Bringing the revolution

A quiet revolution is underway in our community schools.

From the outside, the change seems imperceptible. This coming school year, the buildings look the same, kids and parents will come and go in the mornings and evenings and teachers are already busy in their preparations for learning.

While much looks the same, the change happening beneath the surface is profound. Last school year, we introduced the concept of what we call global-ready skills. These skills are based on the thinking of Harvard professor Tony Wagner and they include the following:

• Critical thinking and problem solving

• Agility and adaptability — the ability to respond to changing conditions

• Effective oral and written communication

• Curiosity and imagination

• Accessing and analyzing information

• Initiative and entrepreneurialism

• Collaboration and leading by influence

This profound shift is being accomplished through the genuine redesign of what we call student task — the actual things we ask students to do or perform as part of a lesson or learning experience.

For many adults growing up, the tasks we were asked to do were dreadful exercises. Low-level worksheets, formulaic and lifeless reports, repetitive equation solving disconnected from any real application — these were the things that consumed our time as students and the successful completion of them, along with cheerful obedience, earned one good grades and false promises of successful and fulfilling lives.

We weren’t being intentionally or maliciously misled. There was a time when the ability to follow instructions, color within the lines and mechanically repeat a procedure were valuable work skills. Those days are decades behind us, but we have yet to revolutionize the educational experiences for our children in light of this shift.

Our over-reliance on standardized tests as a measure of school quality contributes to the problem. While indicators of things such as reading and math have some value and the tests kids take today are far better than the simple fact/recall bubble sheet assessments from just a few years ago, all of them fall far from really assessing any of the aforementioned global-ready skills. This is especially true for skills such as collaboration and imagination, as the assessments are solitary experiences designed to test a fixed set of knowledge.

Most people I know work together with others, not in forced isolation. And, most problems (at least those that matter) have more than one possible solution. Even our best large-scale standardized measures aren’t getting at these issues.

So the quiet revolution happens as our teachers collaborate to redesign the things students are doing, both in classrooms and outside of them. Content still matters — so we are teaching students how to read, solve mathematical problems and understand scientific principles. But we are changing the student experiences so that they get to practice one (or more) of the global-ready skills as a demonstration of their learning.

For example, rather than completing a crossword puzzle of facts about the civil war (one of the tasks I performed in my high school history class, no joke), students might be asked to identify and argue the values debate underlying that conflict. Morality vs. economy. People vs. property. The capacity within human beings, vs. that prescribed to them based on their skin color or economic condition.

Students would work in teams to develop arguments, critique the thinking of others, develop persuasive messages — and then we would change the rules on them and ask them to adapt — having them argue the opposing viewpoint. Then they would present to their parents and the community about how they see these same value conflicts playing out in our country and even in our local context.

Rather than solving geometry problems at the end of each chapter (another awesome task from my high school days), imagine students designing an interconnected recreation trail across our community for safer cycling and walking. They would consider routes, slopes and overcoming geographic challenges such as water crossings and varied terrains. They would be encouraged to design creative options that otherwise wouldn’t be considered. They might also present to local government officials on their thinking and recommendations, considering cost and political factors that might impact the effectiveness of their recommendations.

These are but two examples of how we can redesign student task, creating a better and more engaging learning experience for students — and better preparing them for their future, instead of our past.

A few years ago, IMB conducted a study of more than 1,100 CEOs from businesses around the world. When asked about the most important skills people in their organizations would need for the future, their answers were “adaptability” in the face of changing conditions and “creativity” in using innovation to solve problems.

The entire system of education wasn’t designed to build these kinds of skills and we haven’t helped ourselves with recent reforms intended to ramp up standardization — but the revolution toward a different paradigm is already underway in our community.