So this weekend I had an epiphany. It is the weekend before Thanksgiving and most teachers are worn out. Students are also ready for a couple of days away from school. We are only about 4 weeks away to end of the semester so you can imagine, we are all tired and worn out. Upon the recommendation of my principal, I watched the video Most Likely To Succeed, a documentary that focuses on the shortcomings of our current educational system while exploring innovative ways that schools are reinventing educational experiences that will prepare students for the future. In short, the movie and the companion book Most Likely To Succeed: Preparing Our Kids For The Innovative Era, document the ways that students tune out to traditional education approaches.
Perhaps the most chilly point of the book and movie that resonates most with me that many schools have become simply test prep machines. These tests ranging from End of Course and End of Grade tests to SATs have created a culture in which students who test well are celebrated and those who may not test well are left to navigate through a system where they may never be successful. Further, it creates a learners who only see the purpose of education is scoring high enough to get to the next stage or step. In the movie, a group of students is asked if they would rather be prepared for the "test" or taught skills that will serve them in their future careers and aspirations. The students look at each other uncertain about how to answer. And then one student says "the test since it controls my future." This scene was a telling moment to me when I realized that we have done nothing more than to reduce education to a test taking / preparation factory. There is a lot of pressure put on students doing well on tests. There is a common perception that if a student does not do well on a test, then their future is drastically altered. As a teacher who taught his first ten years with a state end of course test, I was guilty of focusing too much on test preparation. I tried to ensure that my students were adequately prepared for the next phase of chemistry whether that was in college or in a company as a technician. However, I defined the success of a year based on how my students tests. It really is ridiculous to equate 180 days of learning into how my students did on a two hour test. Sometimes my students scored really well and I was so proud of them. But there were years when my students did not do as well and I naturally blamed it on myself. After all, had I failed them as a teacher if they did not score a level 3 or 4 on the test?
Later in my career, our state introduced EVAAS data where a complex model factors in previous testing experiences of students and predicts the influence of the teacher on the student's learning. If students test well above what they were predicted, the teacher is coded "blue." If students met the testing prediction, the teacher is coded as "green." And if students fail to met the growth expectations, the teacher is "red." The day that EVAAS scores are released is one of the absolutely worst days in the school year. Imagine being a teacher how is literally putting in every bit of effort that she / he can to help students. The teacher is staying after school to help students, staying in touch with parents on a regular basis, and providing lots of encouragement to students. So imagine if you are that teacher who literally stays 1-2 hours after school most day to tutor students and is heavily invested emotionally in the students's success. If you are this teacher and the EVAAS data comes back as red, you are crushed. Further, the effort put in by both the student and teacher is not acknowledged since the student did not make the necessary growth prediction. Additionally, no one can simply explain how EVAAS is determined (trust me, I have spent hours watching the tutorial videos and asking questions). But in the end, the process is as abstract as unicorns. To adequately understand EVAAS, you have to have an extensive background in statistics and data analysis. Since most teachers chose to teach students instead of taking advanced courses in statistics, it is difficult to comprehend the complex models used in calculating EVAAS. In the world of education, if an idea is so complex that it cannot be explained in less then three to four sentences, then most likely the average person will not understand the idea. This is the challenge of EVAAS.
As I think about the movie and the work that we are doing at North Rowan High School, I am even more certain that what we are doing now matters so much more than any curriculum standard. The skills and experiences that we are provided to our students in our design challenge courses are allowing to prepare for careers and job opportunities that do not currently exist. We cannot even imagine them. Earlier today, my Facebook feed included an article "The Future of Work Won't Be About College Degrees, It Will Be About Job Skills." The article highlights that the rapid changes associated with evolving technology coupled with increasing higher education costs have resulted in many freelance workers realizing that college degrees are no longer a guarantee of job security. Many large corporations, such as Google and Apple, no longer ask about education credentials not GPA. Instead they seek to find employees who can exhibit various skill sets. No longer is an education credential the "be all end all" that it once was. The article also points out that freelance workers realize the need to learn new skills periodically in order to stay relevant. As we move toward more innovation where we see previously unrelated fields beginning to intersect, then innovation is much more likely. I had a discussion last week with a colleague about helping our students find job opportunities that a computer or robot will not be able to replicate. Currently, technology has advanced so that computers can now write legal documents. As we consider what our students really need for the future, we must move away from giving them problems or work that can be easily googled. I am very guilty of that. We must allow our students the opportunity to developed skills for jobs and tasks that cannot be googled. We must provide authentic opportunities for students to share what they learned in a ways that demonstrated more than surface level understanding. Instead, we must push for experiences that result in deep, sustained learning where students can demonstrate what they learned and use these experiences to expand skill sets.
As I reflect back on what I have learned, I am guilty of teaching to a test and helping students see education simply as a test prep. We must work collectively to ensure that all students have the opportunities to develop deep level learning that results in enhanced skill sets. Further, we can no long discard any student simply because he/she does fit the mold needed to meet a test prediction or score. We have to move back to valuing students as people and keeping empathy as a focus. We must work tirelessly to provide opportunities for students to create and share authentic work that is meaningful. I am pleased that we have embarked on such as journey at North Rowan High. We are definitely learning as we go. We are consistently ideating what is best for our students and fixing what what needs to be repaired. We will continue to press on with this journey even though we don't know the destination. It is sincere desire to help our students learn the necessary skills to be successful in the future and we won't stop until we get it right.
