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.

No More Silos

Here is the master schedule I shared with my staff before everyone left for break:

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This is driven mostly by Response to Intervention. Starting December of this year, all schools have to ensure that interventions that may lead to a special education referral for reading or math take place outside of that respective subject area. Where you see “I/E” stands for Intervention and Enrichment. Kids that are either below the line or above the line should receive additional support in their specific area of need. This is based on a template by Dr. Michael Rettig.

I had a number of teachers come down and speak with me after I sent this out. “So, reading and content should be taught separately?” was one of the more common questions. I explained that, no, this is just a schedule that your grade level should do their best to adhere to over the course of the year. Integrating the subject areas is highly encouraged. We only want to ensure that students’ needs are being met through Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions. Scheduling in an intervention block is the best way we know how to make sure this happens. There has been good discourse about this, and we will continue to talk.

Yet I bring this up here because I have concerns. Not about Response to Intervention (RtI). Besides soon becoming law, John Hattie, researcher and author of Visible Learning, has found that RtI has one of the largest effect sizes on student learning. I take comfort knowing that “grey area” kids, those that don’t qualify for special education services because their cognitive abilities are too low, may now get the necessary support. In addition, RtI has been called “the last, best hope” for literacy education by Richard Allington.

No, I am more concerned that all of these initiatives coming at us – Common Core, Smarter Balanced Assessment, and new teacher evaluations based on students’ test scores (on top of RtI, but without the research base) – will further fracture our already chopped up days at the elementary level. Many secondary schools already suffer from this. “They are everybody’s kids”, and therefore nobody’s kids. Leaders thinking in black-and-white terms might start to believe that continuing to departmentalize the core areas will lead to better gains in student achievement. Specific interventions can be used to zero in on targeted literacy and numeracy skills. Words such as “hard” and “rigorous” are often used to describe these interventions.

But this is not what kids, or most adults, comes to school for. They want to be engaged. They want to see the connections between their lives and what they are learning. Making connections throughout the day will only enhance instruction. The thinking required for this type of work comes before the instruction actually happens, as well during the teaching-learning process using ongoing assessments. It doesn’t happen when we are inputting progress monitoring results into a spreadsheet. It doesn’t happen when we are solely aligning our instruction with standards instead of with our students’ needs. It doesn’t happen when we are forced to think about our own livelihoods instead of our students’ futures.

Giving students the best opportunity for success starts with engaging and evidence-based classroom instruction. Separating subjects and skill areas into silos is not natural. The further we pull away for learning as an authentic experience, the more we risk disengaging our students because it doesn’t represent what is real and what is meaningful.