It’s been almost two years since Milton Chen released his book Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools, capturing the best lessons learned from his time as executive director at the George Lucas Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process. While the first edge remains the hardest, Chen believes the tipping point for a big leap forward in education is only a few years away.

Chen talked about the future of education in a library jammed with stacks of books in Omaha’s National Park Service building on the Missouri River. Part of a group helping to bring experiential learning to the nation’s park system, Chen will be a featured speaker at Brownell-Talbot’s 21st Century Learning series on Thursday, March 22 at 7 p.m.

“I was trying to curate the best of,” recalled Chen of his book that drew from the foundation’s website. “Our work has been to document and disseminate stories about the most innovative schools in the country.”

Public, private, charter — it doesn’t matter to Chen.

“We are agnostic in terms of the governance of the school. We really want to see the practices of the 21st Century — teaching, learning — going on the in the classroom. We use film to document this and we believe working with a filmmaker, you see how it’s used in the classroom.”

But for Chen, the proof is in the students. “The look on the student’s faces … it’s very hard to describe, but it’s quite persuasive when you see how engaged and motivated they are to do project-based work using technology, collaborating with each other and getting out in the community.”

Since the book’s release, technology has leapfrogged forward. “We’ve had a lot of trouble getting kids to grade levels in math and reading. I maintain we haven’t had the right experiences for them.” With mobile computing, tablets, apps and a multimedia experience, “the pace of technological change is making things possible now.”

And it also helps with kids raised in a digital age. “In the traditional classroom, a lot of misbehavior occurs because kids are bored. In a one-size-fits-all, a lot didn’t fit and kids acted up,” said Chen. “Now, they are much more engaged when they are allowed to work with each other, when they are allowed to use technology.

“There’s still digital misbehavior, so teaching kids the responsible use of technology is very important. They will have access to technology everywhere, so we need to provide experiences that allow them to learn how to use it responsibly and become a good digital learner and digital citizen.

A lot of advocacy for one-to-one, every student has a device and textbooks are replaced with content online, is coming from parents, explained Chen. Parental education is very important. “Because it’s mobile and kids can access it on their smart phones, the home is another important place for learning,” said Chen. “So it’s very important that parents become co-educators with their kids and teachers to really create the connection between home and school. The parent and the teacher are working together so everyone is on board with what’s being done in learning.”

Chen pointed to the recent Kony video as a prime example of technology offering a teaching moment. While the situation in Uganda and Congo is more complex than the story portrayed in the web video, the video itself spurred kids to explore, gather more information and come to their own conclusions.

In his book, Chen lists six edges of education innovation and today he still believes the first edge is the biggest stumbling block and teacher feedback continues to reinforce this.

“The change in thinking about education is the hardest,” he said. “To this day I still hear the most important thing is the teacher standing up in front of the classroom and lecturing. That’s partly true, the most important thing is still the teacher, but not standing up in front of the class lecturing, instead working with students in small groups and setting the students out to do their own research and find information, to collaborate and produce a presentation that synthesizes what they learned.”

For generations of former students, it can be off-putting. “It’s a big change for parents and teachers,” said Chen. “We were all educated in a certain way and now we know there are multiple pathways. It’s a very different process from the traditional thinking. This is a much more active role for students rather than passively sitting there absorbing the teacher’s lessons. The lecture still continues to be the dominant form of instruction in schools and universities. It’s an ancient way that’s been called a way to get from the teacher’s notes to the student’s notes without passing through either of their heads.”

That mode of delivery was important when the teacher was the source of the knowledge, explained Chen. But when the knowledge is online, it’s much more comprehensive and deeper than any one teacher can ever summarize.

Chen says the foundation first saw the willingness to rethink education reaching critical mass in 2010, with a growing awareness in collaborative and project-based learning.

“The technology was there in the first decade, but as things got cheaper and faster, the maturity of internet-based content was getting there,” he said.

It’s what’s coming next that will finally change everything.

“During the next three years in particular, as we move to performance-based assessments, that will be the final tipping point,” said Chen. “When the states, now that they’ve accepted the core standards, adopt performance-based assessments that are much deeper and more about measuring thinking and reasoning, marshaling knowledge to make arguments, then everything will change.”

Chen calls the new assessments, funded by the federal Department of Education through two state consortiums, the best investment in education and the most important breakthrough in 21st Century education skills.

“Many teachers would love to do it now, but they have to teach to the test,” he said. “Once we change the test, that’s the most important thing. Under No Child Left Behind we didn’t change the tests, so we got the same thing the entire first decade we had been getting before. The dropout rate continued, students didn’t get to grade levels in reading and math. Now we have a different way of getting there.”

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