you're reading...
Learning at its Best

Bridges and Ignoring Old Lessons

Tinkering… makerspaces… engineering… design thinking… learning spaces… robotics… coding…

These are all things that are big in my county right now… along with a HUGE push to use technology (all kinds of technologies, in all kinds of ways) and social media tools to connect kids and teachers to the world. Sounds incredibly progressive, right?

Our school board has even said we aren’t supposed to have as our teaching goal to teach to the state tests–that their goal is for kids to succeed with real life skills like our lifelong learner standards–and so we look at tinkering… makerspaces… engineering… design thinking… learning spaces… robotics… coding… and get kudos from our Superintendent and others in Central Office when this is what we spend our time doing.

Not that any of this is bad…if you’re reading that into this post, don’t.  I do a lot of this, and help with other pieces of it.  In fact, one of my favorite TED videos is 

Those of you who have read my writing before know I’ve taught for 30+ years. Was around before the huge “Let’s test everybody all the time” movement, and have seen many things come and go in classrooms in my system and our central office.

What I’m not seeing in the push in my county and in other places as well is the build towards sustainability. The build towards the “WHY?” The build of supporting teachers (and parents and kids and the community) to understand how coding will help the student be a better citizen, be a more productive member of society, be a nicer human being, be smarter, be more “ready” for college and/or the workforce, be …whatever.

AND, beyond the not building, we aren’t sharing and remembering what has come before….building on the community knowledge we have of what came before and what we’ve already tried.  We’re not looking back to see what didn’t work in the past to avoid making those same errors.  We’re not accessing the “system memory.”

Let me give you an example from another field. Several years ago at the Children’s Engineering Convention in VA I heard Henry Petroski speak.  From the field of engineering, he spoke to the feat of designing and building bridges, and he is known for popularizing the theory that a major bridge collapse occurs every 30 years. He says that “bridge collapses happen approximately every 30 years because that’s how long it takes a new generation of engineers to emerge and then ignore the old lessons, to disastrous results.

(The theory first appeared in a 1977 paper in the Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers by civil engineers Paul Sibly and Alastair Walker. They based their theory on observations of the pattern of major bridge collapses: the Dee in 1847 (pdf), the Tay in 1879, the Quebec City in 1907, the Tacoma Narrows in 1940, and the West Gate in 1970.)”

So how many times have you heard in education, as a new initiative rolls around, “This, too, shall pass…”  or “We tried this 20 years ago…” ? Is that because a new generation of administrators is in charge, or a new generation of professors in Ed Schools, or wherever the leaders are that lead the charge?  So is that how long it takes  us educators to “ignore old lessons” and go down the same or similar roads?

I think, as educators, we need to stop talking change. We need to stop talking revolution, or reform, or transformation, or evolution or any of those other words that basically say what we’re doing isn’t working.  We need to set common goals and then use what we know about teaching and learning to reach those goals. It’s not about test scores. It’s not about reading and writing and ‘rithmetic–or coding, or tinkering, or making or technology. It’s about LEARNING… and COMPREHENDING… and ANALYZING… and EVALUATING… and CREATING… and THINKING… and using the habits of mind that support critical thinking, reacting thoughtfully, doing and sharing.  It’s about  being a thoughtful, productive, responsible member of the society we call the human race. I do believe the race in school should not be towards high test scores, but instead towards this:

Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school. 

These are the things I learned: 

Share everything. 

Play fair. 

Don’t hit people. 

Put things back where you found them. 

Clean up your own mess. 

Don’t take things that aren’t yours. 

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. 

Wash your hands before you eat. 


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. 

Live a balanced life. 

Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. 

Take a nap every afternoon. 

When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together. 

Be aware of wonder. 

Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup — they all die. So do we. 

And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: look. 

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and sane living. 

Think what a better world it would be if we all — the whole world — had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put things back where we found them and cleaned up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together. 

~ Robert Fulghum ~ 

If we built our curriculum around helping people be the best they could be, and use the skills of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithemetic to do real tasks and build real things and explore real conundrums and problems and situations, wouldn’t they learn what they need to know to live well? Isn’t THAT what we want?

This post was inspired by a tweet from David Coffey, (@delta_dc) April 27, 2013 in a Twitter chat. RT @delta_dc Part of sustainability is building a system memory: what have we tried; what worked? Sharing! #rechat

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I was a Kindergarten teacher for 17 years of my current teaching career.

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


5 thoughts on “Bridges and Ignoring Old Lessons

  1. Paula,

    why don’t you write here about the history you know? It would make a great series of posts. I tell stories all the time when I have the chance to talk with leaders and teachers about our work- ups and downs – failures and successes, the best and worst of our work as a community of educators.

    It’s important for people -especially our next generation of teachers and leaders – to know from whence we came to have a sense of who we are as we move forward. Everyone has different perspectives and different stories to tell. What we do today builds on both what we did the day before and how we build bridges to tomorrow. We take steps forward and backward and detours that take us off and then back on the path again.

