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 / Autumn 2008 / Issue 52(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Case for Hands-on Education

Perhaps this is efficient for auditing resources, tracking time, and verifying that people (including the teachers) are following the rules, but it’s not a recipe for an effective learning environment. Learning is an inherently generative process; our schools need to be generative environments, which in turn re­quires generative leadership.

One major part of the Battelle Center’s research agenda focuses on a small set of schools across the country that operate in a generative fashion, and that appear to have greater potential to develop “answer builders” than do typical public schools. These “STEM schools” are emerging through the efforts of private foundations, state governments, and corporations, often via initiatives where all of these very different entities operate in a collaborative network to design, launch, govern, and sustain the school.

One good example of such an initiative is the Metro High School in Columbus, Ohio. From the highest levels of leadership involved in its design phase to its current operations, Metro is a fascinating model of network management and generative leadership. The school arose through the efforts of the Battelle Memorial Institute (the global re­search and development nonprofit that sponsored the Battelle Center), the Ohio State University, the Educational Council of central Ohio, and a well-known network called the Coalition of Essential Schools (whose principles influenced us profoundly). These organizations cre­ated the school through a generative design process in which the leaders (starting with the presidents of Ohio State and Battelle) carefully built a network of mutual trust and collaboration, holding firmly to their collective purpose even during difficult and messy stages.

Metro doesn’t focus on science or math to the exclusion of literature, history, or the arts. Instead, the big idea behind the school is establishing STEM as a set of skills, disciplines, and habits of mind that will serve a student well in any field of study and help him or her grow into a citizen ready for any walk of life. In other words, Metro is fostering the same generative process of “building answers” that was common to George Marshall’s leadership in European reconstruction, flight operations leadership at NASA, and my own work at COSI.

Some people equate self-­directed, project-based programs like Metro with a lack of rigor. They think that science education should emulate the high-pressure rote learning systems found in many Asian societies, which produce a high number of young engineers. But some experts on the Asian model point out that although these students may be schooled soundly on factual knowledge, their capacity for creativity and innovation has often not been developed.

I agree with this, and I saw the difference firsthand when I studied in Norway during college. I was amazed by the superlative memory my classmates had for technical particulars like the chemical com­position of minerals. I worried about my ability to excel until we went on a field-mapping exercise in Scotland. Our professor strode over to a huge black chunk of rock, pointed to a small white rectangular object within it and demanded, “What is that?” None of us knew. But whereas my classmates seemed paralyzed, I knew how to build an answer: with clear and careful observations, sharp reasoning, testing, and further observation. Within about five minutes, I had an initial hypothesis: An in­clusion, or piece of foreign rock, had been caught up in the black rock when it was molten and transformed by the heat. I could outline the observations and tests that would be needed to confirm this and I could describe the detailed mineralogy needed to flesh out the story.

The Metro School is just two years old, but it’s already become a model for other schools. And, of course, there are other inspiring models, and innovative networks of schools, in existence today. But in general, education seems stuck right now. So many stakeholders seem stuck in battles over curricula, financing, governance (public versus private), and accountability. Parents, policymakers, and educators can’t even agree on what schools need most: more knowledge, passion, and creativity? Or stricter rules and regulations? And all the discussions seem to presume a choice that is either/or. We overlook the possibil­ity of in­volving everyone in articulating the core purpose and values of the education system as a whole.

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