What should our kids know and be able to do?

The art of reinvention will be the most critical skill of this century.

Yuval Noah Harari

This is a question that my current district is wrestling with (along with everyone else?). I wrote an article that appear in Choice Literacy’s newsletter today that briefly addressed this topic.

David Perkins describes a curriculum that is worth learning for today’s students as “lifeworthy”. Summarizing his book Future Wise for this Educational Leadership article, he breaks down lifeworthy learning into six descriptors.

  • Beyond content to 21st century skills and competencies.
  • Beyond local to global perspectives, problems, and studies.
  • Beyond topics to content as material for thinking and action.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond the traditional disciplines to renewed and extended versions of the disciplines.
  • Beyond academic engagement to personal choice, significance, commitment, and passion.

Yet Perkins holds short of making specific recommendations for what students should know and able to do. “I don’t think there is a universal answer for every school and society in today’s diverse world.” Fair enough.

Yuval Noah Harari takes the torch from Perkins and does offer specificities regarding what kids need to learn to succeed in the near and distant future. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari offers insights on what we might expect and what we as educators can do about it. He starts by delivering a hard pill to swallow for educators.

Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.

Harari is referring to many of the subject-specific topics and ideas about our world. Perkins alludes to this in his lifeworthy criteria, listing “competencies”, “perspectives”, and describing content as merely “material for thinking and action”. Harari agrees, pushing the reader to consider the larger, more intangible outcomes that we might expect of our students to acquire.

The last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and, above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

This shift from a “sit-and-get” approach to education to building knowledge and skills applicable to many areas is not new. The concept of constructivism (Piaget) has been around for decades. Maybe what is new is this sense of urgency we now feel in an age of complexity and not being able to predict even the near future. Harari himself concedes this reality.

Nobody can predict the specific changes we will witness in the future. Any particular scenario is likely to be far from the truth. If somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-21st century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty.

So if we had to focus on one thing for preparing our students for an unknown future, what might it be? For my money, I want to help kids develop a strong sense of personal identity within the context of a big world that has as many perspectives as it does communities and individuals.

For example, can students describe their beliefs and values and be able to revisit them over time in light of new information and different points of view? All while maintaining a strong sense of self? Being able to change one’s mind while maintaining our identify seems like a prerequisite skill for living and succeeding in this world.

To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invest new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.

Yuval Noah Harari

Final question: how can we foster this ability with our students? I believe it starts with ourselves. We need to model what it means to be a lifelong learner. For instance, students should see and hear us hold two different points of view at the same time and not succumb to bias or our emotions. This invites literacy and many other subjects areas to work together, an interdependence of ideas that our current curriculums have yet to address.

Building a Literacy Culture: Fostering Trust Through Beliefs and Commitments

In the midst of my third year in my “new” school, I feel fortunate that I can reflect on my past experiences as a building principal in one elementary while leading a literacy initiative right now in my current building.

We started at Mineral Point by delving into the foundations of literacy instruction: the reading-writing connection. We are moving forward, feeling more comfortable with our pace and expectations regarding what to try and apply in our classrooms. Some might want to move forward more quickly than others, which seems common in schools.

This is a challenge as a building principal/literacy leader:  What is the right pace in which to move an entire school toward a culture where every student is expected to become an independent reader and writer?

Answer: there is no right way. Many pathways can get you to the same destination. Yet it starts with trust, defined by Dr. Anthony Muhammad as “feeling confident in another person’s ability to follow through on a commitment.” People feel safer in these types of conditions to innovate.

To move toward a literacy culture as a whole faculty, trust has to be cultivated. Trust is founded on various elements of which many are tacit and hard to see. Two concrete ways to build trust is through examination of a school’s beliefs and an agreed-upon set of professional commitments. Beliefs and commitments are commonly-held agreements about what we think and how we act. They are the foundation on which a culture sits upon when ensuring that all students are successful readers and writers. Beliefs and commitments are rudders that guide our work toward our goals.

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I’ve written about examining literacy beliefs before; you can read about two recent experiences here and here. Regarding collective commitments, you can find this culture-building activity in Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (Solution Tree, 2016). I also shared about our school’s collective commitments on my school blog.

School leaders need to be able to determine when a school is struggling with its culture, such as when teachers are feeling too much stress while implementing new practices. I rely on our instructional leadership team members plus other staff to help discern how faculty is feeling about our work. I am not a mind reader. We have to rely on others’ perceptions regarding professional learning. This dialogue can be improved when we have concrete statements about what we believe and how we will conduct ourselves in accordance with these beliefs. They are words we live by.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Leading from an Inquiry Stance

A book that piqued my interest in the principalship was Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass, 1990). During one of my first years as a teacher, I found it while browsing through our professional library. At the time I only knew I should probably go for my masters but I was unsure about any focus.

