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Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”, with Author Julie Margretta Wilson

An Interview With Penny Bauder

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I would increase teacher starting salaries to reflect a that of a competitive middle-class wage — teachers’ salaries, particularly starting teachers’ salaries are so low that many teachers need to work a second job just to make ends meet. The average teacher starting salary in 2017–2018 was just $39,249 (Source: NEA). Raising salaries would attract more talent and help keep the talent we do have.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Julie Margretta Wilson. Julie is a coach and advisor to school leaders, educational institutions, and foundations whose mission is to shape the future of K–12 education. She has over twenty years’ experience building effective learning environments that unlock human potential and enable organizational culture to adapt and grow during times of change. She is the founder and executive director of Institute for the Future of Learning, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping transform the ‘one size does not fit all’ model of education. The Institute works with a diverse range of clients including public schools, independent schools, public charter schools, and educational philanthropic organizations. In addition to helping schools and communities lead sustainable change, Julie highlights great practice and shares reflections on curriculum, pedagogy, and change at www.the-IFL.org. Julie graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with a master’s degree in technology, innovation, and education, and a bachelor’s of arts in business administration and French from Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During her time as a staff member at Harvard, Julie was the recipient of the Harvard Hero award for outstanding contributions to the University. Her book, ‘The Human Side of Changing Education’ was published recently by Corwin Press.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

For the last twenty years or so I have worked in adult development and large-scale organizational change. After the first decade, a theme emerged for me that so much of the work we were doing to help leaders navigate and lead complex change was to help them unlearn what they learned through a standardized system of education.This realization brought me back to K-12 where I discovered that not much had really changed in education since I had graduated high school many years prior. I could see very clearly how the system was not preparing young people with the skills, knowledge and habits of mind to thrive as young adults. I decided to focus what I know and am intrigued by when it comes to leadership and building effective organizations to help schools transform the traditional “one size fits all” model — and launched the Institute for the Future of Learning in 2011.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first job out of college was in sales. While I loved meeting people and finding out more about their work, I really disliked (and was not good at) forcing the customer to make a decision on whether or not to buy. At the same time, there were others in the organization who really thrived in that context and who were really good at meeting a customer for the first time and securing the sale. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was not in a position where I could really use my strengths (whereas those that were, were excelling). I learned that it doesn’t matter how hard you try at something that is not your natural talent, you will never be very successful (or happy) whilst doing it. The highest level you can hope to achieve in that scenario is mediocrity. I love working with leaders to help them understand their talents much more deeply and how they might design and build a life grounded in their strengths.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I published a book last year (The Human Side of Changing Education) — writing it really crystallized for me that we will not transform the education system for students, until and unless, we focus on the adult development task at hand. I am working on the design of a coaching program to support that level of development. Leading change in any large complex system is extremely demanding — intellectually and emotionally. Leaders should not do this work alone.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

I have worked for fifteen years in higher education and ten years in K-12. I have had the privilege of visiting many schools across the country and working with many school leadership teams. I know how difficult the work of transforming a school or district is — and the success factors that support transformative change. Writing the book was a great learning experience for me as it forced me to distil what I know and to seek constructive critique on the ideas posited. While I am an authority, some days it feels like the more I know, the more there is to know! Particularly when it comes to human beings leading change J.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

This is a great question as it takes us back to the fundamental question of, “What’s worth learning?” One of my most impactful experiences as a graduate student was a course called ‘Educating for the Unknown’ by David Perkins. The course was grounded in 4 questions:

1. What’s worth learning?

2. How is it best learned?

3. How can we get it taught that way?

4. How do we know it has been learned?

Those questions are the backbone of my work, so when I hear your question, I immediately go to the “What’s worth learning?” question. I believe that the overarching “result” of our education system is that it should prepare young people to design, build and live a life of their own choosing, regardless of demography. Based on that desired result, I would say we have a long way to go.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

1. There is a growing recognition that the system was designed for the industrial era that we need a fundamentally different system to prepare young people for an unknowable future.

