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Director, The Institute for
Learning and Teaching
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
October 22, 2010
Johnson (Chair, phone); David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul
Gilje, Jim Hetland (phone), Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald, Wayne
Popham (phone), Clarence Shallbetter, Bob White
Summary of Jennings'
comments: Students have an innate desire to learn,
Jennings argues, so we need to design schools that successfully channel
that interest and motivation. More money will not solve the problem of
poor performance in education; rather, changing school design to take
advantage of well-established learning principles will achieve better
results with less money.
Chartering has not
necessarily resulted in true innovation; most charter schools recreate
conventional curriculum. Policy makers should encourage those inside the
school system to break out of the confines of traditional subject matter
and teaching methods, and understand that success can be demonstrated in
ways not captured by conventional measurements.
Welcome and introductions-Over
a career spanning five decades, Jennings has started or helped start eight
elementary and secondary public schools and one private school. He has
been a teacher, principal, central office administrator, school board
member, and post-secondary educator. He has published many articles and
books; among his works are Bridging the Learning/Assessment Gap and
Inciting Learning. More information may be found on his personal
B. Comments and
Jennings's visit with the Civic Caucus, the following points were raised:
"I appreciate the
work of the Civic Caucus," Jennings said, "and it reminds me of TED
videos," the pithy-usually 10-20 minute-talks given by individuals with
'ideas worth spreading' to a conference group assembled in an auditorium.
The TED organization has hosted innumerable such presentations, now
readily accessible on its website at:
Students will learn if you let them
continued, one of those TED videos featured a speaker by the name of Dr.
Sugata Mitra who
performed a study known as the 'Hole in the Wall'. The experiment shows
that young people are inherently motivated to learn, and will teach
themselves if only given the opportunity.
In this experiment
young people from a poor part of Calcutta discovered a computer positioned
by Dr. Mitra in a hole cut out from a wall-placed there with no
explanation, but observable from within. Mitra found that the children
were soon very successfully figuring out how to use the computer by
themselves. Mitra went to other poor areas, reproduced the experiment, and
found the same result. Inherent curiosity led to self-teaching. The video
of his talk may be found here:
There is enough money-instead schooling needs change
"All my colleagues in education want more money," Jennings
observed, "so that more teachers can be hired, they can have more experts,
and get class size down."
But when he asks them
how much more money they want, "they hem and haw, but when we get
down to what they want in terms of a desirable class size, they're talking
about twice as many teachers. That's just not possible."
Foundations are no
longer as willing to subsidize school operations as presently constituted.
The McDonnell Douglas Foundation, for one, has said they just aren't going
to do it anymore. A participant recalled the Ford Foundation's report
"Ford Foundation Goes to School" decades ago when the foundation sent
staff to go into schools to see where their money was going. They couldn't
figure out how it was spent.
"I think we have the
money," Jennings said. The question has more to do with school design.
"We're not being clear about our objectives. One objective now seems to be
that we have a particular set of courses to pass. But another, far more
important one is that we have an educated citizenry, and lifelong
learners. We don't pay nearly as much attention to that objective." The
curriculum and pedagogy are out of sync, he argued, with what is needed
for the 21st century.
The Mitra experiment
demonstrates that there is potential in every child, and we have to
recognize that students sitting passively in a classroom in what we might
call 'batch process' schools just totally violates what we know about the
ways people learn."
It is probably true,
he added, "that most of what we do in schools is
brain-antagonistic-opposed to how people actually learn."
The remedies are the problem in K-12: improvement instead of
does not have much faith that the system will change on its own. He cited
the book Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen, et al and its
explanation of how Target could not have developed within the traditional
operations of Dayton Hudson Corporation, but instead was created as its
own autonomous entity reporting directly to the corporate board. See an
illustration of this concept, taken from a book by Ted Kolderie, here:
Existing schools are
trying to do exactly the things they do now, only do them better. It's
that kind of 'remedy' that is the problem. In fact, as Ted Sizer pointed
out, "it's hard to change much of the present system without changing
everything. The result is paralysis."
He suggested we think
in terms of 'just-in-time learning,' so that students obtain the basic
competence and skills to learn when required by the self-directed activity
they are engaged in. The Internet provides a limitless resource of free,
quality information. Expertly created YouTube videos explain math concepts
in a few minutes, and the resources for science, history and other topics
are virtually limitless. If teachers don't need to do all the teaching, he
asked, do we really need to have traditional schools when all this
information is available?
described something he has done at schools before called 'sparks.' "We
bring people in from the community to talk about their experiences, their
interests, their lives, their challenges. One person brought in a huge
dog, and talked about how much they eat, need to walk, what kind of shots
it needs. A student might be "sparked" by such a discussion and get exited
to learn more about veterinary science." Some students have discovered
major areas of interest and undertaken serious study of a topic as a
Let those who want
to do something different do it
"Every school has people that want to do things differently, but few
schools have something new that everyone can agree on." Most people who
talk about change talk about improving the existing system. But it's
always easier if you start something entirely new. Let people do things
differently. Everyone does not have to agree-they should not all be
expected to agree-in order for some to move forward on a new idea. "We
should allow people inside schools, inside the existing system to try new
things that they want to do."
Referencing a recent
visit with the Civic Caucus by Walt McClure, a participant noted McClure's
argument that if the architecture of a system is changed those inside it
will adapt behavior in response to changed incentives. Jennings read the
interview-did anything occur to him that applies to his own experience?
