Shift Happens: Karl Fisch On Education


With over 5.5 million YouTube hits since its Feb. 7, 2008 debut, Karl Fisch’s “Shift Happens” video raises serious questions about America’s faltering education system.

Fisch has been teaching for over 25 years; he now serves as Director of Technology at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. He also runs an education blog, The Fischbowl. As I chat with Fisch, it becomes clear that we share many of the same views on where education is today and where it needs to be headed.

I tell him that I’m worried about the failure of our public education system, and how it’s not preparing kids to succeed in the 21st century. America needs to be cranking-out innovators and critical thinkers, but we continue to place an unhealthy emphasis on rote memorization and regurgitation.

“That was basically the impetus for that video in the first place,” Fisch says. “I teach at a very good high school that has been very successful for many years at sending kids on to college and the workplace. We do really good stuff here. My concern was that we weren’t really looking forward to how the world was changing and that we were doing a really good job of preparing our kids for 1975.”

I’m taken aback by many of the statistics included in Fisch’s video, including how “25% of the population in China with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of North America.”

Teachers should be doing more, lots more, to help students succeed in an ever-flattening world.

In an age when students have access to most of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, teachers must rethink their roles. Otherwise, teachers are “preparing our kids for a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” Fisch says.

Fisch’s video says a lot about how our education system is failing, but it offers no solutions. I press Fisch for his thoughts.

“I think of what every student needs to know, and it probably ends at about third or fourth grade in terms of our traditional curriculum,” Fisch says. “From there. . . . we would help kids pursue their passions. . . . We would help them follow things that they are really interested in learning about and really go in depth and go crazy on it.”

I think back to my chat with Simon Hauger, co-founder of The Sustainability Workshop, a project-based program in Philadelphia. Hauger played an instrumental role in helping inner-city students garner national recognition by building hybrid racecars, beating out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team at national competitions.

“If there are some of these essential skills that [students are] missing, then that’s our job as educators to try to figure out ways to expose them to those essential skills—not the whole breadth of stuff we cover,” Hauger says. “And it’s not as formulaic. It’s a little more intuitive.”

If Fisch could create his own “dream school,” he would embrace a similar ideology. But I ask how young students could have any inkling of what they might need to know down the road. What if passions or interests change, and a student who spent his high school career studying mostly English suddenly decides he wants to pursue law or medicine?

“First of all, I think it’s a very valid question and one that I struggle with,” Fisch says. “We have, in our heads, this idea that kids have to go to school for a certain number of years till they’re 18 or till they’re 22—if they’re going to college or even maybe a little longer if they get a master’s degree…Then let’s say 20 years from now I suddenly have a different interest. What’s to stop me from learning then? Why can’t I go learn that new thing then?”

As I speak with Fisch, I also think of the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. There, students have complete autonomy as to what and how they learn.

“If we want to work on science all day and stay in the room all day, that’s fine,” says junior Max Weiner, a first-year member of the Independent Project. I’ll stay in the room for a couple of periods in the morning, and then I’ll go to the library for a period and check out some books.”

Students also complete an “individual endeavor,” a core component of the project that has just one requirement: students must do something that they are passionate about, and be prepared to share the culmination of their work at an end-of-semester rendition.

This fits perfectly with Fisch’s philosophy:

“By giving [students] these strict guidelines of what they have to learn and how they demonstrate it, that works great in a factory model where there’s always somebody telling you what you’re supposed to do,” Fisch says. “But [this] doesn’t work so great in an innovation, entrepreneur style model that appears to be where our world is headed right now, where people are much more independent in what they’re doing. Where jobs and industries and ideas are changing very quickly.”

Fisch is somewhat hesitant at first to explain his dream school, and understandably so—as the world changes, so does what and how we teach. All the same, it turns out that he shares more of The Independent Project’s ideals.

“I think that during the day, it could look very much like kids gathering together in ways and being certainly exposed to some ideas by the adults and the other kids, certainly at the high school level—that they self‑organize into groups and go after stuff,” Fisch says. “If you have a group of kids that are really interested in math, science, engineering, building a solar car, maybe that’s something that’s possible and that they would learn a whole lot of valuable skills as well as a fair amount of content through that project.”

I love how Fisch speaks about distance learning, and how online education is making it easier and cheaper than ever before to afford continuing education. Fisch says students have access to two billion people online, maybe more, and that this figure will increase exponentially in the years to come.

“If you’re able to connect with all those people, pretty much instantaneously and pretty much for negligible cost, as well as connect to all these ideas, then what are we doing teaching from our textbooks?”

Like The Independent Project and The Sustainability Workshop, in Fisch’s dream school, he also wouldn’t give grades.

“I think that grades are just not good. They’re an attempt to provide feedback to kids and parents—and the people evaluating schools, I guess—but in the end, they’ve turned into the feedback itself,” Fisch says. “We’re not looking at what they’re saying about kids. We’re looking at the grades as, ‘This is the feedback.’”

Once again, my chat with Fisch reminds me of another forward-thinking school, The Brightworks School in San Francisco, California. Instead of assigning grades, teachers use portfolios and write personal narratives to students, but only after the completion of each project phase. In theory, this allows for deeper reflection, while also discouraging extrinsic, apathetic learning.

I recently spoke with Zac Stein, a customer success representative of PathBrite, an ePortfolio company that tracks students’ progress over a prolonged period.

“We’re hoping that one of the major benefits of that is an idea for meta-cognition. The idea that, primarily, students and educators need to collaborate on how individuals learn and not how groups learn,” Stein says. “Portfolios are a way of drilling down into the specifics of what each student needs. A teacher can create an assignment or an activity and then students can go out and they can decide how best to answer the questions, based on the way that they need to learn.”

Dozens of iterations of Fisch’s video now exist, inspired by his original YouTube post. I’m fond of this version created by a YouTube user “VideoShredHead.”

Fisch says that he originally created the “Shift Happens” video to promote discussion amongst his colleagues.

“It wasn’t supposed to go out to the world,” he says. “I think it’s good. I think it’s great that it started those conversations, but that wasn’t the intent.”

I’m glad that things didn’t go as planned.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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