Working with educators inspires us in a multitude of ways: to understand exactly where the gaps are in educating our world’s youth and how we can work together to fix it; to enhance our product to make the lives of educators and students even easier as they empower students with our platform; and to never stop questioning and learning.
In this spirit, we sat down with some of the key educators from across the world to get their perspectives on some questions we not only had on our mind, but questions that we are hearing the entire educational community ask. Questions such as: What kind of change must be affected in education? What kinds of technology are you using to affect that change? What kinds of patterns do you see emerging in the field? What’s next?
Read on for an exclusive interview with educational changemaker Noah Rachlin, Instructor of History and Social Science, and Tang Institute Fellow at Andover. This is one post in our #eduinnovator series, highlighting quotes from the 16 percent of educators who key thought leaders of education, where we go in-depth on the key trends in education, innovation, and how we can rethink traditional frameworks of education.
100mentors: What has been your journey through education?
Noah: I’ve been a classroom teacher for over 10 years. I first started teaching in NYC before leaving Manhattan to join a group of educators who were starting an independent school in Southern California. The educational experience for the overall majority for young people in the US does not look like it does in the independent schools that I worked at in my earliest years in this profession and so I felt that I needed a better sense of the educational space to know where I would go next. So, I applied to and then enrolled in the Master’s Program in Education Policy and Management at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. My time at HGSE helped me to develop a much better sense of challenges and opportunities across the educational landscape, and I took particular notice of the siloed nature of the education space in the United States.
100mentors: What do you mean by the “siloed” nature of education? How is education siloed?
Noah: Schools too often do not talk to each other and this is even more true across school type. Charter schools are often not talking to traditional public schools and vice versa, and it is often the case that neither public charter or traditional public schools are in conversation with independent schools. This struck me as a considerable missed opportunity.
While there are certainly differences between the conditions, circumstances, and student populations at certain schools, there are also many similarities. And often, we focus far too much on the differences instead of the similarities.
100mentors: With such an impressive and extensive background, what is your passion and focus when it comes to education?
Noah: I’m interested in figuring out ways schools can work more collaboratively. A potential avenue into this type of work has been bridging the gap between theory and practice in educational research. Lately, I have been focused on exploring ways that educators can work collaboratively to translate research on mindset, motivation, practice, and focus into strategies that can inform classroom practice, regardless of what type of school one is working in. I think we need to develop this work in all schools.
We should want all young people — regardless of their background — to be persistent, resilient, optimistic, and curious.
100mentors: How have you seen education change over the past few years?
Noah: Well, in some senses we’re not changing enough, and in other senses, we’re changing very quickly. It is still largely based on a traditional industrial model. For example, you walk into a lot of classrooms and they look structurally and culturally really similar to the way they’ve looked for the past 100 years. The teacher is instructing from the central point of the classroom and the students are listening. Given that so much else in the world is changing rapidly in the 21st century, arguably far too many schools and classrooms are exactly the same as they have been for years and years.
At this other end of the spectrum is a consideration of the rapid pace of change that we have seen, brought about by new models for learning and the rapid development of technology. For example, some schools are thinking about Maker Spaces, and other ways we can more fully immerse students in the learning experience in order to make learning more active, authentic, and engaging than ever before. We also have classroom spaces where students are immersed in technology and are learning coding and computer science. This represents a considerable change from not that long ago. In a recent conversation I had with a group that was 10-15 years removed from the experience of being a student, they were completely intrigued to find out that the use of a laptop or tablet is now a regular part of the school day for many students. Technology now exists beyond the idea of, “I’m showing a movie in class” and people are using digital tools to facilitate teaching and learning to such an extent now, that it is not seen as that far from the norm.
Today we see digital tools as a source of opportunity and as normative in a way that was not the case even 5 years ago, and certainly not 10 years ago.
100mentors: As an educational changemaker, what is a philosophy that has helped drive you?
