of the planet and how high the stakes are for our learners. He spoke of the carrying capacity of Earth, how critical soil is in agriculture and how we have essentially destroyed much of it, and he paid special attention to the fact that we need to properly equip young people for the current and impending ecological crisis. Robinson spoke in systems and clearly understood how nature sustains all life on Earth.

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Ken Robinson’s aims for education.

I had never heard Ken Robinson speak this way. Granted, he was his usually charming and hilarious self, but there was a more serious and forceful tone to his message. In most contexts, the audience can be turned off by those who speak truth to power when it comes to our role in the destruction of our planet, but while Robinson didn’t seem to care, he also was sensitive enough to not alienate those who might be annoyed of offended by the truth.

Matt Henderson

This is my criteria of experience for an ecological literacy. It might help us create learning experiences which lead to sustainable communities.

For me, Ken Robinson spoke to our role as educators in terms of equipping our learners with the knowledge and learning experiences that will help them to gain an ecological literacy. It is incumbent on us to help them understand the world around them, to think in systems, to anticipate the consequences of human activity, and to take meaningful action in order to create sustainable communities. I believe this is our role as individual educators, and also as schools.

As we creep towards the beginning of a new academic year, how might we cultivate this ecological literacy within our learners? How can we design learning experiences which help give our learners a fighting chance?