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Learning In the Third Space

Tom Houlihan, former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, asked a question that should resonate with anyone who has an interest in the success of children in school. "Students across the country are dropping out of school at frightening rates. . . how can we make school a meaningful experience for every student, an experience that engages them deeply in learning and school life, unleashes their capacity to be self directed and innovative, and nurtures their desire to be contributing members of society?"

Striving to compel an answer to his question is the ongoing focus of my post-retirement efforts and is the central purpose of my book The Education Kids Deserve. My thirty-five years of experience in public education inform my belief that schools, and school systems, are overly reliant on traditional practices and expectations; largely ignoring (or at a minimum overlooking) the needs, interests, backgrounds, and the innate curiosity and creativity of 21st century learners. Sadly, the American system is out of touch, it is antiquated and it is irrelevant to the students it is attempting to serve.

Are we relevant? Probably not. (Please see my previous post: "Are We Relevant? Ask!")

Central Falls High School in Central Falls, Rhode Island is one of the schools studied for the publication of Third Space: When Learning Matters. It is a school that is ethnically diverse: 68% of its student population is non-white and 98% of the students qualify for free or reduced price meals. The cultural tapestry of this school is rich and, beautifully, complicated with large numbers of recent immigrants and non-English speakers. Deanna, a teacher there, has this to say about how, and what, schools should aspire to be. "Learning should be alive, living and breathing, like we are. Learning doesn't happen between 4 walls. It happens between people. Teachers should not only be facilitators, but lifelong learners, letting their students have a turn at guiding them. Schools should not live within the borders of Monday through Friday 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM. Schools should be responsible institutions, responsible for educating, responsible for creating a positive and supportive culture, responsible for reaching out, pulling in, taking hold and letting go. Schools should be the great collaborators of our communities; fostering global thinking and global understanding. Schools should offer hope."

Offering hope begins with the practices and attitudes of teachers. I write about this extensively in The Education Kids Deserve and made a case for transformative teacher practices in a recent blog titled "The Relevance Triad - Teachers on the B/C Line." "Powerful teachers are strengths-based and student-centered. They use students' own experiences, strengths, interests, goals, and dreams as the beginning point (my emphasis) for learning, competence and accomplishment. Thus, they tap students' intrinsic motivation, their existing, innate drive for learning." (Bonnie Bernard, Resilience:What We Have Learned, 2004) It is these strengths-based and student-centered practices that allow the opening of a third space for learning. "A third space is opened when students draw on their 'lived world' (a first space)and what they have learned from their teachers (a second space) to create and express something new, something no one else could have made." (Stevenson and Deasy, Third Space: When Learning Matters, 2005)

Opening a third space for students is the foundational premise of the Relevance Triad.

It is along the A/C line, within the third space, where true and meaningful learning can occur. It is within this space that students will move beyond compliant memorization to experience a dimension of authentic creativity. It is within this space that students may express their construction of something unique and new - which becomes their realization of a relevant learning experience. Within a third space, the innate curiosity of students is valued. Their creativity is tapped, as a resource of overwhelming potential. And the deliberate utilization of inquiry, allowing students to use and address their own questions, is the prevalent tempo of the instructional experience. Of course, all of this must occur within the "positive and supportive culture" that Deanna from Central Falls longs for.

This, my loyal followers, is THE EDUCATION KIDS DESERVE.

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