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.

Life-Ready: An Alternative to College and Career Readiness

In my former administrative position, I was assigned to serve on the district’s career and technology education committee. There was a lot of talk about “college and career readiness”. Most districts and states have had the same conversations.

One part of this dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way was how school counselors were being tasked with helping students discover possible career opportunities to set goals around. This discussion did not hit home until I realized that my son, now a 4th grader, was so very close to taking part in this initiative.

At that point in the committee’s proceedings, my mind was flooded with a series of questions:

  • How can some of our students possibly know with any certainty what they want to do once they graduate high school?
  • How can any educator make even a general determination as to the life trajectory of a child? What information are they using to make this assessment?
  • Why are we so focused on the future of a child and yet often oblivous to the present, especially when equity is not being achieved for all students in every classroom?
  • Who are we as educators to propose to a student’s family the possibilities of what we believe awaits their son or daughter?

Being the new member of the committee, I bit my tongue and did my best to listen without judgment.

In reflection, I think this eduspeak about “college and career readiness” brought up some personal baggage I have with my own experiences with education trying to make decisions for me about what I would do in the future. For example, I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, a personality profile tool that categorizes people based on whether they are extroverted or introverted, are more inclined to use their senses or intuition, and so on and so forth. Once you land in one of sixteen categorizes (I was/am an ISTP), a series of careers were suggested for you that “fit” with your personality.

Unfortunately for me, being an educator was not one of those suggestions. I gave engineering the old college try (literally) and found it to not be something I was passitionate about. Police work was out of the question. The Myers-Briggs assessment tool itself did offer some helpful insights, but only from what seemed like a cognitive standpoint.

Today’s focus on college and career readiness has good intentions. Some kids may benefit from learning what’s out there and then set goals to achieve their dreams. But how do we find this to be true when economists are telling us that half of us will be freelancers by 2020 and we will soon be switching jobs every three to five years? This information would seem to conflict with what we are espousing in schools today.

Why should all students have to meet the same goals?

-Susan Brookhart, assessment expert and ASCD author

Instead, I offer an alternative to the college and career readiness talk: Preparing students to be “life-ready”. What do these competencies look like? Given the unpredictability of future work and frequent changes in occupations, it would seem to come down to some of the noncognitive skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Work well with others
  • Imagination and innovation
  • Problem finding and creative solutions
  • Empathy and ability to take others’ perspectives

So how do schools teach these skills? In my opinion, through the curriculum that is already established and being developed at the school level. This integration increases the relevancy of student learning and makes the connections for students across and within disciplines. David Perkins offers a sound proposal for developing this type of “lifeworthy” curriculum in his excellent resource Future Wise.


At the ASCD Author Retreat I attended last week, we were asked as educational experts what success might mean for our students. Here were our responses:

For all of our expertise, how we defined student success varied considerably as you can see. If our collective thinking can be so diverse regarding one question, what that says to me is student success can and should also look very different depending on the needs and interests of our kids. Defining student success as merely “college and career readiness” seems to narrow the possibilities. Being life-ready might better honor every student’s potential.

Determining What is Lifeworthy Learning in School

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” -Yogi Berra

In a previous post, I asked those that I am connected with online what they feel is the one thing a student should know, understand, or be able to do by the time they leave their respective school.

I also asked this same question of the members of our school leadership team, our school’s parents, and our outgoing 5th graders.

Why do this? We have two days of curriculum writing planned for next week. Our goal is to develop at least an outline of six content units of study for each grade level. There’s so much to teach and not enough time. We have to be picky about what’s essential. These units will be scheduled throughout the year, hopefully incorporating literacy and other areas of instruction. Using the Understanding by Design process (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998), we also hope to create more useful assessments for our students, performance tasks that allow them better opportunities to show what they know.

By gathering input from more stakeholders, the idea is there will be more ownership in this process of designing instruction. Parents and students have also been invited to our actual curriculum writing days. Their roles will be as a representative voice for all students and parents as we work together to make their school experience even better. Our school definitely has some successes, but we also have opportunities for growth, such as making learning opportunities more accessible for our marginalized students, and to better integrate technologies so they are a transformative piece of instruction, instead of merely augmenting current practice.

I took all of the input provided by our teachers, parents, students and my PLN, and condensed their ideas down into six-word-or-less learning statements. They were written on large Post-its and displayed in our LMC, which will serve as our workspace.

IMG_20150612_155807.054

I left some spaces open, to allow for more suggestions for what we as a school community feel is an essential outcome of a student’s school experience. David Perkins refers to this idea of what’s essential as “lifeworthy learning”, from his book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014).  LIfeworthy learning goes beyond basic skills, preparing for an unknown future and expecting students to generalize bigger concepts across disciplines and experiences. It is more than just a personalized learning experience or a fun activity, Perkins states.

The basic curriculum can’t be molded around the individual enthusiasms of learners. We need to figure out what’s likely to be lifeworthy for most students, kindling enthusiasm there as much as we can while also making room for individual learning experiences. (16)

Here are a few of our proposed lifeworthy learning statements:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can view all of the statements by clicking here.

The purpose for this display will be to look for ways to include these skills and understandings within units of study when appropriate. This process will happen after we review our mission and vision, recommit to our beliefs and best practices, and introduce the Understanding by Design process.

Here are a few questions I’ll be throwing out to our group when we arrive at this point in our time together:

  • What is stated here and it should be?
  • What is not stated here, but you feel should be?
  • What is not stated here, and it should stay that way?

This last question might be the most important. I have found conversations around instruction to be very powerful when a faculty finds consensus on what to stop doing in classrooms. Writing these obituaries may have a larger impact than on anything we might add to our instructional toolbox.

What are your thoughts on this process? Have you had any experience in determining what’s essential and lifeworthy for student learning with a group of educators? How have you “trimmed the fat” from curriculum in a fairly agreeable manner? Comments on this topic are welcome here.

(For a good description of this unit design process, check out the post Planning for the Planning on the Two Writing Teachers blog.)