    We also know different people enter our community at different points and bring their stories with them as well as add to ours as they assimilate into the community. All of the stories become a fabric of history that reflects different people’s ideas, strengths, knowledge, opinions, and understandings of the past, the present, and future.

    I’m quite excited about a younger generation rising up who didn’t live our history of prior work but are committed to building a future from the bridges others have constructed. It’s bittersweet to watch them construct their own voices and sense of agency as those of us who are in the twilight of careers help them create, design, make, engineer, build, and compose a next generation of learning for and with young people. Their history will extend from ours just as we extended from those who taught and led before us. The whys, whats, and hows of today may be different from the whys of yesterday as are the whats and hows, but the passion of young educators, even when they have ideas that push me or that I might question, causes me to celebrate that there is hope for the future.

    I also personally believe our work becomes sustainable through a commitment to longstanding principles of learning that transcend changes in technology, space, time, and pedagogy – principles that recognize that the demands of families, communities, workforce, citizenship change over time – principles that take into account that learning cycles through process and production and is a key motivator of motivation, not vice versa. Principles that even though cyclically rejected always come back into play.

    I recognize and understand why it’s hard for people to see the journey, to have a shared understanding of history when change happens in an education community so quickly – kids change every year, teachers change, principals change, and parents change.

    At the same time, when I look at the feedback shared and voices heard through our recent community gatherings to assess where we are in the journey and where we are going, I am interested that business people, educators, parents, and students have a very similar sense of common direction and purpose in our work today. I heard a HS alum in the twilight of his own biz career speak to an alum association the other night about the changes in our world and the importance of changing technologies in our schools, our kids’ hands, and in the workforce. I met with a small group of parents at a principal’s monthly coffee and heard them speak to our work with great understanding of the why. Some out there are disconnected and may live their lives that way. However, I see and hear many educators who understand the why, the what, and the how and who want so much more than state tests and test prep curricula to dominate their world, whether they’ve been here awhile or have just come. I also see a national movement emerging that is grounded in the urge to evolve from the 20th century factory schools that still dominate school culture to a new culture of participation that changes school from location where people go to find teachers and book to spaces where kids and adults migrate to find each other and all the expertise and resources the world has to offer.

    So, I understand your urge to want to connect the dots, to see the fabric of change as evolving what has been to what can and will be. Yet, I also understand that constructing learning means that each generation has to make meaning authentically and vicarious “told” history may seem foreign and unknown with no context.However, when all the storytellers who represent the wisdom of time in their stories welcome and initiate our new storytellers into the community, we grow, evolve, develop and honor the past, the present, and the future.

    A system memory isn’t static or permanent. It gets created around the campfires of school communities – in ways that remind us that it isn’t the storyteller who is important but the sense that we all become storytellers and keepers of our common stories. The story of the work isn’t my memory, your memory, or any one person’s memory. It’s a collective memory that belongs to the community. In welcoming new storytellers to the campfires, we share the journey to help others find agency, voice, and mindfulness. We also are reminded by the difference in our stories that no one individual owns our history, is the expert, represents it.


    Posted by Pam | April 28, 2013, 11:55 am
  2. Pam,
    I certainly agree that as I tell my stories, or you tell yours, they no longer belong to us–they belong to the people who listen, who think about them, who absorb them or reject them, who relate to them or share them, and sometimes, even, forget them. Storying is a way we communicate, share, grow and learn together–and from the wisdom of others.

    I, too, am excited by the enthusiasm of people-both young and old- with whom I surround myself, who are tinkering, making, thinking about building and creating. I have been a creator all of my life–creating stories to share with my kids, lessons to attempt and passions to ignite. I’m honored when what I attempt means something to kids-or adults- and they return later for more or to share how something they did when in my room or circle impacted their lives.

    But it’s not about me or my memories. It’s truly about looking at the history of learning, what works, what doesn’t, assimilating the new knowledge we gain as our tools become more sophisticated, as folks ask different questions and we learn more about learning –whether that be with brain research, or environments or whatever. I still think it’s important to question and think about the purpose of school, of learning, of what the outcomes should be, and how best to get there. This is less about admiring our past work and more about informing our future work with a new breed of collaborators, with new tools and certainly new ways of communicating and working.

    We know a lot of that “learning work”-it’s those principles you speak of–the “longstanding principles of learning that transcend changes in technology, space, time, and pedagogy.” Yes, change happens. And yes, change happens fast. And, yes, as Paulo Blikstein talks about in his TEDX talk here (, we must give kids a chance to figure out how things work. We can’t let that slide. The benefits of our childhoods of messing about in the dirt or sand or tinkering around with seesaws to learn about fulcrums intuitively and merry-go-rounds to understand instinctively forces that push us outward (i.e., Newton’s Law of “a body in motion tends to stay in motion”) must be realized by today’s kids as well.You know I thrive on providing activities like that in my classroom.

