We often hear the refrain that education should be a discovery driven journey whereby students let their natural curiosity lead them on a natural path of inquiry and learning. The visual associated with this metaphor typically includes a natural sunlit landscape traversed by multiple paths — some less worn than others. The paths themselves interconnect at multiple forks symbolizing an individual’s choice in determining their own experience. The sense of opportunity exemplified by the multitude of potential routes is tempered only by the implied need for students to select where they want to go (every path taken implies others that are not), but that itself is the very value of the exercise. After all, it’s this process of iterative selection and refinement that drives the individualized journey. The merits of the metaphor, or our ability to realize it in practice, aside, perhaps the first question to consider is why we find this mental model so compelling in the first place. The answer, I posit, lies in the simple fact that journeys and adventures underpin something even more valuable to our psyche — stories.

Throughout human history, storytelling has been a critical and endemic social component across all cultures. Indeed, prior to the advent of the written language and books, verbal stories were the mechanism by which we conveyed knowledge generation to generation. While today we often take for granted our ability to easily access written knowledge through various channels, information in story form still maintains a value above and beyond cold, factual data. For example, this is epitomized by the fact that there’s often a call for project based learning in classrooms. The project wraps a narrative around the information that’s being taught and provides the context for application and adaptation. From that perspective, it places the student at a position of ownership in the story encompassing the project. While stories are powerful, we all know that not all stories are created equal. What is it specifically that makes one more compelling than another?

Considering the Hero’s journey provides an instructive viewpoint to explore this question. The simplest story one could construct is factual and devoid of dynamics or texture. For example: “The chicken crossed the road -The End”. Obviously this is a toy example, but it emphasizes that a story needs more than just a statement of what happened. Posing and exploring questions such as: Why did the chicken cross the road (the premise for many childhood jokes)?; What challenges did it face?; How did it overcome them? Even in this synthetic context, it’s clear these qualitative attributes are what distinguish a story, and indeed the means by which we feel emotionally attached to one narrative versus another. Even when following a predictable pattern, the hero’s journey is satisfying precisely because of the character transformation that starts with accepting the call to adventure and progresses as he / she overcomes the challenges and potential for failure. Moreover, the story captures the aspects that we expect in any strong hero: a clear sense of purpose, the dogged determination to achieve that purpose, and the autonomous, self-driven progress towards that goal.

So why is any of this relevant in the context of education? It’s because at some point stories are exactly what we ask students to provide. Yes, grades and quantitative metrics are often (though not always) table stakes, but whether it’s college applications or job interviews, the qualitative information that demonstrates the potential and drive for continued growth are what separate individuals, particularly in high-value knowledge worker fields (e.g. STEM disciplines).  It may manifest as a college essay question or the canonical “tell us about yourself” interview question, but the power of a strong, authentic story can not be overestimated.

Based on this, we can now reframe the purpose of education as the need to empower students to develop their own stories. These should be genuine and individualized and must encompass the trials and tribulations one would expect from a rigorous and challenging experience. The learning journey itself is simply the means to this outcome. A key point to acknowledge is that a journey based paradigm of education contrasts starkly with the traditional model which, today, focuses heavily on the improvement of quantitative metrics, structured rubrics, and approved curricula. Indeed, our schools have not changed significantly in design or structure since the early 19th century. It seems clear, however, that the outcomes we need today are significantly different, and that necessitates an alternative approach.

As we’ve developed our Innovation Learning Pathways (ILP) and Junior ILP programs at STEMed Labs, it is this intrinsic gap that we’re hoping to address with our students. By offering a program that supplements the school day, we allow students to augment their existing educational options to achieve a holistic solution. Our approach entails coaching students to identify and refine an idea that they can pursue in depth, thereby instilling a sense of ownership as well as individualizing the experience. As students set off on their journey of exploration, they’re supported by peers, facilitators, and industry mentors so as they face the inevitable ups and downs, they have a community on which to lean. It is through this organic, self-driven process that students develop the sustainable attributes of a lifelong, rigorous education incorporating autodidactism, self-confidence, and fluid intelligence. Combined with the ability to communicate their ideas effectively, this approach instills a self-reinforcing engine for personal growth that will undoubtedly allow each student to develop powerful, authentic learning stories.

As the rate of change in the world continues to accelerate, it’s imperative that we rethink traditional assumptions across all facets of our society, but particularly education and its ability to adequately prepare the leaders of tomorrow. If we truly want to realize the goal of implementing education as individualized journeys, and making this capacity accessible to all students ready and willing to face the inherent challenges therein, we have a lot of work to do. I believe, in this larger meta-journey as a society, we are still at the earliest of stages — the first step is acknowledging the call to adventure. We look forward to working with fellow thought leaders and innovators in answering this call together.

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