Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Helping Our Students Stand Out - What is Our "Value-Added"?

Over the past several months, I have found myself using business terms to describe different facets of our current education system.  Terms like UX and UI to describe the user-experience that our students and parents have with us and the user-interface that they interact with when searching us online.  Or ROI, our return on investment when considering different topics and formats for professional development.  And while mixing business and education can often cause a certain level of discomfort for some, I think there is much for us to learn from the business world when it comes to being insatiably curious about the needs of our clients, our students and parents, at the center of what we do each day.

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
  • communication
  • 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:
Just to name a few ideas.

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.

Monday, November 2, 2015

You Have No Grit

No grit? Ouch. That hurts, doesn't it?

Maybe the person who said that to you tries to couch it a bit, and says, something like "Well, maybe not you, but educators...they have no grit.  And they certainly have no sense of reality."  Ouch again. You are an educator, and you feel like you have grit, and not just a little bit.  Reality?  They have NO idea about your reality.  Come walk a mile in my shoes, fella.  "Why is this person stereotyping me?", you think.

Have you heard these types of statements about 'kids these days'?  I have, and continue to hear things like this wherever I go, almost regardless of the crowd that I happen to be chatting with.

"Kids these days have no grit."
"Kids have too much screen time"
"Kids never walk to school anymore"
"Kids don't want to pay attention in class"
"Kids today have no sense of reality--they live in a dream world."

I won't lie, there was a point in my teaching career when I made these types of comments:  that was a long time ago, and I don't make them anymore because I realize that I was being condescending and, more importantly, I was being hypocritical.  In education, we can often be quick to point our fingers at kids, but I feel like we need to have a quick peek in the mirror, especially when it comes to the piece about 'reality'.  To do this, let's consider the five "Kids..." statements above with the finger pointed the other way---right back in our own noses.

As adults, do we have grit?  Let's take an example such as implementing technology. How many times have you heard "we need to go slow with this stuff", and "we need to make this really easy for people", and "we really need to honor that people are going to find this difficult and respect them as learners". Why do we feel that kids, who so clearly have less skills and experience than we do, need to experience (and enjoy?) more challenging things than we do as adults? How many times have you been introducing something like a Google Doc, only to hear people holler "This isn't working!  I need some help over here." and roll their eyes, only to wander over and click one link for them, and have them say something like "Well, that wasn't working a minute ago.".  Technology aside, it seems that we have to "be strategic" when we are introducing new concepts, ideas or pedagogies to us as educators because "people struggle with change".  And heaven forbid we actually move forward with something new and it doesn't work perfectly in the early stages--the chorus of comments such as "I knew this was a bad idea", or "I told you this wouldn't work" will be deafening.  If a panel of students were watching a group of us learn about a new application or piece of software, would they consider us to be "gritty"?

As adults, do we limit our screen time?  While there are those of us who don't watch TV, who don't play on their iPad at night, who don't look at their phones first thing in the morning, who don't text and drive, and who don't have a 'date night' with their spouse that looks suspiciously like two adults in sweatpants with their laptops open in front of this week's episode of 'Shark Tank', there are many of us that DO spend this much time in front of a screen, not to mention the few (or several?) hours per day that we spend on our computers at work!  I am not too proud to admit that I am starting to look at progressive contact lenses because my eyes are on a screen for much of the day.  A typical student spends no where near this amount of time in front of a screen that many of us might as educators, and even if they wanted to, most of them have to 'power down' in the places where it would be most helpful and relevant to be 'powered up'--schools!

As adults, do we walk to school?  Seriously.  I don't even get out of my vehicle to get a coffee: I go through the drive-thru at Starbucks so often that my daughter actually said "Dad, I think you are going to turn into a Grande Dark Roast.".  Let's not even get started on adult levels of physical activity:  I used to be able to dunk a basketball, and now I would pop an Achilles tendon even trying to touch the net.  And the best part is, as adults we have no excuse, we should know better: we know that we should be modeling healthy eating and physical activity, and yet the actual number of us who consistently demonstrate these sorts of positive and healthy behaviors does not even remotely garner us the credibility to judge kids on their levels of health and fitness.

As adults. do we 'pay attention in class'?  Are you always 'locked in' at a faculty or district meeting?  At a professional development day?  At a conference?  Do you check your email, text a friend seated at another table, do marking or prep, or just self-regulate during these 'classes'?  Especially if the format is "sit 'n' git", where someone is standing at the front and lecturing you without creating a task that allows you to interact with your colleagues and the content that you are working on?  I will be the first to admit, I am not.  If there is a task that requires me to engage with my colleagues my tech is tossed to the side, but if there isn't, well....I am addicted to my devices.

As adults, do we truly have a sense of reality?  Maybe.  In fact, let's pretend we do.  Let's pretend that we know the skills that students will need to be successful in 2030 and beyond, and we are well down the road in creating literate, critically-thinking problem-seekers who can collaborate with others all over the globe to solve issues before they become issues. And let's pretend that our experiences that we have gained over our thirty, forty or fifty plus years on this earth have allowed us to determine each of the parameters and pitfalls that will confront our Utopian, idealistic children.  And let's also pretend that the 'realities' of our past are the same realities that our children will face in the future (which we know is complete absurdity, but let's continue to delude ourselves).  Even if we pretend that our reality paints a remotely accurate picture of the future, my question is:

Do we want the next generation that is going to be taking care of us in the future to be doubting themselves right out of the gate, and thinking their ideas are 'impossible' because we have never done them?

Do we want our imposed 'realities' to take the multi-colored and animated vision that our children have and turn it into monochrome, black and white? Coming back to our initial "Kids..." statement, how is bestowing our view of 'reality' about our students' ideas promoting 'grit'? I myself have created, prototyped, tested, iterated and launched exactly ZERO things or ideas, so I don't know that I am particularly qualified to limit the thoughts of our youth with my 'realities'.

In her amazing TED talk to a large group of adults called "What Adults Can Learn From Kids", teenager Adora Svitak says

"Maybe you have had grand plans before, but stopped yourself, thinking "That's impossible," or "That costs too much," or "That won't benefit me."  For better or for worse, we kids aren't hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things.  Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, such as my wish that no one went hungry, or that everything were free.

How many of you still dream like that, and believe in the possibilities?  Sometimes, a knowledge of history and past failures of Utopian ideals can be a burden....we kids still dream about perfection. And that's a good thing, because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first."

Things such as grit, moderation of screen time, health and exercise, and attentiveness are things that are issues with some of our youth...just as there are issues in these areas with some of our adults.  As adults, not only do we have to recognize ourselves as role models and demonstrate the things that we expect from kids such as grit and healthy choices, we must also recognize that there is much to learn from our youth and what they model through their actions, specifically when it comes to dreaming of new ideas without the the 'experiential baggage' acquired from a vastly different era.

Call me Polyanna, but perhaps we can re-jig the "Kids.."statements to things like...

"Kids these days have a tremendous amount of grit when they are given tasks that challenge and engage them."
"Kids will use  technology to learn about things that are important to them at almost any hour of the day"
"Kids walk to school as much as we walk to work"
"Kids pay attention to things that are important, just like we do"

and maybe most importantly,

"Kids have no sense of reality--they live in a dream world.  Let's help them dream as long as they can."

Take 20 minutes to watch Adora, and perhaps even show it at a faculty meeting--it will spark all sorts of interesting discussion.