I had the great pleasure of working at and attending the 2015 TCEA convention last week in Austin. The week was something of a blur, but it was and always has been such a re-charger for me. The professional conversations, in particular, always leave me flush with new ideas and possibilities.
A wonderful highlight was the closing speaker for the week, Arizona educator Fredi Lajvardi. Fredi and his students are the subject of a movie, Spare Parts, and a documentary, Underwater Dreams. The films both tell the story of a group of students that in 2004 approached Fredi about starting a robotics team. The team goes on to shockingly knock off college teams in national robotics competitions, including powerhouse MIT. The best part of the story is that these students are not the types of kids most people would look at as technological and engineering wonderkids. Students at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, where Fredi teaches, are predominantly poor, hispanic, and often cannot speak fluent English. Many are the children of undocumented immigrants. Fredi’s talk was raw and authentic. He passionately described the challenges his kids and team faced and proudly shared their moments of triumph. He was especially proud of the incredible list of achievements his former students had compiled and the legacies they were creating.
Fredi hit on so many critical points, and his students’ experiences spoke volumes about what we do and do not do in our schools. A few of the points that stuck out most vividly to me are:
1. Students drive. The original idea for the robotics team came not from administrative mandates or Fredi himself, but from students. The results were levels of engagement and dedication rarely seen in classrooms.
2. Failure is a step. Students encountered many, many struggles and failures, such as a leaking robot on competition day. They rallied around these problems, though, and turned them into productive failures through re-design, creativity, and innovative solutions (such as using a tampon’s absorbent materials to solve the problem of the leak).
3. Aim higher. Fredi stated that his team decided to compete against college teams, because they wanted to learn from the best. This is an example of setting genuinely high expectations in a powerful and meaningful context, and it motivated students to achieve. Simply tossing around terms like “higher standards”, “rigor”, etc. can and will NEVER accomplish this drive to succeed.
4. Thinking beats memorizing. Fredi stated, “Focus should be on process, not content. Google has all the content we need.” Memorizing facts is great for standardized tests, but thinking is great for real life tests. We continue to languish under a system that is a relic from the 19th century, when it was dictated that memorizing certain facts in 5 core areas made a person successful. Clearly we still aren’t thinking, or we would have seen the folly of this decades ago. As Roger Schank writes in Teaching Minds, “Memorization has nothing to do with learning, unless you want to become a singer.”
The most beautiful thing about hearing stories like that of Fredi and his students is how vividly they illustrate just what our kids can do when the opportunity is presented to them. When they can be in control of real, exciting, challenging learning experiences, barriers like poverty, language, ethnicity, family situations, etc. can be smashed as students rocket skyward. This is a useful reminder of what needs to drive me daily.
One last point. I noticed that Fredi never once mentioned his students’ test scores. Instead, he talked about his former kids’ engineering degrees, non-profit foundations, startup companies, and new families. He talked like a proud dad or friend. While it is practically impossible to precisely quantify the effects of the robotics program and Fredi on these student outcomes, it is reasonable to assume that the impact was far more significant than even the best test prep program has ever achieved. If we must have standards (The talking heads all say we do.), isn’t this the type of standard we should be judged by–the legacy and life-impact our classes have on our students?