    However, I do believe there is an academic foundation–or foundational knowledge– kids need. While just “making” is wonderful, we also need to be mindful of how to interweave deep understanding of content into those experiences as they have them. It’s that mindfulness I always worry about–whether I am doing it well, how to help others, how to have those conversations. Asking the reflective questions that drive any teacher to think deeply about our profession in ways they wouldn’t otherwise is an art–and one I blessedly got LOTS of earlier in my career. You know that–you were one of those catalysts for me.

    For sustainability, everyone in a leadership position, young or old, experienced or not, MUST keep deep learning at the forefront. I think we must keep the ultimate goals of humanity in mind as we re-tool ourselves, as we, in many ways, re-school ourselves, and as we share our stories and our roles of storykeeping with others. For me, it’s about tooling our kids for their future–but that kindergarten poem still stands–whether it be in a K classroom or across the world through Skype. I consider, think, and worry about that daily in my own classroom.

    (In some ways, the TV show “Revolution” has gotten me thinking about this…what if, instead of becoming separate “countries” with anarchists or dictators ruling, when we lost power we had become a different type of society? One where the K poem ruled? What would that have looked like?)

    Tinkering… makerspaces… engineering… design thinking… learning spaces… robotics… coding…

    Those are all important in this world today. But so is foundational knowledge, and the habits of mind developed by leaders such as Art Costa and Bena Kallick and thinking routines developed by David Perkins and Ron Ritchart, and learning how to learn, knowing about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and so many other tried and true foundations of good learning. So as we build new ways of working, I just don’t want us to throw out the baby with the bathwater as we are so wont to do with change.

    So many “open classrooms” of the 70’s failed because of a lack of structure or understanding on the part of the implementers. I don’t want to see our attempts to build creativity and thinking back into our world go down the same route because we don’t do it thoughtfully and well.

    I believe we can set up authentic learning episodes with contemporary tools and collaborations AND pass the (stupid) tests. So let’s have the conversations/questions/reflections about how to learn in realistic ways, with authentic problems and content and build that foundational knowledge (foundational for life, NOT for the tests) as well. The factoids for the required tests will come easily then. As a principal you lead your school to do that. All of our principals need to be able to do that work, and your stories are important to that endeavor. We both need to continue sharing our stories, building expertise with others from all over as we learn from them, too.

    Posted by Paula White | April 28, 2013, 2:09 pm
  3. Paula,

    Are you essentially, then, in line with some kind of common core of knowledge? I don’t me THE Common Core (as offered by E.D. Hirsch and his cadre of cultural literacy concoctors). Rather, I think, given your insistence to “keep the “ultimate goals of humanity in mind” that you’re talking about something I’ve been arguing for and basing my own teaching upon for years…a truly liberal education. For what this means, at least in one perspective, I offer this seminal essay by William Cronon, “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education” (

    No other essay, save William James’ “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” has had as much an effect on my teaching as Cronon’s essay. I’ve used it as the basis for all my “meet the teacher” presentations, as the foundation of the course I’ve created over the past 16 years, and as the standard for all new things I might consider bringing into my classroom. If it can help my students do any of the 10 things Cronon lists, it has a good chance of making its way into my classroom. (The list is below, but I can’t say this enough–you have to read the essay (if you haven’t already). It’s a required reading in my own teacher education courses.)

    Towards that end, the recent revisions in my own classroom revolve around the concept of design thinking and design-based learning and how I can use those to achieve the kinds of goals Cronon lists. For me, designers ask two basic questions about the world: Why are things the way they are? and How can we make them better? To me, these questions are inseparable from a liberal education, one that teaches us to read the world and inquire as to its nature and then empowers us to make change. (I elaborate on this connection between design and the liberal arts in several places, but most notably on the Phi Beta Kappa tumblr feed here:

    Here are Cronon’s goals:

    “1)They listen and they hear.

    2)They read and they understand.

    3)They can talk with anyone.

    4)They can write clearly and movingly.

    5)They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.

    6)They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth.

    7)They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism.

    8)They understand how to get things done in the world.

    9)They nurture and empower the people around them.

    10)They follow E.M. forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: ‘Only connect…'” (Cronon, American Scholar)

    And I know I’ve not said so before, so I will say so now: Your posts are edifying. I’m some 10 years behind you in my career, but I always learn things, important things (ie, not just things to do by WHY I might do them) from you. Thank you.

    Garreth Heidt

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | May 11, 2013, 3:56 pm


  1. Pingback: “To Engineer is Human”, by Henry Petroski | Life With the Bib: One Day, One Book - June 12, 2013

  2. Pingback: “To Engineer is Human”, by Henry Petroski | Muze Redux - June 14, 2013

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,103 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: