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Transforming systems of education with “bow and arrow” learning

By November 21, 2013June 13th, 20164 Comments

One of my many important lessons in parenting came from a family visit to a Renaissance fair when my son was four years old. As we walked through this new, exciting environment of medieval costumes and fantasy characters, my husband and I were enjoying watching my son soak up all the sights and sounds—big eyes, lots of questions, wanting to touch everything. A vendor approached us, looking very much like Robin Hood, pulled out a toy bow and arrow, and asked our son if he would like to try shooting with it. My first reaction was that I didn’t want my son to get hurt. My second reaction was to take the bow and arrow and show him how to use it. Robin Hood quickly stopped me, saying, “Children learn by doing. Let him try on his own.” Although I didn’t particularly like someone I didn’t know telling me how to parent, I realized, eventually, that he was right.

Think about the most enduring lessons you’ve learned. They likely came from experiences you had, not from books you read. Education literature strongly supports the importance to learning of satisfaction, interest, creativity, and experience. Yet, in this era of standardized education and accountability, our education system continues to emphasize teaching kids what they need to know to pass tests, says Harvard University’s Tony Wagner, with whom I had the opportunity to talk recently.

Another innovative thinker, Steven Wyckoff of the nonprofit educational service center ESSDACK, defines systems transformation as “taking the learning process outside the school building and learning how to do things rather than learning to take a test.” Similarly, Bela Banathy, a leader in the educational transformation (or Design) movement, says that to truly transform learning, we must leave the old behind and create new “learning systems, learning territories, learning experience trails” (in Groff, p. 7).

What does this mean for school districts? They are at a major crossroads: Organizational structures, learning designs, location (physical and online), technology, leadership, policies, standards, and accountability systems are still needed—but they must be transformed to meet the demands of new ways of learning. Within these structures, how do districts transform the role of the teacher, inspire student self-directed learning, nurture experiential learning, and at the same time, confirm learning has taken place?

Let us know what you think a transformed system of learning looks like. Are there experiences you are fostering in your system or school that provide lifelong knowledge and understanding for students?

Pamela J. Jones, Ph.D., is director of McREL International’s Center for Systems Transformation.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Carl H Hilling says:

    If only we could transform the current Public Education concept of “cells and bells” to your “bows and arrows” example because it has the potential of improving public education. We need to remove the model of the agrarian calendar and update it to our present day focus on technology.
    Just imagine if students did not have to move every 55 minutes or so but stay and maintain their focus on learning something by trial and error (bows and arrows) to their own learning pace. Teachers should act as( guides on the side) and offer support rather than (stages on the stage).Education should be focused on the students and if this can actually materializes then students can have a greater opportunity to experience success. Students should be an active participants with their teachers (guides) and if this situation occurs then their is a chance to develop creative minds. I feel that one possibility to accomplish this would be to perpetuate the elementary model of learning all the way (k-12) through the Public Schools .
    Thanks for your article ! It was thought proving ! Keep up your good work !!

  • Leyna says:

    I still see a role for teachers in providing ‘the destination’ but the student deciding which particular path they wish to take to get there.
    I would like to see education become student directed in most regards with teachers acting as facilitators.
    This being said in the constructs that we currently work and with government initiatives and policies that we are required to manage this idea of students having ownership of their own learning and being empowered to follow their passions seems to be neigh on impossible.

  • So, so true. Doing is learning as the saying goes and just absorbing the info isn’t the whole thing. In McREL’s 9 categories of instructional strategies I see that the doing is implied within them but not stated demonstrably.

  • I ran into a bow and arrow situation with my two girls after watching the movie brave. I ended up designing them this miniature bow and arrow. They’ve learned a ton, in terms of safety, coordination and hunting imaginary bears 🙂

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