The Big Something (That’s Missing From Schools)

Guest Blogger Dr. Paul Skilton-Sylvester, Educational Thought Leaders Series, #2

I often hear people say that schools haven’t changed since the Industrial Revolution, but that seems at least half wrong.  It’s true that classrooms are still set up in the egg carton model with pairs of graded classrooms running down a hallway, but if a time traveling teacher peaked into today’s classrooms there’s a lot they wouldn’t recognize: balanced literacy, data driven instruction, differentiated instruction, and collaborative learning, to name a few.  (They would also think Smart Boards were cool but would wonder why we don’t use them more).

But this teacher from the past would also see that too many of our classrooms are missing something.  The Big Something.

It’s the Big Something because–as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz pointed out decades ago–one thing that we humans can’t not do is to make meaning.  While schools have moved ahead in refining many technical areas of teaching, we’ve forgotten that what drives our students to learn is to connect the dots—to understand their world and why they’re here and where they think we should be going.  We’ve shut our classroom doors to electric cars and fracking, to Katrina and Tahir Square, to urban farming and worm composting, to the Tea Party and Occupy.  We’ve been paying so much attention to how kids are reading we’re not paying attention to what they’re reading.

And while we’re not engaging students with the present, we’re also not engaging them with the past.  As our own epoch does its slow motion, Mad Man fall from where we are to where we’re going, we haven’t picked up the lifeline to call our friends in the Dark Ages, or the Renaissance; the Industrial Revolution or the (first) Gilded Age.  We’re not learning from the way that the globe was repartitioned after Word War I, or how we let the Holocaust happened or why 9/11 took us by surprise.

I had a breakthrough in understanding “the meaning problem” in 2012.  My wife and I were working in Costa Rica for a year.  A teacher/friend, John Zekelj, called me from the cornfields of Indiana and asked me to Skype with his environmental science class about what it’s like to live in a rain forest.  I said that I could, but said that if he’d rather Skype with a biologist I could probably find one.  His reply changed me.  He said, “I don’t need a biologist.  I just want them to hear from someone who lives in a place that gets 16 feet of rain each year.”

The video chat I had with his teenage students was wonderful.  The students had great questions and I spoke from my experience about life where I was living.  Later, other teachers who I didn’t know began contacting me.  I Skyped with them too.   Afterwards I always felt drunk, so thrilled by it all.  I began connecting these classes with Costa Ricans who Skyped with them too.  Benito the goat farmer.  Wendy the eco-tourism director at a rainforest reserve.  Sofia the fourth grader growing up on a farm.

What really changed me was this teacher’s understanding that his students could learn from my everyday experience.   This was an epistemological shift.  Everyone has knowledge?  Everyone has knowledge.  And video chat can help us to connect to everyday people all over the world, to understand their perspectives, and to begin to make sense of the global phenomena that effect us in such daily and dramatic ways.  Incredibly, it’s also cheap.  Gone are the days when young lovers squander their savings on long distance phone bills.  In times of draconian budget cuts, video chat is free or inexpensive.

What would happen if instead of a textbook–instead of boiled down and pasteurized knowledge–students had conversations with everyday people about their experience of what they were studying; if they heard multiple perspectives and had to sort out the BS from the common sense?

Since that time in Costa Rica, I have been working on creating a website to allow teachers to find everyday people all around the world who are willing to appear via video chat.  It will be called HelloMundo and people will be able to appear for free or charge up to $25.00, with a percentage of what they charge going to the website.  (Videos about the project and clips of some of the original video chats can be found at my informational website,

If a teacher is studying Japan they’ll search and find profiles of people living in Japan who are willing to appear via video chat.  If they’re teaching African American kids about the Pythagorean theorem and want to talk to someone who uses in their work they’ll find an architect who is African American who can take questions about their work.  The website is nearly ready for beta testing.  You can take a look at

While developing this site, I have done some workshops with schools on using video chat in the classroom and had a chance to see what kids can do with it.   Third graders from a Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia asked questions about the cosmos to a British astro-physicist living in Ecuador.  First graders from an elite Quaker School, also in Philadelphia, were studying where their food came from and had made a taco lunch before Skyping with a farmer in Iowa who gave them a tour with his I-phone, and a food scientist at Old El Paso who showed them videos of the machines that make the taco shells.  And so on.

Experiences like these have only reinforced my belief that video chat is a vast untapped resource for helping students to begin making sense of the world they’re inheriting. The world is waiting and it’s darn near free.


Paul Skilton-Sylvester teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, coaches teachers for the Children’s Literacy Initiative and is Founder, CEO, and Janitor of HelloMundo LLC.  He can be reached at

About the Educational Thought Leader Series: “Educational Thought Leaders” are people engaged in developing critical, innovative ideas and practices in education.  The aim of this series is to provide a space for Educational Thought Leaders to discuss their work and to foster dialog around the ideas and issues that they raise.


One thought on “The Big Something (That’s Missing From Schools)

  1. I very much agree with the necessity of meaning-making in schools, because it individualizes the learning experience. Each of us have our unique way of understanding what we hear and see, and one way of combining that with the taught content is to emphasize the learning process over the products (the end results of learning).

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