Noah: We must always remember that people are at the center of this work. At the end of the day, education is a human improvement profession, it is individuals working with other individuals in an effort to grow and develop. Specifically, the idea of being “child-centered” can become controversial at times, in part because the term has been adopted by certain reform movements and then become understood as representing specific political views and ideologies, especially amongst groups of adults. But, that’s not how I mean it.
Simply put, we need to remember, as adults, that even though this work cannot happen without adults, kids are at the center of the work.
This can lead people to different conclusions about how to proceed in a given situation, but it is important to keep this fundamental concept at the forefront of our mind — this is work that’s about children. We are at our best when we remember that we are working with kids, and this is a profession that is so incredibly important, in a space in the world that’s so incredibly important because it’s a space for and about kids.
100mentors: What do you think is a mentality that has contributed to the slow growth and innovation in the space of education?
Noah: Sometimes, we tend to think of schools as both “the cause of” and “the solution to” some of the world’s greatest challenges. For example, we consider school as both a possible cause of and solution to limited social mobility. This means that we put a lot on education. For example, in the United States, we often see education as a solution to poverty, without recognizing the impact that poverty has on learning. So, we can come up with all these great classroom technologies, amazing digital tools, tremendous formative and summative assessments, engaging instructional approaches … but we must understand that these will not be implemented in a vacuum when it comes to the child and adult experience. Assuming we’re implementing policy in a vacuum hinders our efforts from the very beginning.
We need to understand that education and learning do not happen in a vacuum.
100mentors: What advice would you give to your fellow educators who are looking to affect change?
Noah: Within the education sector, it is so valuable to have people talking to one another. The value is magnified when you speak with those who are in a different part of the sector than you are. The more that we can bridge some of these gaps in the sector, by getting people to talk to one another, the more likely we are to come up with strategies and solutions and efforts that can have a positive impact. For example, a digital tool might be really attractive to a district administrator, but a teacher knows that it will not work well when implemented and executed. These sorts of situations are problematic if there aren’t clear and open lines of communication between the two. Teachers, who are on the frontlines, know best what’s happening in the classroom, so let’s put them together with those who have the research and the funding.
At times, teachers can feel as though they’re in positions where they’re not heard or empowered, but when all these groups work together in tandem, it creates improved conditions for innovation.
100mentors: What is one action that you think educators can easily take, to begin moving the education innovation needle?
Noah: Visit schools. And not just one school on one day, but visit a number of schools over the course of a number of days. And visit schools that are different, that serve different populations and look different from one another. And when you’re there, talk to students and talk to teachers. And don’t just ask about their school day and their jobs, but also ask them about life outside of school. For all of us, as adults, our life outside of work is inextricably linked to our jobs. And for kids, it’s the same. By understanding what things are like for these people each and every day inside and outside of the classroom we can better understand the conditions in which teaching and learning are occurring. Also, talking to those populations that don’t always have a seat at the table gives them voice. Giving voice creates agency and empowerment, and that’s ultimately what we want. We want the people who are engaged in this work to feel empowered. Then we can be thoughtful and creative about the ways we can help teaching, learning, and education.
Noah is right, there are silos and gaps to be bridged in education, and we require not only the tools but the infrastructure to be able to impact young minds and education at scale.
At 100mentors, we are on a mission to help break down these silos, by giving all students access to top mentors and opportunities regardless of where they are from or how difficult they are to reach. With the 100mentors platform and network, students are able to connect with a range of role models who will share first-hand stories of how where you come from does not define who you will become. Join us and explore an innovative new way to inspire the young minds of the world, by connecting students with top mentors (from NASA scientists and Google data scientists to Hollywood cinematographers and New York Post Editors, and more) who help bring lesson plans to life.
More About Noah
Noah Rachlin is an Instructor of History and Social Science and Senior Fellow at the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy, Andover. “At the core of my work as a classroom teacher is a deeply held commitment to helping students better understand the nuanced and multifaceted nature of history. Through that work, students are encouraged to think more deeply about their understanding of the past and their approach, both theoretically and practically, to the world we live in today.