Monday, August 20, 2012

drawing guidance on 21st century education from 1754

I have been reflecting on the myriad societal, cultural, scientific and musical contributions made by Benjamin Franklin. There are lessons we might take away that could help orient today's learners in how to be successful 250 years later. 

What areas should they focus on? What values need to be taught and reinforced? How did the son of a tallow chandler, a runaway from Boston with only two years of formal schooling, have such a tremendous impact on the world? 

To try to find some answers to these questions, I made a two-day pilgrimage to Philadelphia, in late July of 2012. I walked the streets of the city where he settled after sneaking out of his father's candle factory. 

To be fair, Benjamin Franklin was an extraordinary person. That said, some observations that struck me were:
  • His endless and wide ranging curiosity about everything - how do we encourage kids to be curious?
  • His ability to see connections across disparate disciplines - connecting nature and science - lightning as electricity for example.
  • His use of the communications tools of his day (printing) to spread his ideas, opinions and ultimately his influence and reputation. Kids today can model this behavior, taking advantage of social media and other evolving technologies to communicate THEIR unique perspectives and achieve notoriety and thus influence and credibility.
  • The amount and variety of content he created -  writing in a range of formats, under pseudonyms, for his brother, for his own readers, for his critics, for his countrymen, for the world.
  • The ability to see the art in science - the beauty and wonder of how the planet is put together. How do we teach kids to comprehend and embrace this? To emphasize the sheer volume and majesty of the planet while at the same time continuing to investigate and unlock its secrets.
Are these skills much different from ones that would allow success today? No. 

The way Benjamin Franklin addressed them can provide valuable insight for today's learners. He advanced his career(s) by asking, by collaborating, by listening, by emulating, by doing.

He didn't take a class in how to write witty aphorisms for Poor Richard's Almanack - he just did it and published them. They were rough at first, but they evolved into crisp, dense nuggets of wisdom and advice that everyone could understand and appreciate.

He never went to school to study printing - he stood at his brother James' elbow and watched what he did and then imitated it and expanded on it. 

Did he go to a prestigious policy school to learn how to be a statesman and a diplomat? No - he trusted his internal instincts, watched his peers, pushed forward and created his own unique approach.

Could every child today follow this model at a macro level? Absolutely. If they were encouraged and guided in this direction.

We need to encourage today's learners to use these tactics to help them find their own voices. And share them. Know that school is but one node in the broader learning eco-system, but that more macro learning processes and techniques are equally if not ultimately more important.