Disrupting Education: Capturing the Essence

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Disrupting Education: Capturing the Essence

By Rod Rock and Arina Bokas

When public high school seniors were asked whom they wish to become as a result of their time spent in our schools, their responses spoke of the essence–to be individuals, aware of who they are, how they’re smart, and how they fit with others and the world. Here are a few examples:

  • a compassionate, inquisitive thinker and value others as well as myself
  • self-confident and help others who are having problems with it
  • proud to be me and help others to be proud of themselves
  • to value others and myself
  • to contribute positively to the world

Yet, as comparisons between schools become the dominant focus of education at many levels, America’s educational system today is more of a boot camp for high-stakes testing to measure the strength of an educational organization than a place for children to learn about the world or themselves.

There are trends, although not evident in test scores, that represent a crisis in America.

From a balance standpoint, math and reading are largely the focus of the national and international comparisons between schools, leaving other life-worthy subjects, like science, social studies, art, or music, with progressively less attention. Free play, recess, elective courses, shop classes, and career-focused education are now quite expendable, while students scoring on the margins and in the gaps garner the most consideration. Affiliated phrases, such as “preschool and kindergarten readiness”, “kindergarten tests,” “mandatory third-grade retention,” and “adequate-yearly progress” are in vogue.

Essence-wise, in the system where the curriculum is narrowed, tests become all telling, and childhood is shortened, a human being is forgotten. The expert teacher or the parent have little credibility when faced with the acceptable truth of rating or ranking – after all, who can argue with huge data sets? Children are robbed of opportunities to explore and play – crucial activities for developing the social, emotional, and cognitive skills, essential for learning and living. Their senses of self, agency, and purpose are buried under an international craving for “achievement.”

Two coinciding theories offer us the opportunity to reverse these trends and to re-purpose education: disruptive humanitarianism and essence-based learning.

Our times, awareness, and collective will call forth individual purposes connected to a global consciousness: the best “me” I can be while profoundly belonging to the world.
Humanitarianism is “an ethic of kindness, benevolence, and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings” (en.m.wikipedia.org). Disruption is an “event which causes an unplanned, negative deviation from the expected delivery […] according to the organization’s objectives” (en.m.wikipedia.org).

Disruptive humanitarianism, then, is the idea that our educational establishments must disrupt their present practices and objectives by centering learning not on the needs of organizations or arbitrary definitions of achievement, but on each human being. Disruptive humanitarianism calls upon education to embrace humanitarian practices, based on the belief that each human is uniquely smart and deserving of kindness and benevolence; when contemplated, treated, and honored as such, each one is fully capable of achieving at a high level and positively contributing to the world.

Connected to this is a millennial-proven certainty that our ability to experience the world comes only through the single lense of the self. Therefore, learning, like life, needs to be lived and experienced, both physically and emotionally. The spark that ignites learning comes from a self-related friction, when an external element, including information or a task performed to obtain it, strikes against one’s own essence.


Thus, essential-self can be define as a combination of three senses: sense of self–who I am and how I am smart; sense of agency–how I affect others, how others affect me, and how who I am affects the world; and sense of purpose–how what I learn enables me to make a difference.

Four elements of Essence-based Learning

Essence-based learning is sensing and advancing each child’s essential-self through engaging him or her in essential, meaningful content, developing essential lifelong skills and dispositions, and meeting his or her essential human needs. The engagement comes from four elements.

  1. curricular content – personally relevant, interdisciplinary, meaningful content
  2. methodology – hands-on or challenging activities, inspiring cognitive and physical responses, and requiring performances of understanding
  3. the learning environment – social interactions and connections, promoting emotional and social intelligence, and inspiring contributions
  4. attention to students’ physical and emotional needs – the whole child

Our times, awareness, and collective will call forth individual purposes connected to a global consciousness: the best “me” I can be while profoundly belonging to the world. As humans, we must alter the trajectory of humanity by repurposing education. From the current focus on comparisons of standardized test results to schooling that allows each child to figure out how she is smart, where she fits, what she can contribute, and how her passion can become a life-long pursuit.

When we treat humans as the quintessential element of life and we consider the individual as the essence of learning, we move from a system of reactive intervention to a system of proactive intentional prevention for a benefit to all.

Rod Rock, Ed.D. is the superintendent of the Clarkston Community Schools (CCS) in Clarkston, MI. Since 2008, he has served as a panelist, fellow, course facilitator, presenter at Project Zero conferences around the world and a group study leader and a fellow at The Future of Learning Institute, Harvard Graduate School of Education. @RodRock1

Arina Bokas, Ph.D,. is on the faculty at Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan. She currently serves as the Clarkston PTA Council President and hosts The Future of Learning Public TV series. @arinabokas

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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