EXPERT INTERVIEW: James M. Stone in conversation with Diana Laufenberg

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 11.05.01 AM

Diana Laufenberg, TED Speaker, Educator

This week, James M. Stone discusses solutions to our education system with Diana Laufenberg. For over 15 years, Diana Laufenberg has been a secondary social studies educator in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. In 2013, she partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a non-profit working to create and support learning environments that are inquiry-driven and project-based and which utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools. Diana’s TED Talk on learning from mistakes has received over 1 million views.

STONE: Demographics have become vitally important to education policymakers at all levels. For years you’ve taught K­12 school programs from Arizona to Philadelphia. In your experience teaching across the nation, how much does demographic impact a child’s education and learning?

LAUFENBERG: Demographics have a major impact. Teaching in rural Wisconsin is not like teaching in Flagstaff, AZ is not like teaching in Philadelphia, PA. The challenges of rural education are real and almost completely ignored in the national conversation. The systemic underfunding of education in Arizona is crippling and causes a churn of teachers in and out of the system as they realize that they can’t afford to stay teaching in a state that so desperately underfunds. Philly is a classic urban challenge, the type that is talked about on the national stage often, but still lacks the type of systemic community based solutions that will address the tumult and chaos that results in a city without an elected School Board. Where you live dictates what type of education you receive in America. How much money your neighbors make impacts the type of school you will go to. It isn’t the demographic category that gets talked about a ton, but a major demographic problem of America is related to money. Communities that have it, typically have high functioning schools. Communities that don’t have it typically exist in a controlled chaos that leads to exhaustion and frustration.

STONE: You’ve done such outstanding work in the K­12 experiential education field. In your opinion, how can high schools better prepare kids who aren’t going on to college for meaningful careers?

LAUFENBERG: I think the question isn’t how we prepare them for college or career, it is how do we prepare them for life. Regardless of college matriculation, there are requisite skills for interacting as a vibrant citizen in a community. All young people need a flexible and resilient toolbox for navigating their future. I am often asked what the K­12 educational scene will look like in 20 years. My answer has always been, I have no idea. The one thing I do know, though, is that all students are going to need to be able to remain relevant and empowered to adapt to changing work landscapes, social dynamics and economics. All students regardless of where they go after high school graduation need to have experiences that ask them to actively participate in their community through internships, volunteering, and service. All students need to be able to know themselves as a learner, empowered to make educational decisions that comes from a place of interest rather than one of compliance. All students need to be able to move through the phases of asking questions, investigating, working with others, designing a way to present or communicate those ideas and then reflect on the whole experience. A meaningful life and career, regardless of college attendance, is contingent upon a young person understanding who they are as a learner and using that to make informed decisions about their path forward.

STONE: Are there vocational skills or specific training that you think is missing from the current STEM program?

LAUFENBERG: STEM is about as consistent as any large acronym driven educational concept. STEM in some places means more traditional science and math, in others a maker­space, in others a fully realized engineering program. What is missing from many STEM programs is the role of student agency and inquiry. Missing from most educational experiences is that the student is the passive recipient of the experience not the active agent. Real experiences in real places that ask young people to interact as important contributors now, not in some later time frame. Active, inquisitive, meaningful, values student choice, empowers student voice… that is missing from most schools, not just STEM programs. STEM is not a panacea anymore than any other silver bullet idea in education.

Another way to look at what’s missing in STEM – Arts and Humanities. There are ways to approach a robust STEM program, like I taught in at The Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia that did not devalue the humanities. Vocational skills like being able to present your ideas in a thoughtful, coherent manner; working with others to create a collaborative learning artifact; grapple with the historical impact of science on society; function in a diverse learning space to reach educational goals are all able to be experienced in STEM as well as the Arts and Humanities.

The moral of the story is balance. Arts/Humanities without STEM is lacking but the opposite is also true. A meaningful STEM program finds room for the student to be an agent of change in their educational path without negating the important lessons to be learned from the arts and humanities.

STONE:  Why has it taken so long for educational technology to really catch on? What are one of two effective technologies that are already beginning to revolutionize the way K­12 schools learn?

LAUFENBERG: Educational technology has taken so long to catch on because too many people believe that a machine is the change agent; that a machine is the factor that will make things better; that a faster way for students to consume information will be revolutionary. The promise of educational technology falls short because the primary focus is on the machine instead of the student and the learning. I refer to a particular phase of edtech as being distracted by ‘the shiny’. Tech is a tool. Tech is a tool. Tech is a tool. If you use that tool to essentially do what you were doing before, but on a computer… there is nothing to ‘catch’. If you use that tool to change the role of teacher and student, to ask them to be less about control and compliance and more about creativity and ideas, to ask teachers to do less FOR students and do more WITH students, to use the tool to uncover rather than cover information, to be content with multiple paths to investigate that result in a range of ways to evidence learning. Educational technology has slipped into a phase of ennui because it tried to be a solution to the wrong issue. Lacking a compelling pedagogical framework, educational technology will never be better than the underlying assumptions about learning that persist.

One or two effective technologies would then be inquiry and creativity. The more that educational technology empowers those two characteristics of the educational experience; it has the potential to change the way K­12 schools learn. But as long as edtech is used as a way to double down on a version of school that is focused on transmission of information as its main function, the learning will continue to be only relevant in a day long past.

STONE: My preferred solution to rising college tuition costs is a Universal National Service program after high school that would provide vocational training for the career­bound and, for the others, allow the financing of a subsequent college education in exchange for their labor in the program. What do you think the risks or benefits might be of offering this option to students?

LAUFENBERG: I think the benefits are self­evident and a lovely concept. The part that is vexing in an idea such as this is anything that wants to be universal and national. From where I sit, our country is not prepared to do anything collectively. Educational policy has been returning to a focus on state control. I am not optimistic that anything like this would make it through Congress in the next decade. I am also not optimistic that there is a national will to ask this of their young people. Disrupting the long standing pattern of college and career at 18 is one that has persisted for decades. While I recognize the problems that result from where that pattern has taken us, a political solution about the federal government telling all the 18 year olds what they are going to do feels like a non­starter.

Educational policy in the US is a 50 player game. The federal government stays relevant in that game because they provide funding to K­12 education in all 50 states. The proposal that the money would now be contingent on a universal program for 18 year olds just feels like it would have no legs as a national policy and risks the outcome that it will adversely impact children raised in poverty.

As an option, yes. As a possible path, yes. As a universal national program, I don’t see the political will at the state level to cede that level of control to a federal program.

STONE: Thank you for joining me, Diana. Your insights are powerful.

LAUFENBERG: My pleasure, Jim.



This is part of an Expert Interview Series with James M. Stone. Return for more conversations about issues that matter: Social Security, the federal deficit, regulating Wall Street, reforming healthcare, education, and wealth and income inequality.