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Closing the Experience Gap: Q&A With Milton Chen

Susan Brenna

Susan Brenna is TASC's Chief Communications Officer.

Expanding Minds and Opportunities Book Logo

Milton Chen writes about the new frontier of learning anytime, anywhere in the compendium “Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success,“ to be launched at a National Press Club event this coming Tuesday by The Expanded Learning & Afterschool Project. Mr. Chen, senior fellow and executive director, emeritus at The George Lucas Educational Foundation, gave us a preview in this Q&A. 

You write that the real issue behind the achievement gap is an “experience gap.” What do you mean by that?

Milton Chen

Often, when we say “achievement gap,” our thinking reverts back to tests, which have been the standard measure of achievement, and intensifying teaching of the traditional curriculum in traditional ways. We often have an odd approach in education: when something isn’t working, we think we aren’t trying hard enough and call for more of what’s not working!

Broadening students’ experiences outside the classroom—and now, with virtual experiences, using technology as a “window on the world” to connect them to experts, museums, parks, other workplaces, locally and globally—is a key to motivating and deepening student learning.

You also write that the goal of a 21st century education should be to find one’s passion and develop it. Where do you see that kind of education happening?

Now, for nearly every interest and passion that a student may have, they can find a world of knowledge related to it online. Before, in the 20th century, a young boy or girl interested in cars would not be able to advance his learning very easily, especially since the history, design, manufacture, and marketing of automobiles was not in the school curriculum. But now, with a knowledgeable teacher or after-school educator, that child could follow his passion and connect that learning to the core subjects of language arts, math and science.

By the way, as a boy, George Lucas had that interest and thought the furthest he could go with it was to be a car mechanic in his hometown of Modesto, California. Today, he could put together projects related to cars and set himself on a path to being an automobile designer or hybrid vehicle engineer.

Can you name one or two things every school or community could do to help all kids get a “T-shaped education,” where their broad exposure to experiences (the T-top) leads them to discover their passions (the T-vertical)?

We are reaching the point where students should have more freedom to choose the subjects of their study, rather than having “curriculum” designed by adults and delivered for consumption by children. Creativity and passion can abound when learners are liberated. I like the Google model of 20 percent time to work together with others on projects you’re excited about. Teams develop workplans and are accountable for presenting their progress. So, enable students to work on projects they have a voice in identifying, for 20 percent of their time.

Communities could do a lot more to expose children to the world of work and of higher education. Our youth, especially starting in the middle-grade years, need to set college and career goals. They need to visit workplaces and then, in the high school years, have internships as part of their courses. It is especially important for children who may not have visited college campuses, to do so and see themselves there in five or seven years. I like meeting middle-school students who can tell me what year they’ll be entering college.

We’re always talking about developing life-long learners. What’s your favorite way to keep learning outside of work?

Taking an extra hour to visit places I’m just walking or riding by. For instance, I often visit Washington, DC, for meetings and have found myself riding in a cab by the Smithsonian museums, Congress, Lincoln’s Memorial, the Washington Monument, all of the landmarks on our National Mall. So I determined to spend at least an hour or two before heading to the airport to do my own mini-field trips. If you stop and smell the roses, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn.

What did you do when your school day ended at 3 PM? Anything that had a memorable impact?

I grew up on the south side of Chicago, where we mostly played touch football, hockey, and baseball. Basketball was not a big sport at the age of 10. We were too short to shoot the ball into the hoop! When I moved to a junior high in the suburbs, I went to my first basketball game and saw the cheerleaders cheering on the team. I thought to myself, “This would be a good activity to get involved with next year.” I practiced for a year and made the 8th-grade team and started on our freshman high school team. It turns out that was the peak of my basketball career. I ended the season on the second-string B team.

Sophomore year, my English teacher was the speech team coach and said, “Why don’t you join our Individual Speech Events club?” I did, he was a great coach, and I won two state championships in after-dinner (humorous) and extemporaneous (current events) speaking. I got comfortable speaking in front of groups (which the public cites as one of the greatest fears, right next to snakes). Now, I’ve made a career as a conference speaker these past three years, and I trace my enjoyment of it back to those high school years.


I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Chen that our schools need to focus more on project-based learning. Specific curricular objectives can still be met within the confines of their project exploration. But where are the talented, creative educators to help students to see the connections between the formal instruction they have received and the applied learning they must use in order to follow their passions into new areas?

Much has been said about child-centered learning in recent years, but what we are really talking about is child-initiated learning. That spark of energy that is the driving force behind every learner. It makes no difference if you are a student at school or an adult in later life following her need to evolve – whether that may be as a parent, an employee, or a traveler.

Educators are overburdened - particularly with bureaucratic demands that have no direct impact on the students they serve. (That is in part why I chose to teach in the independent school field when I earned my certifications.) Nevertheless we cannot allow the demands of their job to let them lose sight of their role as perceptive guides to their students, helping each one follow his individual path to greater understanding. How can we "teach" the teachers to view their work in this way? How do we get them see the importance of giving their students time to learn experientially and of the value of project-based curricula?


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