Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, offers a useful metaphor to use when designing learning: build “high ceilings, low floors and wide walls”.
I was first introduced to this wonderful metaphor by a colleague when working at the International Baccalaureate a couple of years ago. It has been playing on my mind again this week as we have been thinking about how we want to design our new programme for high school students in Grades 9 and 10.
A ceiling often represents the highest point we can reach. A low ceiling is restrictive, whilst a high ceiling can provide both room for growth and something to aim for.
But who decides on the height of the ceiling? What is high for one person might not be for another; this is one of the great paradoxes of the standardised mass education system. We want students to show what they have learned by taking them through a standardised curriculum and then mass testing them to produce an order of merit that can be used to determine the winners and losers. There remain a number of reasons why societies might wish to retain this system (efficiency), however, it is also very obvious that mass standardisation and testing is limited to that which is being measured.
So we need to create learning that can allow students to determine their own best self, and to reach as high as they are motivated to go.
Low floors is another way of thinking about barriers to access. This is not about removing rigour or making things easy; it is about designing and scaffolding learning so students can jump in and get going regardless of their starting points. We know that some students opt out of learning if they think that it will be too difficult for them (self-efficacy) and some will not even be allowed to even try (via school selection). We see this in situations where schools value their reputation for high grades over the actual learning experience for students.
So we need to create learning that is designed to inspire and include (rather than exclude) students.
As important as high ceilings and wide walls are, Resnick believes that it is even more important to have wide walls:
It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways.
Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.
Not all students need or even want to, follow the same programme. In life, we can often choose when we want to be measured and we can go where we thrive. But in schools, we do not always get much choice. Does that make sense anymore? Did it ever? This goes way beyond vocational v academic polarities; mounting evidence shows that a large number of college graduates are underemployed (different to unemployed), meaning that they work in jobs that do not require a degree. In the US, for example, this number sits at a staggering 42.5% (here too).
This is not just a metaphor about how to make learning student centred, inclusive and accessible, it is also about making sure that what students learn is actually relevant and useful. Standardised educational systems are efficient at creating large amounts of graduates, but it seems that it is not equally efficient at producing the sorts of graduates who are needed to meet the Future of Work.
Wide walls. Check.
I really do like this structural metaphor, but at the same time, I am conscious of the irony of using it at the same time I want to make a case against factory education. Something to think on.