2. There is very promising work in the area of high-quality project-based learning — and it is growing.

3. The collective energy and work on competency-based and personalized learning is gaining momentum.

4. Rethinking assessment is critical if we are to transform the system in a meaningful and sustainable way — early work is beginning to take shape and form via the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Assessment for Learning Project.

5. Despite the system’s challenges, it still manages to attract committed, visionary educators to its ranks.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

I will answer this question in a slightly different way than 5 key areas — I think there are more than 5 and they are grounded in the overarching shift from the industrial model to the post-industrial model. It’s important we have a solid grounding in the pedagogical change that is needed and the key shifts that such a culture change requires. In other words, the pedagogy needs to reflect the outcomes we seek.

When we decide that skills such as creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are important for our students to learn, we quickly bump into the question of, “How are these skills best learned?”.

The questions of ‘what’s worth learning?’ and ‘how is it best learned?’ are inextricably linked. A teacher cannot be expected to teach risk-taking if students and teachers alike are not allowed to experiment and fail in the learning process. Collaboration requires group work, self-assessment, peer assessment, and iterative reflection and changes in behavior — and teachers being given the space and time to work as teams. Creative problem solving requires a student to think for herself, not what the back of the textbook says she should think — and for teachers to have the autonomy to do the same.

The industrial age model of education is grounded in a behaviorist theory of ‘child as empty vessel waiting to be filled’ and that learning is a matter of disseminating content, content that is dutifully consumed, retained, and regurgitated for a test.

I am not saying that rote memorization should never be used. However, the pendulum swung much too far in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind with its heavy focus on worksheets and rote memorization. It is one tool available in a much broader toolkit.

What was your most impactful learning experience? Why was it so impactful? A well-designed learning experience stretches a learner out of his comfort zone and supports and develops his intrinsic motivation to learn. Teachers know this, yet the system is designed in such a way as to work actively against sound pedagogical practices, and what it takes to learn the skills described earlier.

So how are these skills best learned? By going back to the roots of how we have learned for thousands of years — through hands-on interdisciplinary real-world work, failure and trying again, exposure to mentors and guides, through story, through repeated practice with reflection and feedback, and by having the freedom to take risks.

Changing a system is one of the most challenging things to do. If we are saying that we want to support more creativity, collaboration and appetite for risk in schools, then the organizational structure, systems and processes must change, and change significantly, in order to support and reflect that pedagogy.

And those changes fly in the face of how a school is typically structured. The majority of school and district structures take the form of the industrial era hierarchy, where decision making is consolidated at the top of the organization, with reduced autonomy regarding outcomes as we get closer to the classroom. If we want students to be collaborative, creative, self-directed learners, the system in which this work happens must reflect a collaborative, creative, autonomous culture. Learning is an inherently risk-oriented enterprise. We learn most deeply when given the opportunity to try, fail, learn, and try again.

I believe an appetite for failure and ‘not knowing’ is the heart of systems’ change and helps to explain why so many school and district change initiatives fail. The system does not tolerate failure. It does not tolerate learning and, for the most part, it does not give autonomy and the role of change leadership to the people doing the actual work, i.e. teachers. It is also very unforgiving to leaders who have a vision for change and who undertake the hard work of its implementation.

Having coached leaders leading this level of change, I have noticed several shifts that need to take place when moving from the industrial model of education to a post-industrial model (figure forwarded below). These shifts are not ‘check the box’ items to be completed, but rather elements that speak to the depth of the culture change that is required and to the scope of the work ahead.

Shifting to a Post-Industrial Education Model

Industrial Schools

Post-Industrial Schools

Students as passive recipients of content, exercising limited choice

Students as self-directed, entrepreneurial learners

Teacher as deliverer of content

Teacher as designer and facilitator of immersive learning environments

Little differentiation for student’s individual strengths and interests

Strengths- and interest-based learning for every student

Time-based learning

Competency-based learning

Single discipline-based learning as curriculum driver

Interdisciplinary learning as curriculum driver

Learning grounded in static content and rote memorization of facts

Learning grounded in the real-world and practical application

Learning takes place on the school campus only

Learning takes place on campus and off campus, meaningful community and global partnerships

Content-based assessment, via written tests or exams, learning assessed by the teacher only

Mastery-based assessment of skills, knowledge and habits of mind. Assessment by self, peers, teachers and external experts

In reality, many of our nation’s schools and districts are not solidly on one side or another — they are somewhere in between, with a growing number making the move towards the right. Think of it as a continuum, where is your school or district today and where would you like it to be in the future?

