How to Get Comfortable with Ambiguity: Education Beyond 2020
By Meg Stowe | February 12, 2020
Would you take a job with no formal description, outlined performance tasks, or documented evaluation criteria yet filled with the aspirational goal of improving education at large? I did, with enthusiasm for what could be; another mile marker in my own non-linear, personal journey to design, create, and measure Innovation as a Mindset, in the landscape of education.
In 2017, Rocky Hill Country Day School developed a different approach to education. We wanted students to demonstrate they’d gained skills, not simply passed a test. We believed our students learned best through asking questions and engaging in real-word problem solving. It’s why we designed and embraced a competency-based, intentional Project-Based Learning approach to education. Together, we envisioned, co-created, and articulated a rigorous, authentic, and forward-thinking teaching and learning model.
So, how did we begin this process? In essence, we recommitted to what experts had historically termed Progressive Education. This movement was based on John Dewey’s formal research during the late 1880’s-1904 at his lab school at the University of Chicago. There, with other researchers and theorists, he worked to re-engage young people in community participation in the democratic process. He placed emphasis on the arts and human expression. Dewey infused school with learning experiences to develop adaptable, capable learners, at a time when the educational focus was shifting towards intelligence measurement and cost-benefit management.1
With a focus on being adaptable, progressive education worked to tailor learning to the child. Rather than simply transferring inert knowledge from teacher to student, teachers facilitated deep and enduring learning experiences. This type of education celebrated divergent thinking to identify novel solutions to human problems impacting students. Progressive education also required the facilitator to connect and relate specific content understandings across a variety of disciplines, contexts, and applications.
In theory, this approach appeared ideal. But the big question loomed: How would we manifest this vision today, and beyond 2020? It was clear we needed to approach “doing school” differently, yet there were no specific road maps or directions. Knowing our vision included honoring and connecting all the disciplines, we sought to embrace the ambiguity this could create. We invited in the outside world; a place where disruptive technologies and VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, & Ambiguous) environments were felt most often. We looked to integrate business, government, medicine, media, environmental sustainability, technology and the dawn of AI, civic engagement, and the startup ecosystems in our region and beyond. This showed all of us how we might approach integrating across the content areas and the power of discipline collaborations using real-world examples. These taught us to think outside the box as we worked to prepare the next generation of change-makers, ethical creators, and stewards of our planet.
It quickly became clear this would be the foundation for my role as Director of Innovation in a PK-12 school in East Greenwich, RI. How might I connect big-picture challenges happening in the outside world to students in our school, moreover, for students in all schools? How might I connect people working to solve these challenges directly to our students so they might co-create in real-time and in real-world contexts? These questions would become the genesis of several unique school-wide programs and partnerships.
Comfort with ambiguity and the ability to curate and create learning experiences that bring the outside in is a very real requirement for educators now, and even more so in the future. The additive nature of content knowledge acquisition (rote learning of facts, figures and processes) will continue to challenge educators as requisite skills of the future include communication, curiosity, creativity, and empathy, to name a few remain critical. These skills for the future are not often reflected in the ethos or the pedagogy of most schools, so long as standardized scores and national rankings remain paramount and the seemingly ultimate end game. Just like the chicken and egg argument, we must acknowledge that a progressive education requires actual content knowledge and understandings — things with which to play, manipulate, and create — to innovate and comfortably adapt.
So, how can we develop innovation as a mindset to be practiced, creating meaningful learning for all? Furthermore, how can we accomplish this at scale while maintaining good teaching and deep learning? These are million-dollar questions, for which many are seeking solutions. But what remains necessary today, is the need for education to adapt to the many ambiguous challenges facing humanity, locally and globally. We need to be fearless and look outside our immediate arenas for possible answers.
The opportunity to create models that strive to be perpetually progressive, relevant, and adaptable is a role I gladly undertake. And I do so with exceptional colleagues who share a common vision for what’s possible in education today and beyond 2020.
John Dewey Project on Progressive Education
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Director of Innovation, Rocky Hill Country Day
Social Impact Entrepreneur, Speaker, Athlete, and Educator. Founder of Girls Leadership Collaborative (GLC). New England’s ‘Innovation Award’ Nominee. Degrees from Denison University (Biology), and Lesley University (M.Ed). Stowe’s work leverages integrated curriculum design, strategic thinking, and strengths-based leadership.