Getting to the true nature of learning in K12

A film explores a radical approach to education

What if we taught kids how to think, not what to think? That question is the focus of Re:Thinking, a new documentary that inspires educators, politicians and the public to reimagine schools. The film is based on the work of Derek and Laura Cabrera, cognitive scientists who apply systems-based concepts to learning design, leadership and organizational change.

Producer and director Deborah C. Hoard spent three years observing schools that practice this approach to learning. She says these educators meet public education requirements while embracing a culture that emphasizes thinking over memorization and sees the individual child not as an empty vessel to be filled but as an adult-in-training.

“We know there are other schools out there doing this” she says. “One of our goals with the film is to do something proactive about getting those schools to talk to each other.”

How did you got involved in making this film?

I had done some work for Derek and Laura Cabrera, who are featured in the film, about a dozen years ago for the Santa Fe Institute. Their focus was on complexity and systems thinking, and I began to see their work in school.

I wanted to make a film that would show what they were doing, but then take it a step further. I could look into other schools that were doing similar things and see how we could offer some hope for our public education system.

My son used to go out the door to high school every day saying, “I’m going to hell now.” Now that I have grandchildren who are entering that system, I’d hate to think they have to endure something that doesn’t have to be that way.

Is “systems thinking” the general term for this approach?

Yes. The phrase has been around a long time and there are some different mental models about what it all means, but the good thing about it is that it doesn’t mean you need to dramatically change the way you think.

This is something you learned instinctively—like learning to walk or speak—long before you went to school. It’s actually just teaching you to understand and appreciate the world around you.

You profile elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. The youngest kids learn systems thinking from the start, but even the older kids, many of whom had not been successful in middle school, took right to it. Did that surprise you?

No. I’ve seen groups of businesspeople, corporate leaders, or professors or teachers—adults—be challenged to think more deeply about how they think and have it actually affect their thinking.

I’m involved in another project where university professors are being trained in systems thinking and saying, “Wow, it changed the way I think.” And these are people who are teaching at the college level, so I’m never surprised when it clicks for somebody. We wanted to show that thinking is possible in lots of different environments and ages.

The film points out that this approach is adaptable to skills and jobs that perhaps don’t even exist yet. One teacher even asks, “What are we preparing them for? We don’t know.”

That’s right, we don’t know, so learners had better be resourceful and be able to create new knowledge and not just memorize state capitals. That was the example this teacher used—memorizing state capitals as opposed to coming to understand why they are our state capitals. Who needs them and how do they get picked?

To see systems thinking being successfully applied in all these different schools was rewarding and inspiring. It made me think that we don’t need to change everything to make our schools better.

These schools teach in an unconventional way, yet they still meet or exceed state standards.

Yes—just by giving kids a chance to let their brains work. I was thrilled to see it happening. I hate to think that kids are going out the door and dreading to go to school, instead of being excited to learn.

Throughout the film, the relationship between adults and young people is not characterized as teacher-student, but as teacher-learner. That’s quite a distinction.

Right. A “student” often just sits there and memorizes state capitals or whatever, but the learner is taking it to a whole different level—and being able to transfer that learning to another topic or situation is underappreciated as a goal of education.

There’s a scene where a teacher says the test scores show a clear distinction between teachers who embraced thinking skills and those who hadn’t.

Within the same hallways of Green Hills School, the classrooms are right next to each other. The scores were higher in classrooms where the teachers had not focused on teaching to the test but rather on teaching the kids more about how they think and how to solve problems and how to be creative.

Some of the teachers really embraced systems thinking and some didn’t. Some were reluctant, because they believed the older way worked better.

Did those results sway other teachers?

One would hope. Teaching is a tough field. We tried hard in this movie not to blame people or bad-mouth them, but if something is working we hope that teachers who see new information and new approaches will step in and say, “I’ll give it a try.” This could be an exciting time in education. We’d also like this to be incorporated into teacher training programs.

The film is not just for teachers who are already in the trenches but also for the ones who are being trained in the schools of education right now.

Are the schools that practice this systems thinking approach reading from the same playbook?

No, they aren’t. That’s another interesting point—they’ve come from different perspectives and different roots, yet they see the same need and point of learning how to think.

One thing that I think is cool about the film is that it does show slightly different approaches and different perspectives. But they all emphasize the need for this kind of emotional intelligence and creative thinking.

Do the schools communicate with one another and trade ideas?

That’s what we’re hoping to spark with this film. We want to develop a website or a platform—whether it’s on Facebook or some other platform—where real conversation can happen. That way teachers in one school can say, “This really worked for me” or, “I love this activity.”

I’ve worked on some projects where they’ll take an existing curriculum piece and “thinkify” it, as they say. That means tweaking the questions that are asked. You can do a lot of things to bring about a deeper understanding.

The film came out in October. What has been the reaction?

It has been wonderful. As filmmakers say, the audiences cry at the right times. We’ve been really pleased that it’s been inspirational. Parents and teachers are saying, “I want my school to see this; I want to know what to do next.” That’s why we do this, we want to change the world.

You mentioned that some people cry watching the film. One of the profiled educators gets emotional describing “the game of school” that he’s played his whole life, before finding another way.

It is a game, and it’s so clear to me. I was good at that game. I could get good grades and not really work and not really care. That’s a waste too, so the schools aren’t just ill-serving the kids who don’t get it, but they are ill-serving the kids who could do so much more in a different way.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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