Guns and butter, production possibilities frontiers, and students doing real-life work #WhatIfWeekly

I believe the most underutilized resource in our nation is our young people in schools. As an economics major in college, and as a long-time teacher of 8th graders enrolled in economics, I studied “production possibilities frontiers.” You may remember them as “guns and butter” graphs, if you’ve studied any introductory econ.

Perhaps the school application is “20th century learners” and “21st century learners,” instead of guns and butter. Regardless, to work below the frontier is to underutilize resources – to waste available capacity. I believe we are wasting a good bit of the capacity of our student learners.

I believe students are perfectly capable and willing and eager to work on real-world issues. I love finding examples of such work, partly because I think it’s like the Bannister 4-minute mile. Once we know it’s possible, more people will do it! If you read here regularly, you’ll likely remember previous examples that I have highlighted about students doing real-life work. Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School. Geoff Mulgan’s Studio Schools. Brittany Wenger. There are many examples.

Recently, I’ve discovered a few more examples of students doing work that goes beyond just handing it in to a teacher for grading and “recycling.” They’re doing work for a larger scope. For a bigger cause.

  1. Adobe has created The Adobe Educators’ Choice Awards: Honoring the work of innovative educators. The finalists in the primary and secondary-school categories are fabulous. Tagature and the study of graffiti tags combined with classics literature…turned into a book that you can acquire. A partnership among students and Powerhouse Factories to create gig posters for the band Belle Histoire. The Digital Voices project for understanding cultures (see the actual class website here). The work does not stop with the teacher and the classroom walls. The work extends well into the real world.
  2. Recently, TED released “Beau Lotto + Amy O’Toole: Science is for everyone, kids included.” The story they share is about 10 year olds who become the youngest people ever to publish a peer-reviewded science paper. As the talk begins, Lotto shares that “perception is grounded in our experience… Now if perception is grounded in our history, it means we’re only ever responding according to what we’ve done before. But actually, it’s a tremendous problem, because how can we ever see differently?” We must see “students” differently. They CAN work on real-world challenges. They WANT to work on real-world challenges. They SHOULD be working on real-world challenges. We adults are too often the greatest limitations to helping them reach their production possibilities frontier…exceed it even! What if more of us inspired and enabled such work and play for our students?!

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