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Inspired by NASA: A 3-Phase Plan to Transform Education

NASA published a three-phase plan to get humans to Mars. To live on Mars. For indefinite periods of time in sustainable habitats. It will take decades. They don’t have an exact timeline. They don’t have all of their funding in place. Much of the technology they need hasn’t been invented yet. But they have a plan. And they are moving forward with it. (You can read NASA’s plan here.)

I think that’s incredible. And it got me wondering. Could we develop a three-phase plan to make our educational system brilliant in several decades? Most people I know believe that our educational system needs to change. Most people I know understand that our educational system does not meet the needs of all learners nor the needs of all teachers. So why not change it?

The first step is to agree on the goal, like NASA did with their Mars plan. The school system I envision for this country has not yet been invented. But our country created a new educational system before. Remember, we were the first country in history to have a free system of public education for all citizens. We can be the first to create an educational system that recognizes and fosters the curiosity, creativity, and genius in all citizens. So, what would Education’s Goal look like?

An Educational System where ALL schools meet the needs of the students they serve in order to foster the powerful and informed citizenry we need. We can accomplish this goal in phases, leveraging our current experiences in educational innovation to create a heterogeneous system that nurtures all of our country’s potential geniuses.

Let’s look at NASA’s plan and then examine what an Educational Plan might look like.

NASA’s plan includes the following three phases (p. 7):

  • Earth Reliant

The Earth Reliant phase is focused on what is already happening on the International Space Station (ISS). On ISS, NASA is “testing technologies and advancing human health and performance research that will enable deep-space, long-duration missions.”

  • Proving Ground

In the Proving Ground, NASA will learn what they need to know to work in a deep space environment, but allow crews to return to Earth in days rather than months or years. They plan to conduct operations in “cislunar space” which is the volume of space around the moon.

  • Earth Independent

The Earth Independent phase is exactly what it sounds like. NASA plans to “build on what we learn on ISS and in cislunar space to enable human missions to the Mars vicinity, including the Martian moons, and eventually the Martian surface.”

Impressive. Ambitious. Well thought-out. Can we do the same for Education?

Below is a three-phase plan to create an exceptional Educational System in the coming decades.

  • History Dependent

The History Dependent phase is focused on what has already happened in Education and what is currently happening to address problems in our educational system. We need to keep testing educational innovations such as project-based learning and student-centered learning that will enable an educational system that works in the Information Age. I mention a few here, but there are many, many more out there.

  • Buck Institute for Education (BIE) is a leader promoting Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a “transformative teaching method for engaging ALL students in meaningful learning…” http://bie.org/about/our_values
  • Coalition of Essential Schools envisions “an educational system that equips all students with the intellectual, emotional, and social habits and skills to become powerful and informed citizens…” http://essentialschools.org/vision/
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation (Edutopia.org) has a vision of “a new world of learning based on the compelling truth that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race.” http://www.edutopia.org/mission-vision
  • Big Picture Learning is a non-profit organization “dedicated to a fundamental redesign of education in the United States.” http://www.bigpicture.org/about-us/

Like space exploration, “educational exploration” is necessarily driven by technology as technological advances continually change our society. Educational technology may well be the driving force behind the implementation of our plan. Many of the decisions and steps on our technological journey can’t be made yet, but here are some encouraging efforts.


  • Proving Ground

In the Proving Ground we will learn what we need to know to develop strategies that can effect change in all states and school districts in the next ten to fifty years.

First, we need to adopt NASA’s “resilient pioneering approach,” which it needs since “achieving Earth Independence will take decades and can be impacted by multiple uncertain events.” Among those uncertain events are “changes in priorities of future administrations, the emergence of breakthrough technologies, discovery of new scientific knowledge, fluctuations in funding, and new partnership opportunities.” (p. 12) If you are an educator, these events probably sound familiar.

Since we face many of the same uncertainties as NASA, their pioneering approach is desperately needed for our educational system. Education constantly deals with changes in politics, information updates on the Internet, daily breakthroughs in technology, ongoing funding issues, and the need to foster potential partnerships.

Our new educational plan should use the technology that connects us and the teaching models that will help create the innovative, well-adjusted thinkers we need in our society. Then we need to develop strategies for funding that equalize opportunities for students in all schools and districts.

There are already many thoughtful educators working toward these ends. We should continue to form broad coalitions of forward-thinking organizations and individuals whose mission is to improve education.