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I have a strong bias that the education should prepare young people to design, build, and live a life of their own choosing. The question of STEM or STEAM is a false choice. Thanks to the internet, content has become a commodity. Beyond the basics of reading and writing, the education system should expose young people to the world’s diversity of disciplines (i.e. STEAM+) and to build a diverse and flexible set of skills — the most important being the nurturing self-directed learning. Our world is changing at such an accelerating rate, the ability to learn, unlearn, and learn throughout one’s lifetime is paramount. In the words of Eric Hoffer, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. I would increase teacher starting salaries to reflect a that of a competitive middle-class wage — teachers’ salaries, particularly starting teachers’ salaries are so low that many teachers need to work a second job just to make ends meet. The average teacher starting salary in 2017–2018 was just $39,249 (Source: NEA). Raising salaries would attract more talent and help keep the talent we do have.

2. I would provide the professional development and support so that every single teacher reaches mastery level of the implementation of neuroscience and learning — and for administrators, parents and school board members to understand enough of the neuroscience to fully support this change.

3. I would require school board members to shadow a teacher, a student and an administrator (a full day each) — to gain critical insights into the reality of school life today — and to visit at least one school where students are thriving in a high quality, self-directed, project environment, e.g. High Tech High or the New Tech Network (and there are many others). Contrasting the above experiences, school boards across the country would see and understand the need for deep and meaningful change — and hopefully make the decision to enable educators to lead it.

4. I would ask Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone) for his expertise on wrap-around services and what changes he would like to see. If I had the power to influence that change, I would ask Geoffrey to lead that work for the nation.

5. I would overhaul the existing system of assessment. Standardized testing, for the most part, actively reduces a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn and is a blunt measure of a child’s capabilities and potential. We need to start measuring what we truly value. Promising work is emerging with the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Assessment for earning Project.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Yes — it’s from my favorite book, The Little Engine That Could:

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Like many of your readers, I was raised in the old system of education. A system of compliance, consumption and control. The irony is that many of us in the current system, were successful in the old, and here we are, knowing that it needs to change and that we do not have all the answers. The right answer no longer resides at the back of the textbook.

It resides within us.

It resides in our ability to break free of the double binds of ‘learned helplessness’ and ‘waiting for permission’ that the system too often perpetuates. And on the days when the work can seem overwhelming, I calm that inner critic with the wisdom from The Little Engine That Could, knowing that the best I might be able to do on any given day is to be positive and keep trying — in absence of a guaranteed result or outcome.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have breakfast or lunch with Jay Z — he has the power to influence a generation of children to find and follow their true north. I have an idea for a program that I would like to run by him. In addition to working directly within the system of education, there is much that we can do outside of the system to reach kids to help them design, build, and live a life of their own choosing.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter or LinkedIn are best -> @JulieMargretta https://www.linkedin.com/in/juliemargrettawilson/

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Thank YOU! These were fun questions to answer

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About the author:

Penny is an environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur. She’s worked as a climate scientist, an environmental planner, and a wilderness park ranger. Motivated by a passion to raise a generation of environmental leaders, in 2010 Penny founded Green Kid Crafts, a children’s media company that provides kids around the world with convenient and eco-friendly STEAM activities. Today, it’s become a leader in the subscription industry, with over 1 million packages shipped worldwide that have exposed a generation to think about and take a leadership role in sustainability. Penny, her husband Jeff, and her children Rowan and Declan live together in San Diego, California. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Management and an M.S. in Environmental Science. Penny has over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, management, strategy and finance. She’s a seasoned leader, an inspiring speaker, an encouraging business mentor, and a creative writer. You can learn more about Green Kid Crafts at https://www.greenkidcrafts.com/ and follow Penny’s stories and updates at https://www.instagram.com/greenkidcrafts/ and https://twitter.com/bauderpenny.

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