Right now, the term that is at the forefront of my thinking is "value-added". Wikipedia summarizes "value added" as 'extra' features of an product, service, or person that goes beyond the standard expectations, and provides something 'more', even if the cost is higher. Bearing this in mind, the question that keeps bouncing around in my head is this:
"What is the "value-added" piece that we can give to our students in the K-12 system in British Columbia that will make the difference for them in the future?"
Right now, I find it difficult to give a satisfactory answer to this question. Consider the following:
Take a moment and think back to when you applied for your first job. Not your first teaching job, or job in your chosen profession. I mean your first job ever, the one you got when you had spots on your face, your feet were too big for the rest of your body, and mom or dad had to pick you up after your shift because you weren't yet old enough to drive a car.
I applied for my first job in the tenth grade. I grew up in a small town in northern British Columbia, where the job options for a teen were few and far between. So when an opportunity game up at a local gas station to be a cashier and cook for the summer, I jumped at the chance to try and earn a little extra cash to pay for my extra-curricular sports. As you can imagine, the employer required a resume and cover letter as part of the application process, and they would select a few promising candidates for an interview.
Unfortunately, this posed a few minor challenges for me.
Specifically, I had never written a cover letter, I had a nothing to put in my resume, and I most certainly had never had any sort of an interview with an adult that I had not previously met. But paying for volleyball camp was important to me, so I was prepared to give the application my best shot. I found a Consumer Education textbook that my older brother had forgotten to return to the school library with a couple of sample resumes in it, and began my attempt to document the salient bits of my life to that point according to the sections set out by the experts at Nelson Publishing.
Name, Address, Phone Number....ok, got that.
Experience? Seeing as this would be my first job--pretty tough to expand on this section. Let's move on.
Education? Hmmm. Well, I had been in the K-12 system for a few years, just like any other kid. I felt like I was a pretty good student--but how was I supposed to make that evident? I guess I could staple my June report card to my resume, but that too was a bit of a problem: when I looked at it, it said things like "Course: Science 10; Grade: B; Work Habit: G; Comment: Have a great summer!". Even in Grade 10, I remember thinking that a comment like that didn't tell my prospective employer much about me.
Skills? Uh, well, I could hit a volleyball pretty hard, but I was guessing that wasn't going to help me cook chicken or give correct change. I did take woodwork in Grade 9, but the miniature shark paperweight that I made out of cedar using some hand tools and sandpaper didn't seem to bring any real-world skills to the table. I had a "B" in math, but sometimes I struggled with the homework and got an "S" for my work habit grade as a result. It wasn't for lack of effort on my part: my father often worked in the evenings, so I didn't have someone to help me at home when I had questions about the problems that I couldn't solve. I assumed that math was going to be seen as pretty important for this job, considering I would likely be required to give correct change and count cash at the end of the night. And while I was really good at that sort of math, I wasn't great at logarithms. Yet all my report card told my employer was that I didn't have a good work ethic, which I thought was unfair. Who used stupid logarithms anyway?
No experience. The same education as anyone else. And I could sand the heck out of a piece of cedar. According to the "value added" piece that I brought to the table, I felt as though I was qualified to pursue a career at a pencil sharpening factory.
As a young person, I remember being really frustrated: I did all my chores, helped my dad get firewood for us in the fall, read every night before bed, was a solid student who tried hard, and played every sport my father could afford so I could stay healthy and active. Wasn't I a good kid? I didn't get into trouble, I did all the right things at home, and yet I didn't have anything to show for it to get me even the most basic of jobs. All I wanted to do was to take my stupid shark and throw it with some gasoline on a big pile of logarithms and light it on fire. In terms of value-added, I felt like I was doing all I could as a young person to make myself valuable, but my schooling wasn't really helping me when I needed it most. The content that I had learned in English, Socials, Math and Science wasn't getting me through the door of a prospective employer--I was beating my head on the mail slot. And if you are waiting for the happy ending, forget it, I didn't get the job: someone else got to pump gas and make chicken. No volleyball camp for me.