  • History Independent

In the History Independent phase we build on what we learn in Phase 1 and Phase 2. The way to make good education happen for all students is still elusive, but we CAN get there. We can enable an educational system where:

  • Teachers have the training and planning time they need to facilitate student learning.
  • Students (along with teachers, parents, and mentors) map their own educational plans.
  • Every school has the infrastructure it needs for its population and its educational focus.
  • Schools are driven by student demonstrations of their learning in real-world arenas.

I might be overly optimistic, but I believe this IS an achievable goal.Mars

Horace Mann’s One Big Mistake

traditional classroomAs you know, Horace Mann is credited with creating our current system of public education. He was known as “Father of the Common School” because he wanted to ensure that every child in America could receive a basic education. Mann believed that political stability and social harmony depended on education. http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html

I have disparaged Mann’s system often enough, calling it a “factory model” that was invented to create factory workers. But the truth is, that system was created at a time in our history when we were shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. So preparing factory workers with a basic education and understanding of democracy was meeting a need. And it was very innovative at the time.

It was the first time in WORLD HISTORY that the idea of educating EVERY person in a country was ever thought of, much less implemented. And it was free to students; paid for by taxes. Before that, people thought that only leaders and other important (read wealthy) people needed an education. The common people didn’t need to know much.

Bur Horace Mann persisted. He sold his radical idea first to Massachusetts (via his position as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.) Soon, the rest of the states embraced the idea. Not only that, but Mann was influential in developing teacher training schools to professionalize teaching. That was a new concept too.

Horace Mann made one mistake though. Unfortunately, it was rather a BIG one. He chose the Prussian system for his model of delivery (mainly because it was cheap and easy to implement). The Prussian system seemed to be exactly what was needed at the time.

The problem was that Fredrick the Great had created the Prussian system to teach obedience and solidify his control of his nation. Frederick wanted to indoctrinate his people from an early age. To that end, he focused on “following directions, basic skills, and conformity.” He isolated students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms, “intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.” No one cared what students thought. They were there to soak up the information Frederick thought they needed. thenewamericanacademy.org

So, today we have an educational system where public education is free to every citizen from Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. We have a system of training teachers who are viewed as professionals. That’s all good. But many people are questioning our Prussian-based educational delivery system.

We are no longer in the Industrial Age. We have entered the Information Age and we need to change our public education system to reflect that seismic shift. We need citizens that can think independently, work collaboratively, and create solutions to the problems we face now as well as those we haven’t yet encountered.

“The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education. It’s time to unhinge ourselves from the many assumptions that undergird how we deliver instruction and begin to design new models that are better able to leverage talent, time, and technology to best meet the unique needs of each student. In doing so, we can put Mann’s innovation in its proper context: as the foundation for our commitment to a public education but not as the blueprint for how to deliver it.” Joel Rose, The Atlantic, May 9, 2012

I agree with Mr. Rose. We have a commitment to public education. But it is time to change our educational delivery system. The factory model doesn’t fit our needs anymore. The good news is there are many people working to change it.

Groups and institutions have sprung up all over the country whose focus is updating our educational system. Individual schools and districts are working to create educational models that meet the needs of all students and include students in the design their own learning. Philanthropists are funneling large amounts of money into technology and promising educational programs. Coalitions of like-minded educational organizations are being formed.

This is all very encouraging, but there is much work to be done. As another of our early educational innovators, John Dewey, famously wrote in his book Schools of Tomorrow in 1915, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Let’s not rob our students of tomorrow.



PBL: Four Essentials for a Great Project



I love the idea of project based learning (PBL) since it gets students actively involved in their own learning and requires them to think critically. It also forces them to do research and collaborate with other students and interact with community members.




According to PBL proponents, “the heart of a project—what it is “about” if one were to sum it up—is a problem to investigate and solve or a question to explore and answer.” Buck Institute for Education’s Editor in Chief John Lambert and Executive Director John Mergendoller describe a good project as one in which “students learn how to apply knowledge to the real world and use it to solve problems, answer complex questions, and create high-quality products.” Gold Standard PBL, April 21, 2015

There are many lists concerning the whole process of project-based learning. But I wanted to know what is needed for the project itself, from a teacher’s point of view.  I found four elements that seem absolutely necessary for a project to be worthwhile.

