Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Position

I recently read a thought-provoking post by my colleague and author Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) called "Tired of Being the Nation's Punching Bag" in his excellent blog "The Tempered Radical".  In his post, Bill discusses The Global Achievement Gap, a book by Harvard Education Professor Tony Wagner. Having seen Tony Wagner as a guest speaker at the Connecting Leaders Conference in Vancouver in October of last year,  I was eager to hear Bill's take on Wagner's book.  From the conference, I remembered that Wagner was quite scathing in his views of the current state of K-12 education, and I guessed (correctly) that Bill would have some great points and counterpoints about The Global Achievement Gap.

One excerpt from Bill's blog really resonated with me:

Wagner writes: “Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become” (Kindle location 323).

Bill's response: Tony’s right, y’all: Kids really DO lose their natural curiosity after spending years in our school system. 

How sickening is that?  And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know a ton of teachers who do a great job encouraging natural curiosity in their daily lessons.  There’s no point, really.  You see, curiosity isn’t measured by the standardized tests that our nation have embraced as tools for holding students accountable.

This made me reflect on the skills that we value in education (or rather the skills we SAY we value) versus the ones we demonstrate that we value through our actions as educators and policymakers.   At our Grade Assemblies a few weeks ago, I talked with our students about the importance of the "7 C's" of 21st Century Learning--communication, collaboration, creativity, cultural understanding, career knowledge and computing skills.  I gave a brief description of these skills to our students, and challenged them to find ways to 'sail the 7C's' during their career at our school because these skills were the important skills to learn.

But bearing Bill's comment about standardized tests and their inability to evaluate valued skills in mind, I began to think that as educators, we should 'be careful what we wish for' when we talk so freely about these skills for our students.  In my own learning situation, I need to examine my own practice to see whether I am truly prepared for the movement towards the personalized, 21st Century Learning movement.  I need to determine whether I am well-positioned to be a 21st century leader, educator, and learner for our staff and our students.

Several years ago, the province of British Columbia introduced the concept of the Graduation Portfolio as an authentic 'exit product' for high school graduates in BC.  Students were to put different artifacts of their learning from their high school years into a physical or digital binder that they would display to a panel prior to their graduation.  Students were asked to provide evidence of their learning in focus areas such as the arts, humanities, science, business, and fitness.  Evidence could be written, web-based, video, projects that they had done, or whatever the student thought best represented their learning in that particular focus area.  Even the method of presentation was up to the student.  The student could be creative demonstrate their ability to communicate with a panel of educators and community members. They would think critically about their presentation and reflect on the evidence that showcased their learning. They would demonstrate many of the skills that we value, that we now say we want them to demonstrate here in the 21st century.

But the Graduation Portfolio concept fell apart.  Among the variety of reasons for its demise, it failed because it was cumbersome.  It was difficult to 'store' at schools in terms of student artifacts.  It was challenging to evaluate.  It was hard to get a panel of community members and educators to see the portfolios of 300 graduates (to use our school as an example).  The evaluation process was seen as a huge amount of time to invest.  It was criticized because it was 'pass or fail' rather than having a grade associated with it.  The product was seen as separate from the content areas.  And as a result, for many (most?) students, the Graduation Portfolio was seen as another 'hoop to jump through' when the important tasks such as government exams were at hand.  In a relatively short couple of years after its inception, Graduation Portfolio was replaced with a truncated and abbreviated Graduation Transition Plan that is viewed by many as much more manageable, but viewed by most students in much the same way--another hoop to jump through that has little relevance to them.

This post is not meant to champion the aforementioned Graduation Portfolio. However, the demise of a vehicle such as Grad Portfolio that allowed students to demonstrate many of the qualities and skills that we want for our graduates indicates that we need to be better positioned to support personalized, 21st Century Learning.  There are many questions that I need to consider in terms of  'the 7C's'.
  • How do we demonstrate that we value the skills of a 21st Century learner?  Are they an integral part of our curriculum and instruction?
  • Are we well-versed in these skills at every level?  In what they are?  In how to give feedback to a student on something like creativity?  In how to determine progress in a skill like collaboration?  And if not, what resources (professional development, resources, technology) do we need to provide to make sure we are prepared to work with this set of skills?
  • Do we know how to evaluate these skills in our students?  And perhaps more importantly, are we able to help students to become reflective learners who can self-evaluate and determine their own progress in these areas and how to apply these skills to their own learning situation? 
  • If we value these skills, how are we emphasizing this value to students, parents, and the community?  How are we going to report out so that a parent knows how their child is progressing in terms of something like critical thinking?  What does a 'report card' look like?
  • Looking through a post-secondary lens, are these going to be valued at the next level of education for our students?  Are the admission requirements for colleges, technical schools and universities going to reflect the need for these skills?
  • Currently, BC Ministry of Education Scholarships are completely based upon scores on mandatory, standardized government exams.  Will this continue, or will the criteria for these financial awards be indicative of what we say we value in education?
I am sure there are other factors that I am not considering in preparing ourselves for personalized, 21st century learning that I will only be able to understand through conversations with students, staff members, and community members.  Other factors such as what is valued by the community, what is meaningful for students, and what is needed for our teachers to meet the needs of our learners.
However, one thing is certain, as an educational system we need to put ourselves in a position that allows us to practically and logistically value those skills that we say we value.  In the coming months, I will be seeking answers to the questions above from experts around the world in our PLN and input from our partners in the community so that as a school, we too are in position to continue to provide a personalized, 21st century learning experience for each of our students.

1 comment:

  1. Cale wrote:
    However, one thing is certain, as an educational system we need to put ourselves in a position that allows us to practically and logistically value those skills that we say we value


    I think this is the key line in your post, Cale.

    Most educators, parents and policymakers agree that your "7 Cs" are important. And I would argue that there is a growing understanding of just what those 7 Cs look like in action.

    The hitch is that we're still not ready to embrace the structural changes that are necessary to make instruction in the 7 Cs practical and logistically feasible.

    Example: We're hell bent to "hold schools accountable," but we're also hell bent on spending as little as possible on assessment.

    The results are a collection of cheap tests that measure the wrong skills.

    Example 2: We're hell bent on seeing the 7 Cs integrated into classrooms but we're also hell bent on creating ridiculously large, content-heavy curricula that cover everything that everyone thinks kids ought to learn.

    The results are classrooms that stuff kids with content but leave little time for creativity and experimentation in the classroom.

    Those are the kinds of changes that need to be made before we can truly make new practices practical and logistically feasible.

    What's so discouraging to me, though, is that educators don't control those choices. We can nudge and advise and kick and scream, but in the end, elected officials need to make serious changes to #edpolicy before we'll ever have the practicality that we need.

    And I don't see them changing things anytime soon.

    Doesn't that mean we're screwed?

    Enjoyed thinking with you this morning...


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