What Learning to Fly Can Teach Us About Transforming Education

Jun 29, 2019

My family and I recently had the opportunity to tour the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., where I found myself drawn to an exhibit featuring Wilbur and Orville Wright. Long after my 15-year-old daughter had moved on, I continued to pour over the graphics, data and design improvements the brothers refined over six years that enabled them to successfully pilot the first powered airplane in 1903—and create a prototype for a practical flying machine that could transport humans by 1905.

Consider what a crazy, impossible and risky idea this concept was in 1900. Then consider what a revolutionary breakthrough air travel was for the 20th century. The Wrights not only solved a long-studied technical problem, but also helped create an entirely new world.

I couldn’t help but compare this early aviation story to current efforts underway to transform our education system. It seems equally crazy, impossible and risky in 2019 to unravel centuries of established classroom and school structures, update pedagogy and curriculum to reflect 21st century competencies and, perhaps most importantly, reverse deeply entrenched inequities in our education system. The breadth and depth of this challenge is overwhelming. How can we translate new ideas about education into revolutionary breakthroughs?

Perhaps we need to create conditions that help teachers and leaders think more like inventors.

At the Highlander Institute in Providence, R.I., this is a central theme that guides our theory of change. Our collaboration with hundreds of schools over the past five years has unearthed the powerful potential of continuous research and development within school change efforts. In the past year alone we coached over 300 teachers across 99 schools, and conducted walkthroughs in over 700 classrooms. We have launched design teams, engaged students and families in school reform efforts, and expanded our teacher leadership programs.

As a result, we created the “Pathways to Personalization” framework, which offers design teams a process for planning, creating and implementing change initiatives in ways that are positioned for success and sustainability. There is some interesting alignment between our framework and the Wright brothers’ scientific process:

1. Initial Research

Before developing a theory or building a model, the Wright brothers conducted an extensive literature search on the current state of aeronautical knowledge. They interviewed engineers. They studied problems encountered by previous scientists. And they carefully observed birds in flight.

As educators, we often layer new ideas for reform directly on top of old ones. But there is generally little understanding of the specific strengths or challenges of the current system. We don’t stop to pinpoint what is working—and for whom—and we definitely have a penchant for recreating the wheel.

In our Pathways framework, all redesign efforts start with doing our homework. A design team comprised of teachers, parents, students, community members and school leaders begins a school reform initiative through knowledge-building, a self-study, classroom walkthroughs and shadowing students throughout their school day.

2. Identifying and Focusing on a Central Challenge

The Wright brothers’ research led them to identify flight control as a critical problem to solve. Their subsequent observations and tests were centered on demystifying this problem.

In education, teachers are often required to balance multiple—and often opposing—challenges simultaneously. They can’t deeply examine theories around student engagement or productive struggle because they are required to teach page 156 from the math textbook by Friday. In our change model, a small subset of pilot teachers are empowered to deeply study instructional priorities in an environment where mandates are relaxed.

3. Testing Theories

The Wright brothers’ process connected theories to performance goals. They began by experimenting with kites and gliders to explore relationships between lift, drag, weight and thrust. But they began to doubt the validity of the data they were collecting; their process was not allowing them to accurately capture the nuances of their experiments. In response, they designed a wind tunnel which allowed them more control over the process, and gathered data points that were aligned to what they felt was important.

In education, the concept of continuous improvement has defined methods for helping teachers set goals, test theories, and collect evidence. But it requires administrative support and teacher autonomy to implement well. As design teams explore the value of student motivation and engagement in addition to academic growth, our current measurement instruments may not be providing us with an accurate reflection of those efforts. And as educators, we are not conditioned to unpack data around reform efforts to identify what parts are worthwhile or might meet the needs of a subset of students. Lackluster data often results in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In our framework, teachers explore strategies connected to instructional priorities with the support of a multi-faceted measurement plan. Regular classroom walkthroughs indicate the degree to which instruction is shifting; interim assessment data can reflect levels of student academic growth; and regular student and teacher feedback helps uncover the relative value—as well as future iterations—of new strategies. And teachers with the right instincts, mindset, and approaches are invited to become part of an ongoing, more formal research and development team.

4. Innovation Born Out of Necessity

The Wright brothers did not begin their work by collecting the flashiest, most modern tools they could find. They worked with the tools at their disposal until they hit a wall and had to find or create something new.

In education, we tend to do the opposite. We load classrooms with flashy, modern tools and then watch teachers deliver old pedagogy using new devices. In our framework, design teams identify instructional priorities and related strategies. Only then do they entertain tools and resources that can be leveraged to support and sustain implementation. As pilot teachers explore practices they are supported by coaches, which promotes brainstorming when implementation becomes challenging.

5. Risk Mitigation

Launching the first powered aircraft was a pretty life-threatening endeavor. But the Wright brothers survived hundreds of trials over multiple years. The danger involved required Wilbur and Orville to be exceedingly cautious. They responded to data immediately, made small iterations as necessary, learned quickly and anticipated negative outcomes.

The work of transforming education is equally risky. The future of our children is at stake, and excessive experimentation does not sit well with many stakeholders. In our framework, teams establish accountability structures for purposeful exploration that ensure a commitment to incremental shifts and attention to data. There must be high confidence and a strong evidence base before embarking on major change.

In sum, transforming our education system seems like a crazy, impossible, uncertain concept—but one that has the potential to shape our future. Realizing the dream requires systems and conditions that support controlled experimentation within schools. Wilbur and Orville were high-school educated bike shop owners from Dayton, Ohio. There are like-minded, passionate, talented teachers in schools across America. Imagine what we could learn from them if they were properly empowered.


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