Teacher Melissa Unger combines physical play and touch-screen apps to make project-based learning more like play at South Fayette Elementary School. Photo by Ben Filio for Remake Learning.

by Gregg Behr

Like most American myths, it’s a convincing story — one we hear so often that we’ve come to accept it as true.

The story goes like this: A hundred years ago, America set up schools to prepare its kids for factory work — for long days of doing the same rote tasks. Students shuffled from room to room, learning the basics they’d need for the assembly line. They’d listen, memorize, test and repeat. And for millions of people, the system worked — schools became gateways to fair pay, steady employment and the fulfillment of the American dream.

But then the world changed. Factories closed their doors. And as the country moved on, forging new economies fueled by creativity and science, its schools fell ever further behind. Unwilling or unable to innovate, they churned out workers for jobs that no longer exist. They became, in essence, modern-day Model Ts — great for 1919, but wholly unsuitable today.

Perhaps you’ve heard it before. It’s a story pushed by pundits, analysts and politicians of every stripe. Perhaps you’ve heard it from presidential candidates or secretaries of education. Or perhaps you’ve heard it from school board members, well-meaning reformers or philanthropy-types like me. (Regrettably, I’ve used the Model T metaphor once or twice myself.)

To be sure, the myth makes sense. From their maddening schedules to their persistent inequities, schools today have plenty in common with their factory-era counterparts. But the “schools haven’t changed” narrative erases something essential: a hundred years of progress led by American teachers.

Recently, I came across a cache of old photos. The online archive contains hundreds of snapshots of Pittsburgh-area schools, with many dating back a century. The familiar elements are all there: kids, desks, blackboards and books.

But look a little closer, and you’ll see something extraordinary.

Cowley Elementary School students designing their play village in 1919. Photo courtesy of Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

In one century-old series, kids build a room-sized miniature village, which they use to craft short stories. They make complex models using blocks and wires and lights. They move around their classrooms, conduct experiments and work in collaborative groups — approaches to learning now considered best practices. There are black kids and white kids and kids from immigrant families, clearly engaged and having fun. There’s music on the blackboard.

And in every photo, there’s a teacher making it work — finding new and creative ways to ensure their students can flourish.

Cowley Elementary School students doing what looks a lot like project-based learning in their classroom in 1919. Photo courtesy of Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

A century later, teachers are still at it. Walk through any number of the region’s learning spaces, and what’s happening within them is nothing short of remarkable. You’ll see kids using their coding skills to control robotic birds. You’ll find them forging relationships with peers from half a world away. You’ll find them inventing new devices and products, creating and broadcasting their own radio programs, and doing real-world cancer research with top teachers and scientists.

The truth is that schools and learning spaces are not the static, innovation-proof places we so often imagine. In fact, they never were. If schools were once like Model Ts, then today they’re more like Teslas — they share some features in common, but there’s no denying their fantastic evolution.

It’s an evolution almost entirely driven by teachers. For a hundred years, they’ve been making learning more engaging, more relevant and more equitable.

Isn’t it time we gave them their due?

In Pittsburgh, that’s exactly what’s happening. Earlier this year, a Finland-based nonprofit — one fittingly called HundrED — turned its global spotlight on western Pennsylvania. Aiming to find the most inspiring ideas and practices in education and to share them with the world, HundrED found that the educators who grace our region aren’t just countering the “schools haven’t changed” story — they’re rewriting it altogether.

“HundrED Spotlights are designed to identify 10 of the most inspiring innovations that focus on a location or theme,” says Lasse Leponiemi, HundrED’s co-founder. “But Pittsburgh broke the mold. The response was so robust that we chose to expand our selection to 12 innovations.”

Teacher Mary Mastren-Williams brought what she learned about Hummingbird kits at transformEd back to her classroom at Chartiers Valley. Photo by Ben Filio for Remake Learning.

Those include programs run by schools, libraries, museums and more. Take, for example, the Summer Dreamers Academy at Pittsburgh Public Schools, which playfully integrates reading and math with bike rides, gardening workshops and other enrichment activities. Or the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, where kids make pottery, play music and learn digital design with world-class teaching artists. Or transformED at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, where educators push the boundaries of their profession by testing and refining new technologies and techniques.

These programs are just the beginning. In all, HundrED received 82 submissions for its spotlight, representing the collective efforts of thousands of Pittsburgh-area educators. You can learn more about each, and even watch them in action, at hundred.org/pittsburgh.

The world will be watching, too. Later this month, the spotlight winners will gather at CelebratED, a red carpet event honoring teachers for what they are: Pittsburgh’s most curious, creative and dedicated innovators. In November, they’ll travel to Finland to share their work with an international audience, helping teachers around the globe shape the next generation of researchers, roboticists, artists and engineers.

Clearly, it’s time to let go of the myth we’ve created. Instead, let’s lift up and celebrate the teachers transforming our schools. While they no doubt have difficult work ahead, to ignore their past progress is to squander their future potential. And given all they’ve accomplished on children’s behalf, that potential looks almost limitless.

So here’s to our teachers — and to their next hundred years.

Gregg Behr is executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of Remake Learning.

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