Crash Pads, not Training Wheels

On the morning of September 11, 2006, a fire truck appeared on the Great Dome at MIT.

On a national day of mourning--and, in those early years, fear--people didn’t know what to think.

Two Dalmatian dogs appeared to be prancing alongside the truck’s ladder, and a fireman was seated inside the cab. The truck’s red light silently rotated.

Something had also been painted on the driver’s side door. It wasn’t until an actual fire crew scaled the building that they could make out the image: two firemen holding a hose and ladder appeared above a Latin word: Meminimus.

“We remember.”

The fire truck on the Great Dome marked a high point in a decades-old MIT tradition called “The Hack.” Not only had some MIT pranksters managed to place the truck atop the 150 foot tall structure, they had also designed the hack as a memorial to some of the first responders to the 9/11 crash sites.

Pranks may be memorable, but they are not typically profound. In this case, though, something deeper was taking place. J. Phillip Schmidt, Director of Learning Innovation at MIT, has noted,

“The thing that stood out about the fire truck hack was that it was at once an act of disobedience, breaking the rules (and potentially some laws), and at the same time a significant and deeply meaningful accomplishment. The undergraduate student who had orchestrated it said, ‘Without a doubt, the most important learning experience I have had at MIT, and the achievement I am most proud of, is putting the fire truck on top of the MIT dome.’”

Think about that. At one of the world’s most prestigious and exclusive institutions of higher education, this student’s “most important learning experience” was a prank.

It’s easy to see why the student would say so. The logistics almost defy logic:

“The MIT dome is 150 feet high. The fire truck was assembled out of 57 parts, the heaviest of which weighed 150 pounds, and the largest spanned 12 feet. A team of 40 students from different academic programs spent three months carefully designing, planning, testing, and practicing. And they executed the entire precision installation in total darkness, and in less than 30 minutes.”

If this had been a project-based learning challenge, the students would have earned high scores for “technical prowess, teamwork, and ingenuity.”

And yet…

The hack was “not part of the curriculum, not endorsed by the university—in fact, it [was] both illegal and dangerous—and it can never be listed on a transcript or cited by other researchers.”

What this student understands, however--better than almost every school in the country--is that the future of learning is not about standardized tests, standardized curricula, or standardized instruction.

These days, the solutions we seek will not be found at the back of the book.

Instead, the fire truck hack shows that the future of learning involves teams identifying an animating purpose, and then harmonizing diverse strengths to solve a problem no one had seen (or thought of) before.

Just as important, no one would assess the fire truck hack with grades. Either the hack worked, or it didn’t. Which is to say, the hackers had to demonstrate various competencies (engineering, collaboration, design thinking--especially with empathy, and more).

Skeptics will argue that MIT students have the luxury of learning this way because they are a part of the intellectual 1% (.0003%, to be precise).

But more and more, K-12 students are proving that when they have the space to explore problems that matter to them, they will do things we never dreamed of. From schools like High Tech High in California to Iowa Big in the Midwest, and from places like Atlanta’s Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School to Memphis’s Crosstown High, students are working on their community’s most pressing problems. And it’s not just project-based learning. Look at Gretha Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez, and David Hogg, who are teaching adults about existential issues like climate change and civic activism.

What unites this diverse range of students is the fact that they don’t need to be told what to study, either by a teacher or a textbook. They are perfectly capable of constructing a curriculum in real time, with one another.

For this new paradigm to take root, adults need to see young people differently. They are not fragile receptacles for experts’ information and knowledge. They are resilient learners. Which means they need “crash pads, not training wheels,” as Schmidt puts it.

Adults may not like the mess that comes with handing kids crash pads, yet in that kind of an environment, learners have the liberty to ask big questions, explore meaningful possibilities, make consequential mistakes, and use real-time feedback to iterate.

How might a greater reliance on crash pads, not training wheels, shape the design drivers of a school of the future?

First, school communities need to have candid conversations around the throughline of mission, vision, and culture. A school’s mission articulates its timeless reason for existence. Its vision describes the timely expression of that purpose. And its culture reveals the value-driven behaviors that propel everyone toward that shared aspiration. While this sounds simple enough, making such commitments explicit often surfaces unspoken assumptions and conflicts. For example, do we all agree that kids need crash pads and not training wheels?

Second, school communities need to operationalize new forms of teaching and learning. What does the calendar have to look like if kids are going to create their own curriculum? What are the best tools for assessing and curating artifacts of competency-based learning? What goes into the role description for the teachers we need to hire and develop?

These questions only begin to scratch the surface. But they are the questions we need to be asking, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Answer them one way and you get crash pads; answer them a different way--or fail to ask them in the first place--and… well, you know.

In a world of rapidly increasing change, we need more students who know how to, and care enough to, put fire trucks on ivory towers.


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Christian Talbot