  1. It must be real. A good project solves a real-world problem or answers a real-world complex question. “…authenticity infuses student work with purpose and passion…Traditionally, most student work is created for the insulated world of the classroom and is rarely seen by anyone except a teacher. In contrast, authentic projects seek to create work that fills needs or interests in the broader school, community, or world. Project-Based Learning Guide, National Academy Foundation
  1. It must be personal. For students to be engaged, they need some level of choice in the project. “In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice the better…learners can select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present projects…what projects to create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time.” Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning
  1. It must be collaborative. Students need to learn how to work with other students, how to critique others’ work and listen to critiques of their own work, and how to approach community members and others whose knowledge is relevant to their projects. They don’t usually come to class with these skills. “Collaboration is included in almost every list of 21st-century skills—and for good reason. Technology now offers more people the opportunity to work together without geographical restraint, and businesses everywhere are expecting employees to collaborate on projects, both in face-to-face teams and in virtual teams.” Timothy Quinn, G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K Doesn’t Spell Collaboration Education Week
  1. It must be shared. A good project is shared with others. Presentation can take many forms; it might be a podcast or a video; it might be a poster or a model demonstrating learner insights; it might be a letter to a government official. It really depends on the audience. Before PBL, the audience for most student products was the teacher. In PBL, the audience might be the principal, another class, the community, or even the world. “Project Based Learning refers to students designing, planning, and carrying out an extended project that produces a publicly-exhibited output such as a product, publication, or presentation.” The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning, 2012 teachthought.com

Project-based learning is a concept whose time has come. Today’s students are already connected with the world via their electronics. We need to make their school work meaningful and connected with the world as well.

Will. You. Please. Stop. Complaining. About. CCSS!

Some people complain about, belittle, denigrate, and deride anything that has to do with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Why, people, why?

Do you want the United States to be mediocre?

The U.S. ranks 22nd among developed countries in the number of students who graduate from high school. Education at a Glance, OECD 2011

Do you want products of our educational system (AKA our students) to be unable to complete globally?

Is keeping an educational system that has proven itself over and over NOT to work for the majority of students REALLY preferable to getting on board with a system that has generated valuable conversations and forced evaluation of current practices?

I would like to make a difference here between intelligent, thoughtful people who disagree with aspects of the CCSS and the more vocal naysayers who just want it to go away, but have nothing to offer in the way of constructive criticism or alternative ideas.

“Supporters…say the standards will increase the rigor and quality of American schools and put the U.S. back on the map in terms of educational excellence.” Connie Matthiessen, Learn More about Common Core

Detractors wonder, “Has the federal government overreached and saddled our schools with standards that have been flawed from the start?” Embrace the Common Core Debate, September 9, 2014 intelligencesquaredus.org

This ongoing debate is GOOD for our country. Supporters need to voice their support more often and detractors need to come up with sound arguments, not just ‘government conspiracy’ theories. The CCSS were not, in fact created by the federal government. Nor are they overseen by the federal government.

“The Common Core is a state-led effort that is not part of No Child Left Behind or any other federal initiative. The federal government played no role in the development of the Common Core. State adoption of the standards is in no way mandatory.” Myths vs. Facts www.corestandards.org

So let’s embrace the debate that is going on and contribute to it in a helpful way. Let’s do our homework before criticizing and let’s join the conversation rather than standing apart, throwing stones.

For my money, CCSS is the best hope for our educational system and has the potential to close the opportunity gaps that currently exist for our students. It may not be perfect, but I believe it is moving us in the right direction. If we work together, we can make it better.  ccss

IQ: Can We Get Smarter?

BrainIQ (Intelligence Quotient): a number used to express the apparent relative intelligence of a person as a score determined by one’s performance on a standardized intelligence test relative to the average performance of others the same age. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iq

One and done? One unchanging score for life? If that is true, then people don’t get smarter over time. But getting smarter seems to be what’s happening if you look at the Flynn effect. What James Flynn noticed was that IQ scores keep moving in one way, worldwide. They keep getting higher. According to Flynn, each generation scores higher on IQ tests than the generation before it.

So either we are all becoming geniuses or the scale needs to be revised. The average must be 100 or else how can we compare properly? [We don’t live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.] So the test makers recalibrate the tests. “The companies had to keep making it harder to get a 100, because people keep getting more intelligent and doing better at the tests.” Tom Chivers, The Telegraph, 2014

Professor Flynn doesn’t think the current generation is smarter than previous generations, though. He claims that we just think differently now; we think more abstractly than our predecessors did. Which is why we do better on the tests. They measure abstract thinking and logical problem solving.

