by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D
Fear inhibits creativity. It’s a psychological fact. Whether it’s fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of making a mistake, the simple yet gripping effects of fear keep us in a perpetual state of self-control. Authors Chip & Dan Heath detail the effects of intense, unwavering self-control on our brains and, specifically, our creative processes in their book SWITCH: How to change when change is hard. Essentially, fear is exhausting, and anything above a remedial task or recall response, in turn, falls victim to fear’s fatigue. Our education system is no stranger to fear or fear-tactics. We’re all guilty of it in some form or fashion: Study hard or suffer in summer school! Go to college or accept a life of retail! What if there was another way? What if we took the Terminator 2 approach? You know, like how the Terminator became a good guy, showcasing the power of man and machine working together!
Bad movie nerd analogies aside, what if we overcame our fears by deliberately dropping our neurotic focus on them and instead opened our minds to a world of creativity and synergy that surrounds us? Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s the vision for the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first PK-12 STEAM campus. We’re striving to be the Daredevil of education, a public school with absolutely no fear – dedicated to connecting students with their passions by empowering teachers to think, teach and live outside the box. Sure, this may not be the most academic approach to explaining just exactly what a STEAM school is but it’s certainly the most honest. We’re building a culture where teachers are encouraged to take risks, students are inspired to create, and learning happens as a result of the amalgamation of subject-areas.
So what does this STEAM school really look like? I like to use the Music of Mechatronics example. Picture a high school student that loves playing in the band. This kid carries his horn around like a badge of honor and proclaims the brass section to be the funkiest troupe of horn blowers any stadiums ever laid ears on. Now this student loves music but when he sees Mechatronics on his schedule, initially his heart sinks. Not hard to understand, as most musicians would shy away from the program’s Wikipedia description “a multidisciplinary field of science combining a varied array of engineering fields…” However, the Mechatronics instructor, operating under our vision of connecting students to their passions, sees an incredible opportunity to teach this freshman about a different kind of melody. The sweet humming of a 3D printer. Before long, the student is 3D printing functioning, multicolored mouthpieces that leave his band mates both curious and impressed. This freshmen now loves band AND mechatronics.
There are countless examples like this but the results are the same. We’re taking a page out of the Nanodegree generation’s playbook, combined with a bit of practical psychology, and helping students embrace their passions while simultaneously opening their minds to the reality of real world synergy. It’s education a la carte. We’ve recognized that under the one-size-fits-all, factory-line education model we’ve done more damage than good, so we’re leveraging the power of relationship-building and personal interests to foster both a new way of thinking and learning. It’s metacognition for the mobile-generation! And what’s cooler than 3D printed French horns is that we’re starting this process as early as three years old. See, basically we’re a public school acting like the coolest start-up company since Snapchat. Only this isn’t Silicon Valley, we’re re-directing the course of education from the cozy confines of Mount Pleasant, TN, a cool little pocket-city an hour outside of Nashville. I use the start-up comparison because our teachers vertically plan – like 2nd graders working with 11th graders on the same Tiny House PBL – and our emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning transcends both grade-level and content-area. This allows for an overarching vision free from the compartmentalization of students by arbitrary birthdates.
We’ve championed the moniker #TheMount and for good reason. Our students are on a journey of self-discovery, a journey that will take them up the mountain of personal excellence. In order to climb this mountain, they’ll need to synthesize their learning, apply its knowledge and reflect on their progress. That’s what STEAM, both conceptually and practically, is all about. We’re committed to thwarting old paradigms, opting instead to create new ones. We see ourselves as creators – not merely prescription fillers – who inspire students to think and do like creators not consumers. We’re bonded by an oath to prepare our students for an ever-changing global economy by eradicating learning silos, marginalizing standardized tests and, above all, dispelling fear. Are we perfect? Of course not, but we’re also not afraid to be imperfect. Do we fail? Sometimes. But when we do, we always make sure we fail forward, learning and growing from our calculated risks.
People ask me all the time, What is STEAM? Here’s my thoughts: STEAM is loving Art and Science. It’s applying both to something like agriculture and realizing your harvest just got way cooler. STEAM is as much an educational state of mind than a set curriculum. Swing by The Mount sometime, I’ll show you what I mean…