by Julia Steiny
“School is often divorced from the real world. And Millennials believe they have to follow their passions, so they’re very frustrated. So how do we help kids create value (paid work) by learning the skills they need in order to follow their passion? Because young people are realizing that in this economy, they might have to create the job of their dreams for themselves.”
Juliette LaMontagne, long time educator and Ted Talk fellow, was A Better Word By Design’s keynote speaker. This conference is for innovators who believe that like the scientific process, the design process can reliably help anyone work a problem through a series of iterative steps to solution. LaMontagne concedes that she once knew little to nothing about design or business thinking. But what she did know, deep down, was that our education system is failing the students who find sitting in classrooms all day full-on painful.
For 15 years LaMontagne had a promising career with the New York City schools. She walked away in abject frustration. She couldn’t be part of schools that treat students as “empty vessels to be filled” with knowledge and skills, passively, compliantly. Teachers can’t be innovators; they get a curriculum and instruction in how to get the kids to “learn” to arrive at right answers. Instead of enjoying the peak of their youthful vigor and energy, students are parked in chairs and expected to receive learning. Wake me when it’s over!
LaMontagne says, “I have a bias towards action and a willingness to experiment.” So she turned education on its head with a project called Breaker. (Yes, an odd name) Home-based in New York City — though with projects elsewhere — Breaker assembles interdisciplinary teams to “drive social innovation and collaborative learning.” Breaker leaders pose social problems, like increasing literacy or inventing urban farming techniques, and invites young people (who apply) to work with experts who have relevant practical skills. Together, the team uses an open-source IDEO design toolkit which lays out a process for collecting information, brainstorming ideas and testing solutions. The point is to create a sustainable business that solves the problem on an on-going basis, if possible.
So instead of a kid learning enough math, engineering, social science, communications skills to build something useful or remarkable later on, maybe, someday in the future, when there’s a job — build now. Learn the necessary skills along the way. Yes, this is project-based learning, which is not a radically new idea. But Breaker’s problem-solving business is at the center of the work. Actually fix something. Don’t invent a little hands-on project intended to reinforce a lesson. Focus for real on designing a necessary product, service, business.
LaMontagne’s favorite team member was a high-school dropout who had terrific communication and community-organizing skills, and horrible academic skills. As the people-person best able to negotiate with businesses and the community, he was well respected by the team, and thus motivated — at last! — to learn what traditional classrooms made impossible.
LaMontagne’s TED talk describes the project he worked on. The question was how to bring more garden space to inner-city areas, so people could grow their own fresh food. The team assembled in Breaker’s New York City space and started collecting data. They discovered that U.S. urban areas have about a million acres of unused land that could be converted into farmland. But lots of these areas are stalled construction projects that lost funding during the recession. So the garden plots needed to be temporary, able to be moved relatively quickly when the owner or the Department of Transportation finally got around to needing the land back. The project became a business called “Farm Blocks,” which manufactures lightweight containers that become modular, raised planting beds.
Some of the Farm Blocks team stayed on to work at what had become a viable business. Others were content with Breaker’s rich learning experience, and moved on.
Currently, Breaker reaches out mainly to 18-24-year-olds, a group whose 15.1% unemployment rate is twice the nation’s 7.3% rate. But as a frustrated K-12 educator, LaMontagne passionately recommends that schools adopt this go-getter entrepreneurial technique for K-12 kids maddened by educational passivity. “Students say I wish I were out in the real world making something happen. Have students decide what question to ask. The teacher becomes the facilitator. The product is the evaluation.”
She adds, “Imagine the collective impact of non-empty vessels, and instead engines of innovation. Imagine moving from centralized schools to learning distribution networks with community stakeholders strongly invested in the issues.”
Imagine how much better communities might look and feel when youth is out solving neighborhood problems with the support of educators.
Btw: nationally, student achievement has barely budged in many years. The nation’s flat SAT scores are the most recent evidence. Our current educational methods are obviously not working for a good portion of the nation’s students — I’d ballpark it at a third. Why not let more of them try their hand at business, especially since many will have to invent their own jobs anyway?
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.