I took a free IQ test online at memorado.com and was told that my IQ is 132 and that I am in the top 2% of everyone. This was based on 10-15 questions (I can’t be that smart…I don’t remember how many there were.) They also didn’t ask my age, which is supposed to be a factor. I’m pretty sure this was a sales tactic. They want to sell me brain games that will exercise my brain to make me even smarter. Naturally, I signed up. Who doesn’t want to be smarter than other people?

But can we really get smarter? Some people think so. In 2008, researchers Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl published a really interesting study. They used a game called N-back as a training regimen. The game challenges users to remember something that is presented immediately before (1-back), the time before last (2-back), the time before that (3-back) and so on. If you do well at 2-back, the computer moves you up to 3-back. Do well at 3-back and you’ll jump to 4-back. If you do poorly at any level, the computer takes you down a level.

What Jaeggi and Buschkuehl found was that playing the N-back game literally makes people smarter. Not only better at the game itself (practice, practice, practice) but at “a fundamental cognitive ability known as “fluid” intelligence: the capacity to solve novel problems, to learn, to reason, to see connections and to get to the bottom of things.” Can You Make Yourself Smarter, Dan Hurley, New York Times, April 18, 2012

Of course, not everyone agrees. Some intelligence researchers are skeptical. But many others are working on ways to improve intelligence. And the idea that we can get smarter is a concept that wasn’t even considered possible as recently as 2002.

If we collectively come to believe that people can get smarter, how might that change our educational system? Can education truly become individualized when we see student intelligence as fluid rather than fixed? Or will we find some other way to categorize and pigeon-hole people?

Howard Gardner

Gardner graphic2Do you remember Howard Gardner? If you have anything to do with Education, you probably do. He doesn’t have much presence on social media though, so some of you may have missed him.

Howard Gardner is the cognitive psychologist who revolutionized our thinking about human intelligence. He didn’t agree with the notion that humans possess a single intelligence (IQ) that can be measured using a single linear scale. His exhaustive research provided a much different theory of human intelligence. And this theory expanded and changed the way we think about education and student learning.

Gardner is a Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero (an educational research group at Harvard). Most recently, Gardner was named the Brock International Prize in Education Laureate for 2015. Impressive credentials.

When I first saw Howard Gardner speak at a school near Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s, I was surprised to see a short, bespectacled, mousy little man walk to the podium. His presence wasn’t compelling, neither was his soft voice. But his message was. His book, Frames of Mind (Basic Books, 1983, rereleased in 2011) had caused much discussion in educational circles. He claimed that he could identify at least seven intelligences in humans, using strict criteria that defined an “intelligence.”

The thing that struck me most about Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences was that of the original seven he had identified, only two were important in our educational system. Standardized tests and measures of IQ favored people with strength in Verbal-linguistic and Logical-mathematical intelligences. Students demonstrating those skills tended to do well. Students without a strong focus in those skills, even if they were very strong in other intelligences (Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Spatial-Visual, Intrapersonal, or Interpersonal) might be thought of as less intelligent and could easily fall through the cracks. “Dr. Gardner says that we should also place equal attention on individuals who show gifts in the other intelligences: the artists, architects, musicians, naturalists, designers, dancers, therapists, entrepreneurs, and others who enrich the world in which we live.” Thomas Armstrong, American Institute for Learning and Development, 2013

Over the years, Gardner published several additional books about multiple intelligences (MI). Following Frames of Mind (now available for Kindle), he published Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (Basic Books, 1993), The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (Basic Books, 1995, 2004, 2011), and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2000). His original theory hasn’t changed much, though he has added one new intelligence: Naturalist. He is exploring a ninth intelligence, Existential, but that one doesn’t meet all of Gardner’s criteria. He claims he has now identified 8 ½ intelligences. J

It has been over 30 years since Gardner’s first book on intelligence was published and on the surface at least, many educators have embraced his theory. But MI theory has been linked in some people’s minds with other educational concepts such as learning styles. Gardner would like to set the record straight, “one unanticipated consequence [of interest in the theory] has driven me to distraction—and that’s the tendency of many people…to credit me with the notion of ‘learning styles’…” Not so, he says. You can read Gardner’s in-depth analysis of the differences between MI and learning styles in Valery Straus’ article, Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple Intelligences’ are not ‘Learning Styles,’ Washington Post, 2013.