For the past three weeks, our students have worked in Design Challenge to create Rube Goldberg machines. Most of our students have never heard of Rube Goldberg machines much less designed one. The truth is that neither of my co-teachers nor I had designed them either. So, like much of our design challenge experiences, we learned along with our students. And it was every bit of an extraordinary journey. There were times when we really considered abandoning the idea altogether but we (our students and ourselves) hung in there. In the end, I continue to be so proud of our students and what they accomplished.
Creating these machines posed challenges that forced ours students to think differently and shift their paradigms. Perhaps the biggest shifts in paradigms involved helping our students understand how to measure success. Most of them identified success as the machine completing the identified task. However, they quickly discovered that they may need to reevaluate the metrics that they used for success. Instead. they "pivoted" and modified how they measured success. This kind of pivot is also very true in life. Sometimes, our original purpose and way to measure success has to be altered. Many of our students have never had the opportunity to fully be immersed in designing machines with a specific purpose. A lot of them are deficient in some aspects of physics. However, they learned how to improvise and quickly find ways to work though emerging challenges.
A lot of our students have experienced a lot of challenges in their personal life. While we, as teachers, may never fully know the true impact of these challenges on our students, we do know that we must support and encourage our students to continue to persevere through these challenges. We must ensure that our students have developed the necessary coping mechanisms to process these challenges and identify proactive solutions. There were times when some students even gave up and said that they would take the failing grade. However, these students returned the next day ready to try again. There was something that I saw with our students that I did not expect. It was a willingness to not let the problem or challenge get the best of them. There were times when group communication deteriorated and I was certain that this group would most definitely split up. However, these same students returned after a break to begin working together once again. As I thought about these experiences, it made me wonder "What is it that is driving these students to complete these challenges?" Many appeared to be so willing to give up so readily but yet they returned back to try again.
As we approached our deadline, our students worked harder and harder. They relied less on us for structure and direction. Our roles shifted to providing resources such as pulleys, yarn, and cardboard. We also became cheerleaders and supporters. In short, our students had transformed and so had we. I did not even realize it. Too often, we get "stuck" in our "factory model of education" where we don't allow our students the opportunity to show us new and different ways of thinking. Our principal reminded us today that for the longest time divergent thinking was not encouraged and celebrated in public education. As we clearly saw with this challenge, all of our students (regardless of their academic ability, motivation, and background) have so much to offer us. They reminded me of the importance of letting them do things their own way and finding their own solutions. It was so gratifying to see the pride that so many students showed in their final designs. Most students were genuine proud of what they had built and accomplished. It was clear that students took ownership of this challenge and find innovative ways to solve problems with limited materials and experiences. The purpose of a Rube Goldberg machine is to complete a simple task in a complex way. In this case, our students proved that they have the skills and ability to solve a challenge and "stick with it" (grit?). They proved that student ownership is huge motivator. Many of the students were initially less than enthusiastic about this challenge. However, there was no lack of enthusiasm today as we concluded this challenge. To my students, I say "Thank You" for helping me to experience the power of divergent thinking to create solutions and I applaud each of you for sticking with your challenge. The pride that I have in each of you far exceeds any words that I could write.
At North Rowan High School, our faculty and staff have identified the 4Cs (Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity) as core components that we want our students to have upon graduation. These core components are essential to preparing them for a future in which we cannot accurately predict the types of jobs that they will encounter over the course of their lifetime. Additionally, much research has been conducted to determine the skills and competencies that employers will value in employees. According to research conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, these are several of the core competencies that employers want in hiring potential employees. The 4Cs are often referred to as the “soft skills” in that they are not official standards taught in the North Carolina Essential Standards or Common Core Standards. Upon inspection though, most managers would agree that these skills and competencies are what they value in employees.
At North Rowan High School, our design courses are centered around helping our students further develop and expand the 4Cs so they are work force ready upon graduation. In our paradigm of change, we view the 4Cs as the necessary skills for our students to be able to exhibit after graduation. But like any good skill, practice is needed so that our students become better. During the various challenges that ours students undertake, they are constantly evaluated on some combination, if not all, of the 4Cs. Students are encouraged to apply them at various times throughout their challenge and to be able to provide evidence of growth in the 4Cs.
Evaluating the growth in each of the 4Cs is very challenging. It often involves measuring something that is not very measurable. In fact, we often struggle with developing metrics to measure many of the 4Cs. We are finding that many researchers are struggling with some of these same challenges. Imagine trying to determine how to measure creativity with 150 students? This can be challenging. To better assist, we are evaluating different pieces of research and anecdotal evidence to develop rubrics that specifically gauge how our students are doing in developing these skills. Our work is challenging and it is not always perfect. Sometimes we fail miserably. But that is okay as it demonstrates the importance of prototyping since we often learn more from failure anyway. In the end, we know that our work is important as it has the power to change our students and their trajectories. Additionally, any opportunities that we can provide our students to further develop their skills and aptitudes in the 4Cs will pay dividends at some point in their future. As we continue to evaluate and reposition ourselves to better serve our students, we continue to be excited about the opportunity to more fully prepare our students for a future that no one can predict. While we value the learning standards that we are charged with in educating our students, we must remember the implied curriculum standards such as the 4Cs since they will serve students well in the future.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.