New View EDU Episode 53: Transforming the Future of School

Available March 26, 2024

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“Knowing what we now know, we can no longer do what we now do. To do so is educational malpractice.” That provocative statement, by Stephanie Pace-Marshall, is one of the principles that guides Sam Chaltain through his work redesigning education for the modern era. In this episode of New View EDU, Sam asks listeners to consider how the world has changed since our school system was designed, and what educational “sacred cows” schools need to dispense with to keep pace with the rapid evolution of society.

Sam ChaltainSam and host Tim Fish tackle these questions and more, starting with a list of the many practices Sam believes are no longer suitable for today’s students. Time-honored systems like age-based groupings, discrete subject areas, 180-day calendars, and even grades are all up for scrutiny. Sam posits that the purpose of school no longer can be strictly about content acquisition and retention—that the real work lies in helping each individual student identify their personal strengths, interests, and potential path forward in life. To do so, he says, may involve teaching traditional content areas like chemistry or history…or may not. Whatever we choose to teach, Sam’s goal is to pursue the “conditions for epiphany.”

Turning to inspiration from nature, Sam highlights the first three principles of a living system: identity, information, and relationships. He describes how these principles lead to the conditions for growth in biology, and how that understanding has led him to a deeper consideration of how the education system can design for students’ growth. He urges educators to remember that their fidelity is to the emergence of children, not to content. 

Sam offers examples of several educational models from around the world that he believes are sowing the seeds of growth and emergence in students, in a developmentally sound way. These models have strengths in being child-led, responsive, flexibly designed within a sound structure, and oriented within the larger community in various valuable ways. And in each, he points out, the role of the educator is vital as a guide and a helper to students—someone “authoritative, but not authoritarian.” 

The key to creating transformation within our existing systems, he notes, is to understand that we are on a continuum and to never believe that we’re done innovating. Sam urges schools to embrace what he calls the “three-word story of humanity: longing and belonging.” How can we design vibrant educational environments where students and adults work in community with one another, pursuing growth and emergence with a spirit of purpose? 

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Sam explore in this episode include:

  • How has the purpose and nature of education changed since the founding of our education system? What should we stop doing in service of making schools more effective for the modern world?
  • What does it look like to design a system for growth? How does structure come into play when you’re trying to design responsively? What are the roles of the learner and the educator?
  • How are school environments able to make the transition from a traditional model to a more emergent model? What needs to be in place to allow for that kind of change?
  • Is the physical space important to designing a school where emergence is the goal? What’s the role of the actual classroom or school building in this kind of design?

Episode Highlights

  • “We have been, for a long time, perfecting our ability to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests. And to be fair, when, if we just take, let's say like the last 100, 150 years, right, when we really, when we first established a system of schooling in this country, it was a very different world and we had very different needs. … There was a larger mission of acculturating Americans and forging a common identity. And we were in the midst of the industrial revolution. So the primary design metaphors for that system were literally to batch and cue unprecedented numbers of young people through a system and into an economy that was largely predictable. None of that is true anymore.” (6:23)
  • “The focus needs to be rendered down to the essence of ‘who’. Who is this unique individual? What are their unique interests, passions, and potential contributions to the world and to the people they come in contact with? And how can we set conditions that help that person answer the only question that matters, right? Which is: Of all the things I can do with my one precious life, what must I do?” (10:27)
  • “The goal and the primary measure of health of a living system is disequilibrium, not equilibrium, right? The moment a pond establishes equilibrium, it gets covered in kind of green mushy muck. It's that constant delicate balance, the dance of all of these different, you know, contributing factors that allows for its ultimate and optimal health. And so too is it with us. Therefore, we have a different way and a different frame for how we can think about this thing that for the last 100 years we've called school.” (18:06)
  • “All of our design work is in service of the answers to those questions. How do we, how do we unleash even more powerfully the things that are already powerful here? And how do we make possible the things that are not yet possible? And usually what that leads to is a space that is, that is flexible, that is adaptable, that is permeable, that has the ability…that doesn't look like the way that schools have looked. It's not necessarily expensive, right? Like the things that people want are not things that are luxurious. They're things that are in service of setting daily conditions for epiphany, for connection, for reflection, and for emergence.” (34:36)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guest

Sam Chaltain is a globally recognized writer, filmmaker, and school designer.

Sam’s writings about his work have appeared in both magazines and newspapers, including The New York TimesWashington Post, and USA Today. He is a former speechwriter for each of President Obama’s education secretaries. Sam is the author or co-author of seven books; a co-producer of the PBS documentary film, 180 Days: Hartsvilleand co-creator of the 10-part online film seriesA Year at Mission Hill.

Sam has a master’s degree in American studies from the College of William & Mary, and an M.B.A. from George Washington University, where he specialized in nonprofit management and organizational theory. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he graduated with a double major in Afro-American Studies and History.