Review: Timeless Learning

Chris McNutt
October 20, 2018
If the education system didn’t have over a hundred years of the status quo, what would it look like? If we examined real-world careers and passionate opportunities, how would we truly prepare students for them?

If the education system didn’t have over a hundred years of the status quo, what would it look like? If we examined real-world careers and passionate opportunities, how would we truly prepare students for them? In Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools, Ira Socol, Dr. Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff explain their journey into progressive education and how they’ve successfully disrupted school to make ingenious learning spaces through “zero-based thinking” — where one observes school with a blank slate.

Equal parts narrative, research, and guided reading — Timeless Learning seeks to deliver educators a Most Likely to Succeed 2.0: a wealth of examples and solidified practice to reimagine the schooling system locally. This isn’t a playbook on exactly what people should do (that would be impossible and trivial), rather it is a dialogue starter. The opening lines of the work summarize the major argument:

Children are, or should be, at the center of education because ultimately they are reason for the very existence of educational institutions. But unfortunately, children are too often forgotten in discussions about education….They [adults] see curricula. They see standards. They see test scores. They see timetables. They see technology….

In school board rooms presumably almost everywhere, this battle rages on. Very little — maybe even no — input is valued by students when it comes to school design. Educators believe what they do matters for students, but that automatically doesn’t mean what students want matters to educators. This dictatorial rationale for policy discussion leads to minute, overblown “ed reform” movements which standardize promising classes, bring in new obtuse protocols, and ultimately undermine any chance of progressive education.

All that said, schools do have the capability to make drastic change — in spite of all the factors running against them (usually via the state), there are ample opportunities to reform. As explained,

What we can control is what we choose to do more of, or less, in our learning spaces to give us the chance to notice children, to see their faces, hear their voices, find their strengths, and help them know their own value. This doesn’t happen by change. Rather, these are outcomes of school communities that focus on leveraging resources to authentically engage learners, not just to provide rich opportunities but also to insist on children getting access to opportunities that challenge their curiosity…

And to do so, it’s not a matter of administering standardized ideas for everyone to follow. One of the great ironies of school reform movements focused on hyper-personalization is their seemingly non-personalized administration. To change minds, educators need to be pedagogically sound in progressive mindsets — and this requires an important connection:

The only way to change culture is to constantly create situations in which people together respond to the question ‘Why are we here?’

Throughout, my most closely held takeaway are the authors’ unwavering stance on rejecting small-scale change — tinkering toward success. As brilliantly put,

Authentic opportunities for learners to create, design, build, engineer, and compose cannot truly coexist within the standardization model. That’s why tinkering around the edges, adding a ‘genius hour’ to an otherwise unchanged school day, accomplishes nothing except to highlight all that’s wrong with our schools for this century.

As David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote in their sensational Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, reform movements often fail when handed down by “remote control.” Drastic changes require philosophical soundness that factor in the local element of each situation. In this way, Timeless Learning’s point is to engage educators to enact change from the inside-out, rather than write a prescription for the masses. And the progressive viewpoint they offer is simple in nature: trust in students. Understand that…

When makerspaces become a scheduled destination every couple of weeks for kids to work on activities that often are quite teacher directed, that’s not what we are after in our work. Making is so much more when it is the education.

Where many reform movements struggle is having everyone on-board with the same philosophy. After all, most schools will fall within this case:

…many educators in schools across the United States have been trained to not trust in the natural ways that kids learn. And they seldom get a chance to see what learning looks like outside the constraints of a hundred years of factory-model schooling. That’s why we have purposely shifted professional learning from being one-size-fits-all events or “sit and get” classes into authentic adult learning experiences that move progressive curricula, assessment, and pedagogy into the learning spaces that our teachers and learners inhabit together.

When day-in and day-out, teachers are lambasted with practically random changes to their classroom from the latest ed-fad (usually explained in the most boring way possible — a lecture and PowerPoint) — it shouldn’t be surprising that many regress to delivering their content in the way they were taught: simple lesson plans in a checklist “Hirsch” manner. And many don’t proceed beyond this point — why fix what’s broken? Especially when the definition of “broken” seems to change once every 5 years. However, the argument for progressive education has been around since near the dawn of compulsive schooling (arguably set in the Thorndike v. Dewey debates of the early 1900s.) After all,

There are two forms of education that emerged in the last century. There’s one for compliance, and there’s one for empowerment. Our current system is designed to make compliant the people we don’t want to be empowered. We have rejected the system in our work with colleagues to create spaces for invention and innovation that lead to young people doing work that doesn’t look anything like the kind of work specified in the mass standardization movement of the past century.
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Pictured: Edward Thorndike believed that empirical evidence was required to prove learning. An advocate for textbooks and testing, Thorndike won a lasting impact of equating success with high test scores.

A learning community that really puts kids first — that gives them the tools necessary to learn, then guides their path (and doesn’t administer it) — will experience, well, experiential learning: students becoming creative, empowered, reflective, bold leaders by doing. This isn’t a fad, it’s something innate to the human experience which has been lost in years of assumed standardization. Of course, this goes for students and teachers:

Too often educational leaders think change begins with conjuring a program to solve a content learning problem, followed by a top-down mandate to replicate it everywhere. Yet, what kills pretty much anything that will substantively transform education, whether it’s using iPads or adding maker education into schools, is imposing a program on educators and learners.

And we need educators who are willing to adopt, question, criticize, and be open to discussing these ideas. The trick is, how do we get there? Luckily, that’s really the point of Timeless Learning. Included within is a guidebook toward progressive thought — note: not a guidebook on implementing a makerspace at your school. We need people to imagine opportunities for their spaces for them to be successful.

Each chapter contains targeted discussion questions which can lead to wonderful, inquiring conversations that open those willing to listen to these ideas. Beyond this, there are plenty of objectives for administrators to inspire teachers. For example, to create “timeless learning” — why not have staff meetings at local businesses? Discuss what would happen if certain controlling mechanisms disappeared? Perhaps interview students and ask them! Maybe bring in a parent and ask them what they value?

In my personal experience, parents and students are usually more supportive of progressive education than most teachers. If that’s the case, aren’t many of us doing something wrong? We would recommend Timeless Learning to any educator looking to transform and make anew — someone looking for voices to support them in this risky, but worthwhile shift in education that’s been needed for a very long time.    

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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