While that was in the mid-80s, I wonder how many of our students today leave the K-12 system feeling this way? Even worse, how many students leave university with similar prospects, along with the a $27000 kick in the pants in the form of a student loan to contend with (the average student loan debt in Canada, as calculated by the Canadian Federation of Students last year--mine was closer to $50000). A recent Newsweek article called "Millenial College Graduates: Young, Educated, Jobless", paints a similar picture for young people in the US. Anthony Carnevale, a Director and Professor for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says that a high school diploma is not enough anymore: "They (millenials) are the first generation who needs to have a college degree and experience to compete, before they even enter the workplace.".
Ahhhh...wait a minute. Let's repeat that last bit. "...college degree and experience, BEFORE they even enter the workplace.". Now we have something that we can work with. While we may not be able to give students a college degree from K-12, we can start to think of the kind of experiences that we can give our students during their time in our elementary and secondary schools that will prepare them to be contributing members of society. Yong Zhao calls this idea "Out of the Basement-Ready", which I believe could be the real 'value added' piece for us going forward in elementary and secondary schools. And with the new competency-based curriculum that is coming to classrooms here in BC over the next eighteen months, the opportunity for us to catapult our students forward in to the future with authentic, 'value added' skills that are above and beyond the content that has been so much of a focus of the past has never been greater.
Just imagine how excited an employer would be if they had a young person who came to a job interview able to tangibly demonstrate transferable skills through experiences that they had already had in the K-12 system? Imagine the quality of an interview of a typical student from a PBL-focused school such as Manor New Tech, as described by their Principal here (zip forward to 3m30s to hear his description of their students, or watch the whole thing and be amazed):
200 presentations of their learning by time they graduate! Do you think these students feel comfortable communicating? Speaking to adults? Curating their work? Defending their position? Do you think these students would have dozens of artifacts to choose from to represent their identity in a positive way? And dozens of experiences that would make a resume leap off of your desk?
Most importantly, would you hire them to pump gas, count cash, and make chicken?
I would guess that these students learned a similar amount of content to what I learned and what our students in BC learn during their time in the K-12 system. But in terms of the "value-added" pieces that will prepare them for a changing future, well, these from Manor New Tech students would have a huge leg up, because they would have already developed and demonstrated skills in areas such as
- critical thinking
- creative thinking
- positive personal and cultural identity
- personal awareness and responsibility
- social responsibility
Which, by the way, happen to be the very competencies that the new curriculum in BC is calling for us to focus upon in our elementary and secondary schools. And there are so many ways that we can help students develop these skills at every level through their Kindergarten to Grade 12 journey. Things like:
- finding high interest, real-world challenges and problems that require students to need content to solve them for real-world audiences (such as the Kiva project that Bill Ferriter describes in this video with his Grade 6 students, or the hands-on work that students do at the NorKam Trades and Tech School)
- developing tasks (like the ones in the searchable database for the Buck Institute) for students that require the production of tangible products that they can archive in a digital portfolio like an example (or two or three) of the amazing digital portfolios at Riverside Secondary School in Coquitlam)
- helping students learn to curate and improve their work through the process of peer editing and iteration, as Ron Berger illustrates for us in Austin's Butterfly
- having students get hands-on experiences in the work place through meaningful, mandatory internships like the High Tech High Academic Internship Program through the Graduation Transitions course that is required for all students in British Columbia
- having students present their learning to small and large groups of individuals, right from kindergarten (follow the link to watch what kindergarten kids can do!) through to Grade 12 (like the 'juried portfolios' at Beattie School of the Arts)
Over the next few months in our district, we will be sending another team to High Tech High to discover, learn more about and implement problem-based tasks that require students to demonstrate our competencies in each of our classrooms. In order to increase the capacity of our educators and educators across BC to observe and scale these effective tasks, Kamloops will be hosting an Instructional Rounds Institute on April 10th-14th with Harvard Professors Dr. Stefanie Reinhorn and Dr. Sarah Fiarman. And in the fall, we will look to host a PBL institute to further cement these effective practices across our district. We must get moving.
My daughters are currently in kindergarten and the second grade, and I could not be more excited about the opportunity that we have in BC to truly give our students a real leg up as they move through our system. However, we must make the most of this opportunity, because that is all it is--an opportunity. But if we use the new curriculum coming out in BC as a vehicle to teach and require students to demonstrate these competencies and constantly focus on the learning that must take place beyond the content through ideas such as inquiry-based and problem-based learning, we will truly have created a "value-added" learning environment for our clients across British Columbia.