[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]
To learn vertically, we need to be in a state of constant cognitive dissonance. To tolerate a state of constant cognitive dissonance, we need to experience continuous growth and increasing agency. That growth must occur along two parallel tracks: the psychological and the sociological. Without cognitive dissonance, Piaget would say that there is no learning. Without psychological and sociological growth, Dewey would say that there is no education. So, how do we implement vertical learning in today’s society, where most students are “educated” in public schools that impose roles and curriculum on students? If we act strategically, then we rebuild society to create the conditions that enable vertical learning to flourish. Right now, our ability to implement vertical learning is constrained, but as full members of society, it is within our power to change that.
While today’s public schools are not fertile ground for vertical learning, the conditions are not exactly hostile either. A strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making teacher can do a lot within present constraints while pushing against those constraints at the same time. Let’s address the curriculum first. In a public school, the curriculum is largely defined by society. This is now happening in the U.S. at the national level, but even when it was happening at the district or classroom level, it was almost always controlled by adults. Some reformers argue that schools can never be effective as long as students don’t control the curriculum, that students won’t learn unless the curriculum is relevant to them. So, what does that mean as we move to adopt Common Core Standards and even more high-stakes testing?
If we are going to implement vertical learning in schools, we need to expand our definitions of curriculum and relevance. Many conflate relevance with choice and intrinsic interest in content. But the middle school students I work with have outgrown the egocentric stage of development and are more concerned with their futures and finding their places in society. In Disrupting Class, Christensen found that students engage in schooling when they can hire schools to be successful. A vertical curriculum in a public school can’t offer much choice, but it can help you grow, prepare for the future, experience sense-making, feel capable, participate as a full member of a vertical learning community, and be your best possible self. Growing into a strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner is huge. Finding a community where you can be your best possible self is huge. The content of a course is one curriculum, but there is also the psychological curriculum where you learn about yourself and the sociological curriculum where you learn what a society can be and do. In my experience, those last two curricula are highly relevant to all students.
If you are only relying on intrinsic interest in content to make learning relevant, you won’t be very successful. You may engage students initially, but if learning doesn’t go vertical, there will not be psychological growth. The key is going vertical. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find curricula today that supports vertical learning. The Common Core Standards in math and the Next Generation Science Standards don’t support it. How can they? Most of us learn horizontally, so those standards have to support horizontal learning. But that ends up reinforcing horizontal learning and discouraging vertical learning. It is still possible to design a vertical curriculum that teaches to those standards, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. When I started teaching math in 1995, I had to meet a set of standards by the end of the year. When I became a science curriculum specialist, our department had to meet a set of standards by the end of a three-year grade span. While constrained, we were still able to design curricula within those constraints that went vertical. But as school districts move toward consistent instruction across classrooms, that flexibility is going away. It is hard to go vertical when you have to teach in lockstep with the horizontal classroom next door.
Another source of concern is the lack of headroom in the curriculum. I think it is possible to design a vertical curriculum that is aligned with standards over three years and that also meets a student’s growth requirements over three years. But, by year five, an independent, active, sense-making learner will have outgrown the standards. A sense-making learner will want to drill deeper and build higher, going well beyond the scope of the standards. An independent learner will want to leverage the learning skills they are developing inside of the classroom to study topics that interest them outside of the classroom. While these students would be capable of learning on their own, they would still benefit from a community that encourages cognitive dissonance, and they would still need support to grow into coherent learners. I functioned as coach and mentor for my students on my own time, but that was only possible because I dedicated the time and chose teaching positions where I never had more than sixty students at once.
As students are growing along the psychological track, they also need to grow along the sociological track. However, the sociological track does not have to be immediately apparent. Instead of presenting my classroom as an exercise in democratic education, I transparently designed systems and structures that made learning the priority. I did not solicit ideas and we did not vote on ideas, but if someone had an idea that would enhance learning, we implemented it. Students learned over time that they could change the design of the learning community as they grew to understand it and became invested in it. When enough students were engaged or major changes were being proposed, we opened things up for general discussion. This approach highlights the importance of Dewey’s parallel tracks.
Imagine that you start working at a company where employees vote on major decisions. Would you feel empowered? I might if the company had a strong culture and if this process had a proven track record. But if this was a new company with all new employees, I’d be worried and annoyed. Even with excellent protocols and facilitators in place, a democratic decision-making process is messy and rarely results in optimal solutions. And before enough people could even begin to learn how to communicate and work together, most people would disengage and stop caring. Now imagine that you start working at a company where the managers listen to and implement good ideas from their employees. At first, employees might be cautious and only submit ideas directly related to their job functions. But if managers truly listened and proved that they were capable of recognizing and implementing good ideas, then employees would get bolder and think bigger. Along the way, they would learn about the business and learn to evaluate ideas from a company-wide perspective. Basically, instead of running the company regardless of capability, you’d play a more active role in running the company as you grew in capability. I believe that this is a better and more authentic way to run a democratic company.
Here is a specific example of how psychological and sociological growth build on one another. In a vertical classroom, everyone is focused on learning and making sense of things because of the systems and structures that have been put in place. Because everyone is learning and making sense of things, everyone is able to contribute to the collective work and progress of the community. Students learn through experience that anyone can and will contribute a critical advance at any time, moving the entire community forward. So, when students work with each other, it is with an extraordinary level of mutual respect; and when students suggest changes to systems and structures in the classroom, it is important to them that those changes continue to enable everyone to participate and contribute fully. This does not come out of a sense of fairness, but from an internalized understanding that the community functions better when everyone has a voice and is encouraged to participate. Losing a voice means that the community is weaker, and decisions and progress will be suboptimal. Without that realization, our desire to find the best answer most efficiently is at odds with our sense of fairness. After that realization, those core values can be aligned and shared. We can’t build a better society until we grow into better individuals.
What happens when the students bump up against constraints not imposed by the teacher, but imposed by the school or society? Well, what happens when I bump against those same constraints myself? As these students grow along the sociological track, they will learn that they have the same power to change schooling and to change society that anyone else does. It’s not a matter of waiting for someone else to clear obstacles for you or to give you an opportunity to make a difference; it’s about growing into and exercising the power you already have. If I created a sandbox without constraints for students to play in sociologically, it wouldn’t be authentic and they’d never learn to be strategic. A sense-making learner understands constraints, a coherent learner understands how to work within constraints, and a strategic learner understands how to work around constraints. If going vertical is something that they care about, then they will work to figure out how to make that happen. It’s what I’m doing.