Unleashing students’ ‘innate sense of wonder’


Imagine you’re a 19th-century steel tycoon at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

Imagine a new economy, built on manufacturing, demanding a massive work force of skilled laborers and an efficient system for training them. How would you build it?

Like a factory, of course. Assembly lines. Time clocks. Bell schedules. Uniformity. Widget-numbering accountability. That is the school of centuries past.

Imagine now you’re a student at the dawn of a new millennium with a new economy, built on the instant transfer of information and ideas and exponentially advancing technology.

Unfortunately, for most American students the old factory model of education still applies. This is a recipe for failure and frustration. We cannot address Digital Age needs with Industrial Age education.

Our operating system does not compute. How can we produce quick-thinking, dot-connecting graduates with an outdated platform that too often ties teachers’ hands and dulls students’ minds and souls? We can’t.

But imagine a new kind of school system, designed to stimulate critical thinking, spark creativity and unleash the potential for answering questions yet unasked. In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, we’re building that system, not just to change what is taught and how it’s taught but also to transform education itself.

The goal? Graduates who are not simply skilled workers but skilled, creative, critical thinkers. In one sense, it means going back to the future, when philosophy, art and science knew no distinction. When math was valued as much for its beauty as its utility. When learning for its own sake — for its enrichment of mind, body, and spirit — gave rise to Aristotle, Newton and Da Vinci.

Of course, not everyone is a Da Vinci. But every child is born with an innate sense of wonder and individual gifts that, unfettered by the constraints of Industrial Age schooling, could yield wonders yet unthought and unseen.

Take Christopher, a bright 7th-grader who chafed against the traditional environment of his civics class, earning a C at the course’s end. That same year, he took an interactive-law class where he was engaged in hands-on, collaborative activities including mock trials, and was able to shine — earning an A for the course. Same child, similar content, different methods, dramatically different results.

Come high school, if forced to remain in a traditional environment, Christopher would likely struggle and might even give up on school. But if placed in a learning environment like our iPreparatory Academy — a digital/physical hybrid school where students learn at their own pace and in a collaborative atmosphere — or our acclaimed Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH), where studio complements classroom study to provide high-caliber education and dynamic experiences, his story will likely be one of success.

Children are not widgets, and schools cannot be assembly lines of knowledge. That’s why we have 460 choice programs and 102 magnet schools. That is why nearly 60 percent of our students are enrolled in some choice option. Legal studies for Christopher; biomedical for Clara; engineering for Aiysha; and aviation for Juan, each according to her own aptitudes, interests and learning styles, with individualized studies crafted by the student in tandem with the teacher and parent.

We must leave behind us the days of sorting students by age and instruction by subject. More and more, our 8th-graders are studying alongside 6th-graders of similar ability, interests and readiness. After all, we aren’t grouped by age in the employment marketplace. No one told Mark Zuckerberg he couldn’t be CEO of Facebook because he wasn’t born the same year as Bill Gates.

In the schools of Miami-Dade, we are shifting the paradigm to one of learner-driven education. We believe we are a model for things to come and one that others should strive to emulate. The transformation of American public education will take more than tinkering around the edges—not just a program here, an innovation there. Not just a handful of schools and school districts but every school and district across the nation. There will be physical, bureaucratic, and social hurdles to jump, but jump we must.

Crammed schedules and crowded classrooms. Too much testing and too little thinking. Outdated facilities and obsolete mindsets. These are the conditions that kill creativity. Accountability systems need not hamper learning. Done right, they can promote transparency, help teachers pinpoint their students’ needs, and allow the teacher, as the content and pedagogy expert, the flexibility to create connections and spark curiosity within every student.

We understand the challenge, but where do we look for solutions? China, Finland or Singapore may provide us practices worth studying though perhaps not worth emulating. After all, America is the nation of innovation. Best to reinvent ourselves as a better version of us than a mere imitation of someone else. Our expectations are higher. We educate all children, ensuring equal access and opportunity for success. Equal access to digital technology and connectivity must be in the mix, equally empowering all students, a moral imperative for our time.

We are a nation of innovators and dreamers. Creativity is in our DNA. Now is the time for transformation, but we must do more than reboot the system; we must redesign it for the demands of a new age, reaching and teaching each student in the ways he learns best. It’s that simple, and that hard. All we need is the will, skill and belief to change.

We are educators and our role is to inspire. Just imagine that.

Alberto Carvalho is superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.