"I've thought of that
a lot. We have administrators that want to change, but what happens is the
middle management structure obstructs the change. So Walt's paper about
incentives runs into that sort of problem."
He described a
superintendent in Appleton, WI that has something like 10 different
programs running in his district. "That is commendable, but it was almost
impossible for him to do."
told an interesting story of a principal that took over the Wilson Campus
school, and wiped out compulsory attendance along with 69 other changes by
fiat, "taking on the department to do it." They soon found that compulsory
attendance was not even needed. Students wanted to come to school. The
Hole in the Wall experiment tells you that if school is structured
correctly you won't be able to stop students from learning.
A superintendent once
said: Teachers should hang a shingle out their door, and unless they
attract students, they will have no job.
Save money in education through new models of
To save money,
said that schools might enlist greater amounts of labor from students and
could move to "differentiated staffing models" for the adults. For
example, of the medical profession, 7% are doctors; of all education
professionals, 60% are teachers. Not everyone in the school needs to be a
highly credentialed expert to add value, he argued.
Also, the learning
model can change from teachers presenting information in lectures to
teachers coaching students who retrieve the information
themselves-lessening the burden on the adults, improving productivityand
effectiveness, and leveraging motivation. "When people talk about
education they're talking about a teacher lecturing. Instead of talking
about 'teachers,' I find it helpful to talk about them as 'facilitators of
A participant asked
whether he believes we can do these sorts of innovative things inside the
existing structure? "We can try," he responded, but "I think there will be
resistance. It is hard to make change within the system."
administrators do not sufficiently get exposed to new ideas in education.
"I think students that are preparing to be teachers need to see these new
kinds of schools and be excited by them," he said. "I taught classes at
St. Thomas, and
used to tell the students that their final exam would be to design their
own school of the future. Most came in to my class as conventional
thinkers. During the 12-14 week course I introduced them to many different
models. They would work together and by the end of the course they had
developed very interesting and brilliant new learning models. Then they'd
get angry-because they knew that they would probably never get to work in
a school like the one they imagined."
The legislature could push districts to provide multiple kinds of schools
and redefine the role of charters.
A participant asked
if he could wave a wand, what is the one best thing the legislature could
do this session for the long-term restructuring of E-12?
"I would say we have a
Legislature that says ' I understand students learn in different ways',"
he replied, and then compels every district to have a minimum of three
different kinds of schools for students to choose from. It is a source of
pride that we have been a leader in open enrollment, he continued, but for
the past eight years the state's progress in education has been stagnant.
Other possible actions
for the legislature could include revising the charter law so that it more
explicitly states that its purpose is innovation. "It does imply that now,
but that's not really what the law is being used for. We have not gotten
very far yet with chartered schools because most are simply reproducing
the traditional ways of schooling." Those that go beyond the traditional
"get slapped around by bureaucratic rules, such as 'go ahead and change
but meet all the present rules and procedures.'" Instead he wants to see
charters as places where robust research and development is undertaken.
said that he believes the legislature may play a significant role in
education reform, in part because it has in the past. "Remember most of
the big innovations came through the legislature, over the bitter
resistance of educators. Remember open enrollment ('What are we now, the
unions and administrators would ask...'in competition with each other?!'),
and Post Secondary Education Options, fiercely resisted by some. I think
the legislature is critical, but they need to hear from a broader
constituency than just the department of education, the union, and
There are many more instruments for measuring success than we presently
use, or know.
Basic skills in reading and math are important. But we don't test for
anything more than these basic skills. "Something that's getting a lot of
coverage now is the Hope Survey," an instrument that measures the outlook
students have for their future, measuring growth in aspirations over
time-an important indicator for future success. It is not in vogue,
Jennings cautioned, but arguably more important than any conventional
measure. (Find an article about the Hope Survey here:
And there are other
instruments out there-we just haven't paid enough attention to them, or
encouraged their development. There are website communities, for example,
where psychologists have come up with numerous, different tools to measure
people. Various aspects of "success" are measurable. We just need to get
at doing it.
"If we limit our
objectives to attaining certain test scores,, how can we expect schools to
be created that do anything other than teach to the test?" What gets
measured gets done. "I don't think kids are learning enough in schools
today, and I don't mean just with regard to international comparisons.
There are important life-centered 21st century skills that are
reiterated that he does not have a lot of confidence that the people of
can work within the existing system to change education. "So I continue to
advocate chartering as a way to accomplish change, but that way of
creating schools has not yet yielded many new models."
The greatest untapped
resource in our schools is that of the students themselves. They're like
racecars at the start line, he said. They are there ready to go, and would
like to do something real out in the world but the flag never falls.
They're not being challenged.
Education has to be better, but don't get caught thinking that means
better test scores. Education has to be better in the general sense. We
have to free up creative people inside the systems and outside to develop
parallel or competing models, "give them time to refine their features and
assess results with real world measurements." Legislatures are still
caught up in raising standards and test scores based on conventional
"Free creative educators to form different kinds of programs with
realistic 21st century goals, personalized rather than
one-size-fits-all curriculum, facilitated learning through hands-on
experience, and maximum effective use of technology. It's not the money
that is the problem-it's the need to redesign schools."
Thank you, Dr. Jennings, for a very insightful meeting.