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Eureka! I’ve found it!

The Holy Grail of education is in Alaska… well, kinda.

A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed to, at least partly, the future of education, and my recent conversations with parents show that the future is nearer than we might think.

In a remote part of Alaska, there is an odd school district. To most outside observers, it seems horribly stuck in the 1950s. A recent example is their school board, who made national news with their decision to remove several books from High School English class. A dangerous and sinister group of books that have no place in Stalin’s Russia. Books like “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, and the most offensive of books, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stalin would be proud.  

But, despite this soviet-era book-banning by their board, the school district is doing one thing very right. It is a glimpse of the educational model that is the way forward for all of us.

Parent Leadership

Many years ago, this district began to embrace the radical idea that parents are in charge of their kids. As a result, they have been providing a variety of educational models for which parents have been advocating. Here’s an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal about how the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) school district began providing more flexibility for parents and students.

“… about 10% of its families homeschool. Far from fighting this, the district has welcomed diversity, creating a “blended” system. Homeschoolers can attend school classes and programs like art or sports; public-school students access online platforms. As part of this, the district five years ago committed to integrating technology into instruction.” 

Personalized Structure

As parents began to demonstrate increased leadership of their child’s education, Mat-Su did the opposite of many school districts. Instead of restricting their options, they created more opportunities for “Parental Personalization.” This decision later allowed Mat-Su to quickly pivot to remote learning during the pandemic. 

But survey the landscape of our world, and you’ll find that “Personalization” is a trend that is here to stay. Healthcare, hospitality, retail are all scrambling to personalize experiences for customers. This structural personalization Mat-Su embraced is just the beginning. 

Student Personalization

As a part of my parent coaching work, I speak with several dozen parents and grandparents individually or in a virtual group setting each week. Through those conversations, I see caregivers desiring MORE personalization for their kids, not less. 

Parents are beginning to rediscover their children’s educational lives. Many have said how unaware they were about their child’s interests in certain subjects, concepts, or hobbies. As this awareness grows, parents feel increased discomfort in watching their child spend hour-upon-hour on soul-killing-drudgery without any opportunity to explore their real interests and curiosities. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I have a solid streak of “Tiger Mom” at my core. I am a firm believer that kids must learn to do hard things. “Suck it up,” I tell my kids. “I had to walk five miles to school each day… in three feet of snow… uphill… both ways.” 

So yes, kids must do hard things. 

But, for most kids, the work they are asked to do is not so much “hard” as it is “mind-numbingly-disengaging.” Parents are asking: “Is this the only way to teach our kids what they need to know?” “Must learning be filled with such friction and obvious student disengagement?” “Is this REALLY what my child will need to know in their future?” Answers:  No. No. No.

Radical Personalization

What Mat-Su gets right — perhaps the only thing this district gets right — is that the parent must be empowered to make choices about their child’s learning. This fosters parental engagement and educational ownership, essential elements for student success on which all educators agree. 

But the next step in education will go even further. 

Student Re-engagement

Student disengagement is, perhaps, the most underappreciated casualty of our educational system. And it may be accelerating now that students are learning at home. Two weeks ago, I conducted a thoroughly unscientific survey on student engagement. Seventy-six percent of respondent parents said their children were disengaged when doing their school work. Scientific or not, few could debate these horrific results. 

Free Your Mind

But learning does not have to be filled with such friction and student disengagement. A student’s individual interests could drive their learning path. This requires a reimagination of the teacher-student relationship. More than anything, kids will need a “Learning Coach.” Someone who can facilitate learning based on the expressed interests of the child. Someone who can leverage what the child likes with what they need to learn. And, now that kids are at home, this sort of structure is even more possible. Just as students are learning remotely, that same student could, with proper coaching, learn about their own interests. 

Learning Coach

A learning coach could build an entire curriculum for a student-athlete based on their interest in sport. The psychology of sport, the statistics of sport, the physics, the biology, sport’s historical importance, every component of the business of sport from media to communications to entrepreneurship to law to finance. This is a curriculum that could be wildly engaging for most athletes while also preparing them for their future. And this is just one example of what is possible. 

This is Personalization. It is not easy, but it is possible. This is how we re-engage students. This is how education will look in the future. 

What Will Need to Happen First

This summer, parents will need to conduct “The Great Experiment.” This experiment will NOT be a reaction to COVID-19. No, it will be because parents realize that this could re-ignite their child’s natural love of learning. That is the aim. 

Parents will need to carve out time each day to discuss their child’s interests. Then, with the help of Google, find content that can deepen their child’s understanding of the subject. 

Parents will need to be patient. A child will not quickly shift from being told what to learn to embracing their own curiosity. But it will come. 

Parents will also need to limit distractions for the child. Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, and other entertainment deadens our children’s natural curiosity just as a drug dulls ambition. Make no mistake, these “s-words” (my term for “screens” and “social media”) will be your primary opposition. There must be limits on screens just like we limit candy and dessert. 

A Final Warning

Parents, the playbook for your child’s future begins with a different summer experience for your children. There is no better time and I’d love to help. But first a warning. Once your child’s curiosities are re-ignited, it will be difficult for them to go back to the way things were. They may bristle at the idea of sitting in a classroom and being told what to learn and when to learn it. They may become violent when required to prepare for another standardized test. But that is the point of The Great Experiment. The more students and parents who resist going back to a pre-Corona-world, the more opportunities we have to change the system. So, again, I’d love to help, but consider yourself warned. And, on this journey, there will be no banned books. Contact me if you dare. 

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