(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
Ben Heckman, an 8th grader from Framington, Minnesota, is a twice-published novelist whose story was told in a New York Times piece about the growing number of young writers who break into print, usually with a little bankrolling from their parents. Hundreds of teenage and younger authors are publishing every year.
The Times story by Elissa Gootman also illustrates what I call Learning 2.0, the next full-scale upgrade of public education. The authors in her story all wrote fiction, but publishing non-fiction student work also is an important pedagogy, a departure from the century-old acquisition-and-storage model of learning. Publishing student work is an act of exhibition, an invitation for people to view and comment on it, and a validation of self worth of the writer. Publication says that students can do something, know something, and be something.
My exhibit “A” resides at High Tech High in San Diego, where 60 books are listed on the school’s web site, creating both examples of the school’s own ideas about its best work and the transparency through which others can judge it. (I’m writing a case study of the school that should be published soon.)
San Diego Bay begins about 200 yards from the HTH Point Loma campus. It serves as a social and scientific laboratory, and students have written four books about the Bay and its environs. One of them, San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploitation and Restoration, was published by the University of California, San Diego, and supported by the National Sea Grant program.
Through a series of projects developed by teachers Jay Vavra in biology, Tom Fehrenbacher in humanities, and Rod Buenviaje in mathematics, students interviewed Native Americans, Chinese fishermen, and hunters. They followed the fortunes of tuna, sea lions, white sea bass, abalone, and dolphins. They applied Jared Diamond’s themes from Guns, Germs, and Steel to the Bay. They ended by saying, “Only when we realize that all the pieces of the bigger picture we call nature must be considered will we be capable of sustainably using the Bay, and the rest of the world’s environment, to its fullest extent.”
Several other groups of students, and their teachers, have produced “alphabet books” or dictionaries on academic disciplines. Andrew Gloag’s students published Absolute Zero, which illustrates physics terms. “A is for Antimatter,” writes Kathy Anderson, explaining that high energy antimatter engines are still sci-fi stuff, but that PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans of brain activity exemplify a practical application of the science.
Jenny Morris and a biology class at HTH Chula Vista wrote Alphabet Soup: The A-Z of Cell Biology, about which Morris comments: “This book is living proof that students will aspire to and reach the high expectations you set for them, if you provide a safe and supportive environment in which to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed.”
Dan Wise’s economics students produced posters explaining economic terms in language a junior high school student could understand. (Students had to test their examples on them. If a sixth grader couldn’t understand, start over.) Think: Could you define a “moral hazard” or a “free rider”? In the process of creating these examples, the students learned the underlying economics, concise writing, and design. They illustrated each defined term with linoleum block prints that became part of the posters, and the posters and definitions became part of a book, Economics Illustrated.
Ben Daley, HTH chief operating officer, sees great value in publishing student work: “I have observed the pride that many students feel at having their words and their work appear in print. One of my high school senior advisees solemnly observed to my advisory group, ‘I’m a published author now.’ I believe that micro-publishing is an opportunity that allows almost any teacher to work alongside students to produce high-quality products in which students not only absorb new information but also transform it to help make it their own, as well as develop important skills such as learning to work well in a group and the ability to effectively communicate one’s ideas.”
Exhibition also creates incentive among students. As HTH art teacher Jeff Robin says, “If you think that you are an artist, but your paintings are only in your mother’s garage, you’re really not an artist; you’re just cluttering up your mother’s garage.” Teacher and students need to know where the project will live. “If you know that the project will be displayed in an art gallery in downtown San Diego and your family and friends are going to be there, you are going to want to do a better job.”
Publishing does not substitute for practice in writing, just as performing does not substitute for practice in music, or playing does not substitute for practice in soccer. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000-hour rule, the length of time it takes to master most anything. Exhibition as pedagogy does not assert that it creates prodigies; it simply creates more opportunities for practice that is subject to critique. In a way, it’s serious play, and incentivized learning in ways that receiving a traditional red-penciled paper from a teacher decidedly is not.
Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. He writes the blog Mindworkers.com, where this piece appeared.