This article was first published at Getting Smart on Feb 20, 2013

em5I wish school were different for my children.  As a mom living in a school district with excellent schools, high test scores and property values, research-based practices, and warm, thoughtful educators who care about my kids you would think I would be satisfied. But like generations of parents before me, I want more for my kids than what I had.  Though I went to great schools with caring educators and have led a prosperous life, if I am to be honest, for a time, I traded authenticity for success and led the rat-race life of the late 20th-century workaholic and in the end discovered the obvious: what matters to a good life, a happy life, (once a certain level of financial security is reached) is authentic, meaningful work and authentic, meaningful relationships.

So much of work is often “fake” – meaningless make-work that doesn’t advance the interests of the company or its customers, meetings in which nothing is accomplished, insecure leaders who are subject matter experts but unskilled in collaboration, employees who are more concerned with how they appear than the substance of their work, and – politics.  This is what school generally prepares kids for through meaningless rote work that doesn’t advance their understanding or their thinking, class “discussions” where original thought takes second place to getting the answer the teacher wants, teachers who are subject matter experts but too insecure to give up control and let students lead in some areas, students who are more concerned with grades than learning and – playground politics.  When the work is inauthentic, the politics become the most real part of life.

So what would school look like that prepared my children for meaningful, authentic work and meaningful relationships?

School would respect the natural rhythms of learning – periods of intense immersion and periods of collaborative exploration and periods of original creation and contribution.  School would include experiences where my kids genuinely struggle – with systems thinking, with ethical thinking, with problem-solving, with collaborative work, with designing and doing, with experimentation and iteration – all within the context of real work, the kind where the experience of “flow” is not only possible, but likely.  School would engage my kids’ unique strengths and talents and give them the experience of success as well as an appreciation of failure.  And because our world still rewards accreditation, school would prepare my kids for college should they choose to attend.

Imagine this:  In the morning, the shuttle bus comes to our house and picks up the kids to take them to one of the dozen or so local learning studios in our community.  Erik, the mathematician, goes to the computer science studio and Annika, the maker, goes to the local maker space.  Each studio has blended learning spaces that look like a cross between kindergarten and one of those open-plan design studios.  Three or four educators plus numerous parents and/or paraprofessionals are on hand to support students of all ages in their learning which comes from on-line courses of all kinds, one-on-one instruction, small group collaborations, project-based learning opportunities, seminar offerings of various kinds, and an ongoing flow of new learning experiences as educators, students, parents, and others try new things, keep what they like and discard those that don’t work for our community.  Because the “college prep” work is personalized, mastery-based, and self-paced, my kids only need a few hours a day to meet the requirements, but the multiple engaging opportunities often lead them to spend more time than that on the work.  The rest of the day, they work with peers, experts, older students, younger students, and parents on authentic meaningful projects.  Today, Annika works on fashionable garments and accessories with electronic circuits and Erik codes up a web site for her to share her interests with similarly inclined folks.  At 3:00, Annika takes the shuttle over to the performing arts studio to rehearse a dance production while Erik gets together with a few other coders to work on their game design.

This could happen – technology, connected personal devices, on-line resources, and blended learning models remove existing constraints on time and space for learning, making personalized, place-based, individual experiences possible.  But it hasn’t happened yet, so as a family we are developing (and constantly iterating) a prototype of what education could look like as a platform.  What learning could be if learning opportunities were like “platform services” and we could pick and choose to create a truly personalized education.  Tomorrow, I will discuss the specific tools and resources we have used to simulate the ideal school for us.