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Longitudinal Teaching for a Lateral World?? Really???

How does this make sense? More than any other aspect of our outdated education system, the narrow, longitudinal delivery of information is out of sync with a networked, connected, lateral world. Forget the mantras about skills-based learning and our inability to keep up information and to predict the future. Our basic model is an anachronism. Linear systems and methods make no sense in a world that values latitude, agility, and systems thinking. The outdated “factory-model” method of education relies on an underpinning of longitudinal progressions, moving from one “grade” level to the next, “covering” material, and passing the dictated assessment.


I work in a wide range of classrooms and schools, but I have yet to encounter an environment that values learner needs and progressions over a highly longitudinal structure. Dictionary definitions of longitudinal refer to running lengthwise or to “involving the repeated observation or examination of a set of subjects over time with respect to one or more study variables”, as in longitudinal studies. These are appropriate definitions for both education and for our obsession with assessment. There is little room for moving to the side, along a latitude or in a lateral direction. Consider the dictionary definition of latitude as “scope or range” or “freedom of action or choice”.  It seems much more 21st century to me. And it leads to a much less structured classroom and school environment, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. Assembly lines follow a longitudinal path with little room for lateral “side trips”; longitudinal layouts insure efficient throughput and predictable results.


But is that what we need education for today – efficiency and consistency? The Internet is far more efficient at accessing and imparting information than we are. And one should question the value of consistency and predictability in a highly volatile world. Why would “same old, same old” work when it is clear that nothing stays the same for very long?  We read and speak about teaching for understanding, yet we teach for success on the test and the focused linear goal of an “A”.  Understanding demands an ability to make connections and to apply knowledge to new situations. Understanding requires lateral thinking and the ability to judge causality and impacts.

Lateral learning comes naturally to young people. It is the framework of the process that enabled them to walk and talk without formal education. It is part of their innate creativity and curiosity and it is the root of the “why” questions that are so much a part of a very young child’s world. Countless studies have shown that questioning and creativity decline in school. Questions drop to about half by 4th grade, from about 300 per day at age 4 to less than 150.  George Land and Beth Jarvis (Breakpoint and Beyond) found that in a group of 1600 5 year old children, 98% tested close to creative genius, while that number dropped to 12% for that same group when they were 15 years old. Countless other studies support the idea that linear transmission of information does little to encourage the connections and questions that are so much a part of lateral thinking and creativity.

Clearly classrooms need to be more “real world”, not just by introducing projects and applications, but by modelling the kind of thinking needed for innovation, agility, and lifelong learning. We need to step out of the box and away from that longitudinal axis. Our students will live in a world characterized by networks, porous boundaries, and exponential change. Nothing about any of that is linear. They will need to innovate, improvise, and connect every day. They will not deal with situations where the one right answer gets them to the next level. They deserve an education that delivers more than that.


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