After reading Barth’s classic resource, I knew what I wanted to study. He shared his own personal journey as a principal, the ups and downs, before conveying his belief that empowered schools have all they need to continuously grow as a community of learners. Barth’s frank and authentic descriptions of the principalship are something I don’t often read about in today’s literature on school leadership.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance (Teachers College Press, 2018) carries Barth’s torch and follows a similar journey. The editors – James Lytle, Susan Lytle, Michael Johanek, and Kathy Rho – have collected a series of narratives from doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. They are research summaries that describe the real problems of practice for these leadership students within their context at the time.

Among the eleven memorable experiences, I want to briefly highlight one narrative that hit home for me as a principal.

“Language and Third Spaces” by Ann Dealy

A principal in Ossining, New York explores the possibilities of implementing a more culturally-relevant curriculum into her increasingly diverse elementary school. What she discovers is that when leaders try to make instructional changes, they also have to consider the school culture and community in the process.

Professional development shifted from looking for answers from outside of the school to studying our students as learners and collaborating on changes in practice to better support teaching and learning (38).

Dealy also learned through her inquiry that, by upgrading a curriculum to be more culturally responsive, other groups may inadvertently experience somewhat similar feelings of being underrepresented.

It became clear that in the effort to open up curricula, we can also inadvertently close out those whose prior dominance we may have been countering (41).

This research helped reveal for Dealy and her partners that the process of organizational change is most effective as a team effort. Not taking into consideration others’ perspectives will likely lead to limited results.

The implementation of best-researched models of equitable practice is a start – but it is not enough. My leadership learnings include the necessity for collective inquiry to affect systemic change (45).

After reading Dealy’s narrative, I reflected on my own experiences when I have not included the broader school community in decision making on behalf of our students. Almost always when I have engaged with others regarding our schools’ needs, the direction we took was positive. The narratives shared in Repositioning Educational Leadership provided necessary perspectives for me as I considered my own context. It also brought me back to the original goal of getting into the principalship: to affect change from within and with many.

Note: A copy of Repositioning Educational Leadership was provided for me at no cost to read and respond to for this post.

Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

Express Gratitude By Blogging

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

This month I have committed to reading one blog post a day and leaving a comment. It’s my way of saying thanks to other educators and writers who take the time to share their thinking online, as well as to frequent the sites of readers of my own blog.

Maybe you don’t have a blog but have always wanted to start one. When I have asked people what’s stopping them, they usually cite one of two reasons: “I don’t have time,” and “I don’t have anything worth sharing.” I won’t argue with the first reason; people’s life circumstances can vary. But the second one is debatable because every educator I know who writes regularly online about their practice is providing a benefit to others as well as themselves.

In fact, sharing our work and our reflections in a public space is one of the best ways to express gratitude for others. Consider the following reasons.

  • Blogging reduces professional isolation. When you write about your experiences and observations in school, other educators who read what you share will often relate. They may realize they are not alone in feeling a certain way about a similar situation, for example, confusion over whether or not to purchase a commercial literacy program. I know this because I have received comments and emails in appreciation for bringing up these topics (and likewise reciprocated on others’ sites). Benefit: other educators.
  • Blogging improves your practice. Through the act of writing about our professional lives, we start a process of reflection. We put our ideas down, reread and see what we initially wrote from a more objective perspective, and then continue writing in response to our thinking. Writing is an act of creation, so it makes sense that we will come to deeper or different understandings about a topic through this process. That will make us better educators, which can impact the staff and students with whom we work. Benefit: our school.
  • Blogging puts our ideas somewhere. I know educators will bring home their challenges, unloading the days’ frustrations onto their spouse and nearest adult. Maybe we feel better, yet I don’t know if this is the best approach to living a fulfilling life. What if you altered some details, not letting “the facts get in the way of the truth”, and published a post around an area of concern? Now we have put these thoughts somewhere that won’t change the mood at home and will likely be appreciated by our colleagues online (see reason #1). If the post is too close to our current school context, leave it as a draft or trash it. The act of reflection itself can be satisfying enough. Benefit: our families/friends.
  • Blogging brings value. The opposite of those who feel like they have nothing to say or share are people who expect to be compensated for all of their writing efforts. Some see blogging as giving away their work. Others worry about their ideas getting lost in all of the tweets and posts. I remember one well-known connected educator remark about blogging: “The market is saturated.”  It’s not. Good ideas always have an audience. And no one has a better point of view about the world of education than those currently practicing within it. Maybe your writing efforts won’t bring in additional income, but it will give you more credibility and visibility, which is of immense value as you navigate your teaching or leading career. Benefit: you and everyone else.

I write this post not to put one more thing on your plate. Rather, I encourage you to rethink your plate. By adding to the collective understanding of education through blogging, we help others and ourselves become more connected, we grow as professionals, we find a healthy outlet for our ideas, and we build on our practice. Writing online about your practice is a selfless action that can benefit everyone, yourself included.