Opening The Door To the Space In-Between

by EdwardBerger on September 4, 2014

There are questions we don’t ask because…? Maybe we never thought about the possibilities and couldn’t form the question. Or, maybe we thought about the possibilities and decided that what we imagined couldn’t happen – even if the changes wrought would make a significant contribution.

This is a true story, my story as a young educator who explored that space between Thinking About The Possibilities, and pushing ahead against the place where, It Can Never Happen. The in-between place is where a searcher can go and create something with the potential to wake petrified systems.

I knew the danger of opening the door to the space in-between. I knew how the system that would bear the brunt of my research and reject it, worked. I knew that what I imagined was not acceptable to a whole mindset, a whole self-perpetuating system that would have to change and evolve in ways that created chaos within accepted dogmas. But I could not ignore what I had discovered as I opened my mind to new ways of looking at the things I did as an educator.

Actually, I discovered two bombs that would threaten the way things were done across the nation and increasingly across the planet. The first was not a new discovery. It served as an example of how systems reject information that does not perpetuate what seems to be working. John Dewey described necessary changes to the way we educate. Essentially, he clarified experience and education; how learning units must have a real and practical application. He showed us that lessons at every level had to end with a contribution to oneself and to society. Everyone who is a learner agrees with Dewey. But, his teachings do not penetrate to the base levels of our schools. His message stops where it conflicts with the way we organize and run our institutions. There are hundreds of examples of how right Dewey is, but few examples of those who break away and follow his teachings. By the late 1960s, I was one of those who tried.

I designed programs that would, as the brochures for my new courses promised, “…put students in the action where the action is.” During the school year, I took American History students into the community to interview old timers and find places – like the notches in hillsides cut by the wagon wheels of travelers along the Smoky Hill Trail, old burial grounds, and the original Cherry Creek Schoolhouse which had been sold at auction in the early 50s and moved to a remote ranch. I worked to create programs, like EPIC – Educational Participation In the Community – and at one point coordinated over 800 students in volunteer service projects throughout the greater Denver Area. I supported programs like MAL – Mutually Aided Learning – that prepared high school students as aides in elementary and junior high classrooms. By observing and evaluating students in many programs, my insights into the areas John Dewey proffered grew and were enhanced. There was no question in my mind that learning was enhanced by involvement and contribution.

I needed to create supplemental, interdisciplinary programs (supplementing the public schools curriculum). In 1967, I discovered what turned out to be the perfect place to do that. The following summer the district allowed me to design and run summer sessions in SW Colorado near Mesa Verde. The course was: Introduction To Community Service And Social Studies Field Techniques. The success of those programs led to the creation of I-S Educational Programs, Inc., which became the Crow Canyon School and is now, 46 years later, named the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. The story (history) of that breakout experiential education center is described in my book, Crow Canyon: Pioneering Education and Archaeology of the Southwest Colorado Frontier.*

But I mentioned two bombs. The second breakthrough was a result of the first and it is a threat to the way we run our schools. In fact, most educators want nothing to do with it although privately they agree it is necessary. They protect the status-quo by believing It Can Never Happen.

As Crow Canyon’s programs evolved we made a breakthrough: Accelerated Learning. Accelerated Education. Between 1972 and 1986, our staff and especially Jo Berger and I designed programs (better called experiences) that motivated learners. What we learned is that we had a short window of time in which to prepare students to make a contribution in whatever they were doing. We didn’t have a year, or a semester, or even a week to get students up-to-speed and in the action. We had to help them be effective and not drain energy from those they worked with. We had to accelerate learning.

The greatest challenge we faced was in the Archaeology program. If our students were to be ready to work alongside prominent Southwestern Archaeologists, doing original research, on a site, on survey, and in the lab, we had to take them from zero knowledge to capable in a little more than two days. Impossible? Not when you realize how the application of what is learned motivates learners. Not when you understand how learning accelerates when students are highly motivated. Not when you understand how games and group activities make learning fun and accelerate learning.

