An important concept applied in the design of the Renaissance Rising school model is that structure generates behavior. How we structure the learning model will have a significant impact on the students learning outcomes. To better illustrate this point, I want to talk about a neighborhood in Portland called Ladd’s Addition. It’s located between three fairly high traffic streets: Hawthorne, Division, and 12th. My first experience with the neighborhood was when I was trying to take a shortcut from Hawthorne to Division. Talk about a beautiful mistake. The neighborhood is filled with incredible homes, rose gardens, and tall trees. You would never guess that it is close to three busy streets and a multitude of businesses. I soon realized why. One way streets, roundabouts, and an unconventional street layout led to me getting lost almost immediately. Suddenly my shortcut was proving to take longer than if I had used the main streets. If I recall correctly, I ended up circling back and ending up on Hawthorne. I took mental note to never try that shortcut again. My adventure was more than just a cautionary driving tale. While attempting to navigate the neighborhood with my car, I noticed several pedestrians and bikers, but only a car or two. Despite being next to busy roads, there was practically zero spillover traffic. The structure of the roads discouraged driving and encouraged biking and walking. I’m sure that for the residents it was easy to navigate in a car, but only after they tackled the learning curve and learned the nuances and tricks to get where they were going. For everyone else, the structure was tricky and would either require ditching the car, riding with a resident, or altogether avoiding the area.
So what does this have to do with education? Well, if we acknowledge that learning models are a structure that students navigate on the journey to gain more knowledge, then we can make deliberate choices to create a structure of their learning to generate a desired behavior. With this in mind, let’s compare the traditional school model to Renaissance Rising’s school model1.
Teacher centric vs. student centric
The traditional model is teacher centric. Teachers determine the agenda on every level, from the year-long curriculum to the day to day activities. Any “assessment” of what a child is learning is based on what the teacher deems learning. If you were to ask someone in the traditional school model what a child has learned during a given period of time, they would pull out their recent tests and assignments – designed by the teacher – and use those as a reference. Renaissance Rising’s model is student centric. The student decides the learning agenda on every level. Each student pursues their interests in a manner they deem most appropriate. If you asked what a child learned during a given time, a portfolio of student designed projects would be referenced.
Curriculum based vs. project based
The traditional model uses a curriculum to determine what will be learned. It is a road map for every student to follow in order to reach a uniform learning outcome. Renaissance Rising uses a project based approach. Project is open to definition by each student in order to provide the freedom for each student to tailor their own approach to reach their unique learning outcomes. If a curriculum is a road map that students are expected to follow according to the teacher’s determination, then the application of the Renaissance Rising model is handing the mapping tools to the student and having the teacher offer guidance if they get lost and want help.
The differences in these structures produce two distinct behaviors. The traditional model creates a structure that leads each student to draw similar conclusions found in similar manners. Their motivation to learn and perform is based on the teacher’s decision making and incentives. Renaissance Rising’s model creates a structure that allows students to reach a variety of conclusions found in a variety of manners. Their motivation to learn and perform is based on the student’s decision making and self-motivation. This ability to navigate their learning process in self-determined ways creates an environment conducive for creative behavior. If we understand creativity as simulating data in previously unforeseen and original manners, we can recognize that the freedom in Renaissance Rising’s model creates the structure for students to behave in a creative manner. The freedom of the model allows students to try out a variety of approaches to a variety of ideas that if pre-determined, would not be possible.
These distinctions are important and need to be considered in context to their purposes. The traditional school model was designed to train workers for the manufacturing economy. The behavior created by the structure matched the needs of the economy and prepared these students for the workforce they would be entering after they graduated. Currently, the manufacturing economy is dwindling. Technology has enabled automation, outsourcing, and increased efficiency. The needs of the US economy have changed and the predominant school models have not changed to meet those needs. Now the workforce needs creative self-motivated individuals. These are attributes of the behavior generated by the Renaissance Rising structure.
Let’s go back to my experience at Ladd’s Addition and replace my goal of using those streets as a shortcut to get to another road with a goal of wanting to gain knowledge. Navigating the Ladd’s Addition is akin to navigating the traditional school model. It was designed by someone else with the intent of creating a certain type of behavior. There are a set of rules that you travel along in order to get to your final destination. At first you might try to use your car and get lost as I did. At this point you are faced with a decision. Do I try again and continue the process of learning to navigate the rules? Do I ask advice from a resident (the teacher) and rely on their guidance? Do I ditch my car (my original behavior) and walk or bike (the designer’s desired behavior)? Worse yet, do I decide that the learning journey is not worth it and avoid it? There are a variety of decisions in front of me. I would say that a student facing the traditional model faces these same challenges. Do they try and figure out how to make the structure work for them? Are they capable of learning how to do that? Will they grow tired of learning in their own way and conform? Regardless of how they navigate their learning, they are expected jump through hoops and learn what the teacher values as the correct approach and knowledge. They travel very similar paths and behave in similar ways. What if as I turned down the road to pursue my goal I came upon undeveloped land? There are no roads to follow. I am handed map making tools and told to navigate this land as I saw fit. Since it is undeveloped, as I choose my journey I run into a variety of obstacles. As I reach them I figure out how to navigate them with tricks I have learned along the way or new creative approaches. While on my journey I have access to guides that help me with obstacles when I ask. Maybe they lay out a path they traveled or show me how they learned to climb a tree. I cross paths with others who share their experiences and we may travel together to certain destinations but inevitably we all gather different experiences along the way. This is what the structure of Renaissance Rising provides.
1) There is a caveat to this comparison. While structure does generate behavior, some people are able to navigate structures in a behavior that transcends the normative behavior. This can last for varying amounts of time that are not necessarily chronologically determined. While it is possible to do so, it can often be discomforting, tiring, and/or frustrating. As an example, the phrase “jumping through the hoops” sums up how that navigation process feels.