American schools are embarking on an enormous unplanned experiment to reinvent the routines of education, whether that means meeting in a classroom, or learning outside or online. Scott Hartl, who leads EL Education, sees an opportunity to use this unprecedented disruption to go further, to repurpose America’s schools to pursue different goals, equipped with a new set of tools. But doing so requires more than tweaking classrooms routines and putting lessons online. EL Education has a Reopening Guide for schools and a new book out, We Are Crew: A Teamwork Approach to Building School Culture. We spoke with Scott this week about the opportunity to reimagine school and learning at this juncture.
EL Education has been working on education reform for nearly three decades. What do you offer and why do schools participate?
We offer what some call a “whole child” model which enables individual schools not only to improve their teaching and learning, but to serve students and prepare them for lives of meaningful contribution and citizenship. We partner with about 150 schools in 35 states. We also work with entire school districts, rural and urban, in Detroit, Charlotte, Richmond, Des Moines, Hamilton County, Tennessee. EL Education’s core literacy program, which consistently ranks among the best, becomes the district’s solution for teaching reading. Teachers undergo long-term, transformative training in student-centered instruction. We help districts shift resources away from stuff, to people. We work with about 500,000 kids a year.
Schools know that EL Education has always led on an approach that intentionally develops social-emotional capacity, mindset, and habits. It’s about integrating the academic part of learning and the development and social growth of the person. A lot of the science of learning points to integration, because the neural pathways for learning and for relationships are shared.
What’s the link between learning and character development?
The higher purpose for education is to become smart in order to do good things, to equip all students with both the skills and the habits to make a better world or better community. All research—not to mention 27 years of our intuitive, practitioner-led experience—tells us that the keys to success in school include a student’s strongly felt sense of belonging and purpose. Engagement with high quality content is essential, and deep connections to peers and teachers matter equally, as they play a determining role in how much time, energy, attention, and confidence a student puts into schoolwork. Character development and academic growth are synergistic and inseparable.
Your entry point to education reform was outdoor education—you led Outward Bound trips for 14 years. How do the values of outdoor education relate to school reform in America?
What outdoor education and my work today have in common is a belief that there should be a deep purpose to learning, an opportunity to transform oneself and to realize one’s potential in the context of not just nature, but community. So how do you do that in an academic, rather than outdoor, setting? How can we help whole schools or school systems undergo the same kind of profound transformation?
Today, schools are scrambling to figure out new routines and arrangements. From your point of view, what is missing in those conversations?
We are witnessing an enormous amount of positive energy and action right now. Educators are standing on their heads trying to do everything humanly possible for kids at a difficult time. Educators are working from a deep sense of calling and mission, and it’s beautiful to see.
That said, teachers are reinventing education in every classroom in America right now. Old routines don’t work anymore, old materials don’t work, so they are doing their best to figure out solutions, looking at virtual models, hybrid models. It’s like we are recasting education teacher by teacher. And of course the results will vary. There is no body of knowledge guiding teachers on how to preserve their close relationships with kids, despite social distance and online classes.
My point is that despite the incredible response, commitment, effort and care, actual instructional pedagogy is deeply at risk all over America right now as rapidly changing school conditions are forcing teachers across the nation to fundamentally re-tool their educational approach, often with relatively little planning time and support. This will have widespread impact on students and the very real potential to deepen the already serious inequities in educational opportunity across the country.
Technology is vital to remote learning. Do we have the right tech?
Education technology, and on-line access, is more essential than ever in reaching students with remote and hybrid school reopening plans. The question that EL Education is focused on with our partners is how can students’ educational experience continue to be one of engaging with strong content, effective and varied instruction, and strong relationship development even as we pivot to on-line and hybrid school models. What I’m really interested in is making EL Education’s curricula scalable through ed-tech platforms, without losing the benefits of our holistic, student-centered pedagogy.
Yet you believe that the pandemic presents a chance to improve?
Fundamentally, the institution of public education is being disrupted right now, and that presents a unique opportunity to accelerate innovation. For example, EL Education has been building and practicing an approach to education that links academic to social-emotional development for almost 30 years, but we have seen an unprecedented level of attention being paid to the benefits of this approach in just the last several months. The Covid crisis has clarified and spotlighted the need to understand that the social-emotional needs of kids and the academic learning needs of kids must be addressed together. Years of straight research and advocacy have not been as effective in getting this point across.
The really big opportunity is to disrupt the inequity, including the racial inequity, in our educational system, in which some kids get all the support and resources they need, while others scrape by with much less support. We need to disrupt that. As America reinvents school, it can begin to emphasize nurturing every young person’s leadership, aspiration, a positive concept of oneself. These are all conducive factors to academic success. We have seen this transform schools, and now is the time for entire school systems to align with these ideas. The problem in American education isn’t a lack of good ideas. It’s the ability of really strong ideas to scale. Scale is the enemy of complexity, and this work is about moving complex practices into whole systems, already complex in themselves. So what am I interested in? I’m interested in learning how to transform entire school systems to be about giving this kind of education to every kid. And if we do, then I’m really excited for the future of education.
Scott Hartl is President & CEO of EL Education and an Ashoka Fellow.