A learning environment designer creates transformational experiences.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Bill Latham is CEO and senior program designer at MeTEOR Education, a company that inspires and supports communities and their students in creating transformational learning experiences. He also is founder of the International EdShift Conference and a co-author of the book Humanizing the Education Machine: How to Create Schools That Turn Disengaged Kids Into Inspired Learners.
What inspired you to start MeTEOR Education?
Bill: We started out as a general furniture dealership company, but we began to focus our efforts on creating world-class learning environments and realized that redesigning spaces, although important, was not enough.
“Educators are trying to run a Google race in a Gutenberg buggy, and the futility causes severe burnout.”
So, we assembled teams of instructional as well as interior designers, and we began talking with educators about district-wide strategic initiatives, teaching and learning practice, and how to effectively integrate technology into a space. In October 2016, we rebranded as MeTEOR Education.
The book you co-authored is titled “Humanizing the Education Machine – How to Create Schools that Turn Disengaged Kids into Inspired Learners.” What does that term Humanizing the Education Machine mean?
Bill: In the prevalent education model, it doesn’t really matter if students really understand what they’re being taught. It doesn’t matter what their needs are as a learner or as a person. All that matters is that they memorize the material and pass the test. Education has become a machine-like rather than a human experience.
We can “humanize” it with instructional models that emphasize learning’s intrinsic value and that recognize that learning is fundamentally human and humans are unique.
Why is “humanizing” education so important?
Bill: The prevalent model is inflicting psychological, emotional, and intellectual damage on many of the people it touches. One of my co-authors described the challenges his three children, one of whom has Asperger syndrome and another of whom has ADHD, faced in the K-12 system. He wrote, “In all three cases, the Machine just kept moving our, and many other, students down the conveyor belt, delaying decisions, ordering tests and pushing them into ill-fitting boxes. No one seemed to care.”
Additionally, the Education Machine does not generate results: In the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ most recent assessment (2015), less than half of students in each of the grades evaluated performed at or above proficiency. That was true for every subject evaluated.
The reason for all of this is that the prevalent model is obsolete. It is a child of the Gutenberg revolution. The print era created (and still creates) systems designed for standardization and conformity. But technological forces such as Google have changed the way we live and work. Educators are trying to run a Google race in a Gutenberg buggy, and the futility causes severe burnout.
What are some of the elements of humanized learning? What do you look for?
Bill: Models that focus on the students and their needs humanize learning. That can take a range of forms.
In the book, you wrote about the impact of design and design thinking. What role do these play in supporting education?
Bill: Research shows that classroom design has a 25 percent impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year, which makes design thinking all the more important.
Design thinking places designers in the role of a user (not simply interviewing users). When you use this approach, the challenges that teachers and students face becomes clearer.
Instead of just handing teachers a piece of technology, you realize you have to figure out how to make it an integral part of the environment, so they won’t use it as a “$1,000 pencil,” to quote Alan November.
What are some examples of schools that have successfully humanized their respective education machines?
Bill: The Jennings School District in Missouri serves a student population with a median household income of less than $29,000 a year. But in December 2015, Jennings became the first unaccredited school district in Missouri to regain full accreditation. That’s because Tiffany Anderson, the district superintendent, included addressing community problems, e.g., forming a food pantry and health clinic, in her turnaround efforts.
Another example is Sarasota Middle School in Florida.
In 2009, Sarasota schools ranked as barely average, and school leaders knew that middle school was the point where achievement began to fall.
So, Dr. Page Dettmann, the Sarasota County Executive Director of Middle Schools, with the partnership of Mark Pritchett, CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, developed the STEMSmart program for the middle school.
Instead of rows of student desks facing the teacher’s front and center desk, each STEM classroom has six tables with flat-screen monitors for small groups of students. And the classes include children from different grade levels. Those classrooms are designed for communication, collaboration, creative thinking and critical thinking. The school’s current test scores are far above the state average.
You also wrote that community plays a role in this new educational model. How so?
Bill: Schools are not standalone places; the community exerts a strong influence. Superintendent Anderson understood that students can’t learn when they are hungry, sick, and feel unsafe.
Also, as Dr. Dettmann pointed out, a supportive community can help schools through mentoring, tutoring, industry tours, shadowing, internships, partnering in project development, etc.
What are the steps that educators can take to start ‘dismantling’ the machine?’
Bill: Shifting to a student-led learning models like Sarasota Middle School or the Engage2Learn or EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) models, to name a few. It requires new culture and skills, but it is an accessible strategy for schools to explore.
Blended learning is another approach that shifts the role of the teacher from the “sage on the stage” to a coach, mentor, and troubleshooter.
What is the state of education these days?
Bill: Most teachers today have big hearts—but often have the wrong tools.
Students tend to be more engaged in the real world than they are in the classroom. They have become disillusioned in the artificial environments that we call schools.
Parents who recognize the value of education in their children’s lives often view the priorities of educators as out of alignment with their own goals for their children, in terms of keeping kids engaged over stressing the importance of standardized test scores.
What do you believe is technology’s role in education today? Why?
Bill: We don’t believe that student experiences with technology in the classroom should be any different than the role of tech outside class.
Students need to learn how to use technology to develop and present their ideas in real-world and eventually, work environments.
Of course, modern technology—like smartphones—can be as much of a distraction in school as they can be in a work meeting or an office setting – they are portals to misbehavior if the ground-rules around their use is left undefined.
The real issue is idle minds that aren’t engaged with what’s going on in the learning environment.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org