The good news is that educators are still discussing Gardner’s theory and trying to figure out how to put it into practice. More good news is that this is happening at his own school, originally formed in 1975 as The Children’s Learning Workshop in Scranton, Pennsylvania (where he is from) and reorganized in 2005 as the Howard Gardner School for Discovery. In 2012, the School for Discovery became a public charter school in Scranton, called the Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences Charter School (HGMICS). (http://howardgardnerschool.com/)  As a laboratory charter school, HGMICS’ mission is to improve the practice of teaching. I’m hopeful that Gardner and his colleagues will guide the rest of us to incorporate the Theory of Multiple Intelligences into common educational practice.

Has School Changed?

I read a lot of articles about innovation in schools and have been impressed by schools and educational organizations that promote student-centered learning, project-based learning, and technology in education. I love reading about programs and schools where students actually have a choice about how and what they learn. It is a very exciting time to be writing about education.

But the truth is, those innovative people and schools I read about are still only a tiny minority in our school system. I recently visited an elementary school that I had attended as a child. NOTHING had changed. I could have walked in as a 4th grader today and not missed a beat.

I’ve visited several elementary schools in the past months and talked with kids about their experiences at elementary, middle school and high school. As far as I can tell, the factory model is still firmly entrenched in our educational system.

And it seems that the majority of parents are fine with that. I suggested an innovative charter school to a parent for her middle-schooler who doesn’t fit the typical educational mold and is therefore struggling and unhappy with school in general. She and her husband had the opinion that because they made it through that system, their son should be able to also. I’m afraid that attitude is still the norm in our country.

So what, if anything, has changed in our schools? Most of the changes I see are cultural…changes that have happened in our culture and sort of spilled over into schools. Mostly these changes are good, but schools have a long, long, long way to go to be truly innovative and student-centered.


The old adage ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is not in vogue any more in our society. Parents who spank their children are looked down upon. School personnel report bruises and suspected abuse to the authorities. Teachers are not allowed to use corporal punishment anymore and indeed, the most prudent behavior for school personnel is to not touch students at all.

Today’s discipline is usually rooted in behaviorist theory and involves rewards and punishments. But the attitude doesn’t seem much different from the days of corporal punishment. Students will follow the rules or there will be consequences. And today, those consequences often involve suspensions or expulsions. A comprehensive report on school discipline titled, The School Discipline Consensus Report was published by The Council of State Governments Justice Center. The consensus was that current school discipline policies are not working and unfair and that changes need to be made.

Dress Codes

In my own high school days, we had a strictly-enforced dress code. Girls were required to wear dresses or skirts and those dresses had to be a certain length (read: no mini-skirts). Boys wore slacks (no jeans) and shirts with collars. Shortly after I left school things began to change…slowly.

In most of the schools I have seen lately, students wear pretty much whatever they want. Some things (e.g., gang paraphernalia; shirts with unacceptable messages, seasonal outfits that show too much skin) are outlawed and some schools require uniforms, but the majority of students choose their own wardrobes.

Of course, all of this is being hashed out in the courts, where students have challenged dress codes on the basis of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. See a FindLaw.com article, School Dress Codes, for specifics. So dress codes have changed and continue to change, but those changes really have nothing to do with how school is conducted.

Technology Use

Technology in this country is a force unto itself. Most people realize that having technology-free schools doesn’t work with students who are growing up with technology and using it every single day in their non-school lives.

But the most common forms of technology that I see in schools today are more practical than innovative. There are systems parents can use to check grades and communicate with teachers. And there are tablets such as iPads that are issued to students. The tablets replace heavy books, are convenient for note-taking, and are loaded with skill-and-drill games that students can play when they finish their work. Not very innovative.

According to an article by Katrina Schwartz on Mindshift.com, “…the iPad is a great utility tool. But for the most part, students aren’t doing anything on the iPad that they can’t do with pen and paper, although admittedly, it’s much faster and more efficient to use the iPad.”


Overall I am disappointed with what I have observed,

but still optimistic for the future of education.

The innovators are out there. I will keep reading what they

have to say, writing about them, and supporting their efforts.

Maybe by the time my great- great-grandchildren start school,

the innovations I am reading about today will be mainstream.