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A Conversation With Milton Chen, Author, 'Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools'

October 19, 2010

(Milton Chen is senior fellow and executive director emeritus of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Prior to joining GLEF, Chen was founding director of the KQED Center for Education in San Francisco and an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Laura Cronin, director of the Toshiba America Foundation, spoke to Chen earlier this month.)

Chen_milton Laura Cronin: Your new book, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in Our Schools, is exceptional for a number of reasons. What's most striking to me, however, is how your decision to focus on successes in specific classrooms reveals so much new information about how teaching and learning works. It's a wonderfully hopeful and yet very practical book. Instead of revisiting the current system's flaws, you've become a sort of purveyor of education-related innovations and sensible solutions. How did that come about?

Milton Chen: Education Nation is really my attempt to curate a "best of" collection of education-related stories and films connected to our work at Edutopia. Our approach has always been to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Shining the spotlight on innovative schools, classrooms, and other learning environments has been our strategy, one that appealed to George Lucas from the very founding of the foundation almost twenty years ago. I do feel that the solution to our education crisis lies in redesigning our system of public education, not pointing the finger at problems with the old system.

LC: Anyone interested in our nation's schools should read your book and get the full story about each of the six edges of innovation you describe. By way of introduction, can you talk about your chapter on the "Time/Place Edge"?

MC: One of the most exciting areas of innovation is in how learning time and places are expanding. By "learning time," I don't mean simply extending the school day or year with the same old, traditional types of learning that aren't working. As my colleague Milt Goldberg says, "A lousy eight-hour day is worse than a lousy six-hour day." That said, many districts and their partners are finding ways to capture more learning hours for creative, project-based, technology-infused learning during afternoons, evenings, weekends, and summers.

The National Summer Learning Association is at the forefront of the movement to reduce summer learning loss by creating summer programs for students that run five days a week, for six to eight weeks -- a "third semester," if you will.

LC: Sometimes humor tells us more about what we need to change than hard data. Tell us about your idea for a National Campaign to Teach Basketball From Textbooks?

MC: The hardest "edge of innovation" is the Thinking Edge -- changing our thinking about what teaching and learning are all about in the year 2010. Several years ago I proposed a campaign to teach basketball from textbooks based on a story told to me by Roger Nichols, then director of the Museum of Science in Boston. Somehow, we all understand that sports, as well as the arts, are about performance, not about reading the rule book and taking multiple-choice tests.

Knowledge of rules and basic techniques are important, but success is based on how an athlete or an artist or musician applies them. Every high school basketball player knows the double-dribble rule or where to stand when shooting a foul shot. But rules are only the beginning. We instinctively understand this when it comes to basketball, but we forget it when it comes to science, math, history, or any other area of the curriculum. Sometimes, we're not very smart about learning, which is ironic, to put it politely.

LC: In the book, you quote John Gage, former chief science officer at Sun Microsystems, who said: "The problem with Americans is we think of education as a cost. But other nations think of it as an investment." In the current climate, where some states have received significant federal money to make reforms and private foundations are focused on supporting positive change in our schools, what advice do you have for funders?

MC: Foundations should use their funds to leverage the changes needed to create a twenty-first century learning system, especially around innovative uses of information technology. From district operations to home-school communication to classroom teaching and learning, there are many ways in which technology can modernize the system. Education is an incredibly information-intensive activity, but it is amazing how schools and districts have been insulated from information technology.

I point to many of these in my book. The thread they have in common is providing every teacher, administrator, and student with access to these technologies. One of my favorite recent examples is putting Internet routers on rural school buses in Arizona so students could take advantage of their long hours commuting to school and sports competitions. The students took it seriously and used the access for learning time and not just playing games. That's also an example of the "Time/Place Edge" -- finding more time for learning in, of all places, school buses.

LC: The Edutopia.org community is a wonderful resource. Can you suggest two videos to get visitors new to the site started?

MC: I've learned that there are many lenses that users come to our site with, from the grade-level lens, to the technology lens, to the project-based learning lens. The one page I encourage everyone -- educators, foundation staff, business partners, and others -- to look at is our Schools That Work page, which currently offers six case studies of innovation in schools and school districts.

It also includes our newest feature on the Linked Learning model, which involves reinventing the high school experience by merging a college prep curricula with technical education and workplace experience; a profile of the Maine middle school 1:1 laptop program; and a feature on the social and emotional learning (SEL) strategy being tried in K-8 classrooms in Louisville, Kentucky. We hope the films, interviews, and PDFs on the site will be a resource for others looking to introduce educational innovations in their own communities.

LC: Any final thoughts for PhilanTopic readers?

MC: While I'm gratified by all the attention to "twenty-first century learning" at the state and district level, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the century began more than ten years ago. We've lost at least a decade in modernizing our schools and our public education system, and we've got a lot of catching up to do. One of my hopes is that technology can accelerate the changes we need to see in education, as it has in every other sector of society. We simply must pick up the pace.

Last but not least, foundations can play a critical role in helping school districts make up for lost time. I have to say, though, I'm encouraged by the many partnerships I see around the country that are committed to making this happen.

-- Laura Cronin

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