Blanket Forts and The Future of Learning

Guest post by Paul Hermes

The value of unique knowledge and expertise is declining significantly due to the proliferation of accessible digital technology. This phenomenon has happened in history before; however, it has not happened at this pace and not to this scale. Access to information, knowledge, and each other is historically unprecedented.
This was very apparent to me—as were its implications for education—when my 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son were recently building a blanket fort of the Millennium Falcon in our living room. As I toured their creation, I asked them how and why they built it the way they did. My daughter informed me that they “Googled it” (duh, Dad!). She described how they used our iPad to look up pictures and information on the features of the “Star Wars” ship. Amazingly, they did a pretty good job. The fort was the correct shape of the Millennium Falcon, with satellite dishes on top and a spaghetti strainer for a window.

Her statements, explanations, and process hit me. Here I am listening to my 6-year-old, who is completely comfortable and competent using devices like our iPad, discuss how she used tools and resources available to her to access knowledge that previously would have been unavailable. When I was a kid, I never could have done this. Not only did I not have the internet or devices, but if I needed to learn something, I needed to seek out someone—an expert who could teach me about it.

So what does this experience mean and have to do with education? Actually, quite a lot! It taught me that:

  • The world has changed.
  • The impact of digital technology (i.e., devices, internet, etc.) is significant.
  • Our children will learn and experience their world in drastically different ways than we did.
  • As educators, we must understand these ideas and adjust our practices accordingly. And if we fail to, we risk increasing our ineffectiveness and even the potential for total irrelevance.

My kids demonstrated the skills, abilities, and mindsets that soon (if not now) all of our nation’s schoolchildren will possess. Educators can no longer hang our hat on the fact that schools are the only place for knowledge and learning. We cannot place a great deal of value on information, memorization, compliance, and one-directional, teacher-to-student dissemination.

Now this is not all bad news for education—it is only bad news if we ignore it. If we approach this correctly and openly, we can begin a whole new era of American education, an era where we can inspire a whole new generation of thinkers and creators that can compel our nation deep into the 21st century. To do this, we have to keep in mind these lessons from my blanket fort experience:

  • Lesson #1—Re-Evaluate Knowledge: My kids built a Millennium Falcon blanket fort on their own as learners using curiosity, accessible knowledge and technology, and their own abilities to find and apply information. We need to re-examine and reorder our views and values related to knowledge. We cannot continue to emphasize learning and knowledge in the traditional sense. Information exposure is not the concern; it is information processing and application that now is more important.
  • Lesson #2—Be a Travel Agent: My kids built a Millennium Falcon blanket fort on their own without the direct role of experts. Educators also need to change our view of teachers, shifting from teachers being the keepers and sole knowledge bearers to guiders and igniters of exploration and application. I have heard it said, “Highly effective teachers are more like travel agents than tour guides.” This doesn’t make the teacher any less significant in the learning process. In fact, I argue it makes the teacher more vital. Teachers can now serve so many more important roles to learning such as facilitator, vision caster, and challenger in addition to still being a traditional subject-area expert.
  • Lesson #3—Create Empowered Learning Opportunities: My kids now know and will remember more information and features of the Millennium Falcon because of the opportunity they had. This step is perhaps the most critical in our re-visioning of the learning process and schools. If we only learn lessons one and two, we miss the larger point. We need to create more “applicational” learning opportunities for our students. Places/times when they can explore curiosities, develop hypotheses, navigate through the ocean of information, ask questions, share their ideas with others, relearn from their peers, seek out support and advice from others, and ultimately “create” things. By cultivating these learning opportunities, not only will we increase student engagement and build stronger learners, we will become more effective in teaching the traditional areas of knowledge.

Paul Hermes is the Associate Principal at Bay View Middle School in Green Bay, WI. He believes being an educator is the most important profession in the world and has dedicated his life to improving the lives of students, families, and communities. He is the 2016 Wisconsin Associate Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BVPaulHermes and visit his education and leadership blog, Analogies from an Administrator


  • Michael Thomas says:

    Great post, Paul. You are very right that if schools don’t change, educators will become irrelevant. We have an obligation to teach kids to use technology to enhance their learning. What are the best “applicational” learning opportunities available at your school? I like to hear about what’s new and exciting in other classrooms.

    • Paul Hermes says:

      Michael – Thank you!

      Our school has gone 1:1 several years ago to ensure that we can amplify outstanding teaching through technology. From there we have invested heavily in Problem Based Learning (PBL), self-paced learning, the flipped classroom, authentic grading practices, common assessments based on lifelong skills (less about specific content knowledge) and personalized learning. These explorations and implementations of more relevant learning experiences have begun to change the learning experience for our students.

      However what we recently realized is these changes to pedagogy are not enough to create “blanket fort” learning. We realized that we need to address the underlying and fundamental structure of our school (i.e. schedule, classes, learning experiences, time, competency-based grading, etc.). So we are currently going through a strategic visioning process where we are asking how can redesign our school to create more effective, authentic and applicational learning experiences for our students. Getting away from silo-ized, seat time/subject area driven learning – moving to more authentic and natural learning structures where we can teach “anti-disciplinary” instead of disciplinary or even inter-disciplinary.

      What this will be in the end, still remains to be seen. But we are having real conversations and developing plans to finally move away the industrial era model of education to an innovation era model of learning. Its exciting stuff!

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