Every year around this time I make a point to take stock in the prior year’s accomplishments and areas to develop while focusing attention on goals/aspirations for the calendar year to come. This past year, my role and thus priorities shifted slightly and have required more consumption of educational writings and current thinking on the direction of the educational system within and outside of the United States of America. As a homage to the New Year’s resolution, I thought it would be appropriate to synthesize some of my learnings into a few key focus areas for the coming year:
Personalize the journey – individualize the educational experience for the learner (but don’t overdo it)
Over the last few years it seems every conversation on education turns to how the experience should be tailored to the needs of the individual learner. For obvious reasons, this would be ideal (in theory); a system that adapts in real-time to the needs of the student and advances only when a student is ready/able to produce work at a higher level. In practice, however varied approaches and usage of technology has created a wide spectrum of learning platforms and ultimately results. Additionally, by pushing to a completely personalized learning model, you lose the peer-peer accountability that often results in very meaningful gains from both the student learner and student teacher. As we continue to walk down the pathway to a more learner-centric educational system, let’s not lose sight of the need for instructional design that includes direct student mentorship.
Develop a total body workout - don’t forget the hands when seeking to expand the mind
Those classically trained in the sciences will likely tell you (in some fashion) that they fell in love with science through inquiry and experimentation; essentially learning by doing. As we evolve in the 21st Century and seemingly onboard new technologies by the minute (VR, AR, etc.) to aid in curriculum and instructional design, we can’t lose touch with this principle – no matter how enticing or immersive the digital world can/will be. Rather we need to take steps to complement digital tools by constructing real-world, hands-on experiences that solidify what’s being explored virtually. Think about the power of transporting a student halfway around the world to a remote village whose sole goal is to create a sustainable, potable source of drinking water. ‘Seeing’ the real need increases the connection of the student to the project when they are then tasked with creating solution(s) for the issue. Now take that one step further and create a hands-on lab where students are asked to transport water from the drinking fountain in the hallway to their desks without using their water bottles or other traditional drink containers. Sometimes a simple combination of virtual, real-world, and hands-on creates a learning environment ripe for creativity, problem solving, and above all student learning gains.
Remember your client – learners are the product, improving society is the focus
Recently there was a piece published in the Washington Post that highlighted continuing work at Google centered on the common traits and skills amongst its highest performing teams. We continue to hear publicity around the need for more focus on ‘STEM’ skills and the way to be workforce ready in the 21st Century is to train in hard science (technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. Google’s two studies (Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle) of its workforce contradict this – laying claim to soft skills being more important for high functioning teams in the workplace than those more traditional hard skills areas. ‘Equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, emotional intelligence and emotional safety (topping the list)’ were all cited as qualities demonstrated by the highest performing teams in the company. Keep in mind, these are multi-functional teams made up of various types of individuals – not simply Google’s top-minds/scientists – are were largely responsible for many of the company’s new/productive product ideas. As the author of the piece points out, it may be these broad learning skills that make our students ‘world ready’ and not just ready for work.
Assess for success – focus on competency and measure accordingly
We’ve all heard the cliché ‘what gets measured, gets completed’ – it’s kind of the bedrock concept of our educational system. Performance on a given assessment signifies a level of mastery of a given concept (note: ‘level of mastery’ does not mean absolute mastery (for the growth-mindset purists)). But what signifies the level of quality of an assessment? As a trained research scientist turned experiential educator turned virtual professor, I’ve struggled with constructing effective assessments. In true Darwinian fashion, my views on assessing competency have evolved over the past decade: starting with multi-choice and fill-in the blank to open resource narrative and video demonstration submissions that ‘show’ the reviewer what the learner has extracted from the instructional materials. While the competency-based assessment initiative is still in its infancy, it bears watching as time to complete and costs of traditional higher-ed degrees accelerate at unsustainable rates.
Celebrate the wins – graduation rates in US rose to a record high in 2016
Ultimately we’re all measured by performance and will be judged by the ability to provide society with its next generation of scientists, thought leaders, and innovators. In a truly global economy, our competition is no longer the student across the aisle in our chemistry class or the person down the street that has a similar desire to eliminate the need for fossil fuels, rather we’re now competing with the 97% of high school graduates that reside outside of the United States. The amount of work that has gone in to lift the graduation rate should be applauded. Each of these graduates has a better chance of pursuing post-secondary education, securing a rewarding career, and leading a productive life. Work shouldn’t stop here. The real heavy lifting has yet to come – where society embraces the talents of these graduates and helps them find their pathway forward that may include college, career and technical education, or becoming the next entrepreneur ready to launch their own business. Perhaps the next win we can celebrate is decreasing the time needed to integrate graduates into their next life phase.
As you ponder these postulates and consider your own resolutions for the New Year, please spend some time thinking about how you can play a role in shaping the development of our educational system or the products it’s producing. Now let’s go out and make it a great year!