Now, you can see why this cannot happen. How would you run a school if the students didn’t need a semester or a year for each level of math, history, or a division of science? How would one fill a school year – 176+ days – if the students mastered the subjects in only days or weeks? How would we provide immediate and practical application of what is taught? How would each student be able to make a contribution? What would that do to bus schedules and keeping the kids safe while the parents work?

There isn’t room in this blog to go into the details of how we were able to put students into positions of responsibility, with adequate information so they did no damage, where they could make a contribution in a very short time.

We created a process – a means of instruction – that worked with high school students, then with elementary school children, and finally with people into their 80s. By 1979, much of our research was in place. We could repeat successful behaviors because we had names for dynamics that worked – handles that allowed us to turn thoughts in our minds and explain them to others. We knew how to structure student experiences in ways that excited them and let them put their energy into whole new patterns of learning and giving.

In the Spring of 1986, our research ended. We had hoped that the staff would continue to understand how education integrated and enhanced all of our programs. For many years, the information about motivation, hands-on experiential learning, accelerated learning, and the need of students to make a contribution, was eclipsed and the library of Crow Canyon’s history was lost. In time, new educators came to the same conclusions Jo and I did and the education programs bloomed again. Today Crow Canyon, is a place that would make John Dewey smile.

*An electronic download of Crow Canyon (2nd edition) is available free at:

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Many communities are fighting to save their public schools. When the administrators and elected board members interface with their communities to pass bond issues or stop the drain of students pulled away by partial schools, they assume everyone knows they are fighting for kids. That must be the reason they don’t focus on education issues. They focus on the things they deal with and understand. Years ago I heard an administrator observe, “We focus on buildings and permanent things. The kids? They’re just passing through.”

Specific information from teachers about the strengths and the needs of the educational programs are too often left out of the messages given to the community. When a bond issue fails, or enrollment drops, there is great concern that the community does not support its schools. Yes, in difficult economic times folks are reluctant to vote for new bonds. Voters need to know that student needs will be met by their vote. Districts need to counter the claims of partial schools and be very clear about what they offer.

The reality is that the public will not support district schools that fail to communicate the education benefits they provide, and the needs teachers identify. Partial (alternative) schools succeed where the district schools do not explain the wealth of advantages they deliver for every child.

Voters will support necessary services for children when they understand how this extra burden of taxation helps kids. Not kids five years from now, but kids in school now. In my book, Unscrewed, The Education of Annie, I shared one of the most devastating replies a superintendent made to parents concerned about the lack of an effective math program. The Superintendent, filled with righteous indignation, replied, “For your information we are working on that. In five years we will have one of the best math programs in the state.” The parents replied, “But our children are in school now. They won’t be here in five years.” That exchange broke the bond between parents and the district school. Almost all of those parents found partial schools as alternatives.

When a partial school can suck students away from a district school, something is very wrong. District schools have elected school boards, certified teachers and administrators, the ability to raise capital dollars through bonds for building and maintenance (and not have to use instructional dollars to create a school space), and comprehensive curricula. It is almost certain that teachers are not being listened to. It is an indicator that the immediate needs of children are only assumed to be known by those interfacing with the community.

District schools must provide information necessary for parents to decide which school best provides all of the options their child must have. If parents take their children out of district schools it is certain that they do not know the differences between a district school and a partial school, or even what comprehensive curriculum, teacher certification, and teacher expertise and experience mean for students. District schools must keep this information before the public.

Increasing class size, eliminating experienced and proven teachers and counselors, deleting services, closing libraries, killing art programs, using TFA and other cheap, unskilled class-sitters, and assuming that fear (high stakes testing and its inherent threats) motivates human beings, destroy public support for district schools.

Classroom teachers have long been denied a seat at the community table. When a district involves experienced teachers in planning, and in communicating with the public, the community becomes aware of the issues limiting the education program our tax dollars are supposed to provide. When they have this understanding, they support district schools.

In summary, all educators and elected board members must continually educate their community as to the needs of children currently in district schools. The responsibility of the administration, board members, and teachers is to relate capital needs to instructional needs, and show how children will be better served. Their emphasis must be on education issues. Their focus must be on children.

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