Giving Kids A Toolkit For Their Future

We are hearing the same thing from so many people in the know. Tom Friedman, who writes in Thank You For Being Late about how work will change in the future due to advanced technology and increased use of artificial intelligence, says it.  Tony Wagner, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of The Global Achievement Gap in which he identifies the skills students need to survive in that future world of work, says it. The September 27, 2017 issue of Ed Week, which talks about how K-12 education needs to change, says it. They all loudly and clearly proclaim the same thing:  The education we now provide will not serve our students in the future because the needs of the future are not the needs of the past, and schools are currently meeting the demands of the past.

So what is a teacher to do? What is a school district to do? What are parents to do?

It would be great for us as a society to engage in a deep conversation about the nature of learning and how to assess that learning. I am ready for that conversation and know other educators who also long for it. In the meantime, here are three practical suggestions that teachers and school districts can implement immediately:

  1. Teach students to question.
  2.  Teach students to write essays that explore questions of importance to them.
  3.  Teach students to write essays about how they came to know what they know.

By focusing on these suggestions, students will gain the Seven Survival Skills for the future that Tony Wagner says are necessary: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and, most of all, curiosity and imagination. Students will also be ready to succeed in the rapidly changing world Friedman describes.  Most of all, students will be doing what writers in Ed Week say is absolutely necessary for the future which we can barely envision – develop as learners and thinkers.

Teaching Students to Question 

To prepare young people for their future, learning can no longer be about information transmittal, not about a teacher talking and students listening, not about one person giving information and the other person receiving it. We have computers for that.

I remember taking my three-year old grandson to a space museum and realizing that he didn’t know the word astronaut. When we went home, I wanted to show him what an astronaut is by watching together a video of astronauts returning from a space flight. So I searched for a video on my laptop. I couldn’t immediately find what I wanted so I was frustrated. My little grandson said, “You have to be patient, Grandma. It will come.” At three, he knew that information is available with a click.

In my first years as a teacher, I had file folders full of information about the differing ways the character of Hamlet had been interpreted over the ages, the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, biographical information about Arthur Miller, and so much more. I told my students to prepare for their final exams by reviewing the notes I had given them because my notes contained what was important for them to remember. All the essays I assigned asked the students to prove something they already knew. Never again.

I learned that telling students what to think and teaching only one kind of academic writing had to change if I were to develop students who love to learn and who can think critically and creatively.

Preparing students for the future, I have found, begins with students asking questions to which they don’t have answers but would like to have those answers. Teachers and students then collaborate with one another as they discuss their questions. The questions differ. Some of the students have questions about facts, about what happened in the story. Some have questions about interpreting characters or events. Some have questions about ideas that the story brings up about love, social justice, or the relationship between an individual and society – life’s big questions. The teacher, familiar with the story, often poses questions that are multi-layered and philosophical, a kind of question that students then delight in trying themselves. All questions are welcome. Discussing the questions offers each student more possibilities than anyone could ever have on his or her own and broadens and deepens each student’s individual thinking.

People who are good questioners will be in demand in the workplace. As Tony Wagner wrote, “The most important skill in the New World of work, learning, and citizenship – the rigor that matters most – is the ability to ask the right questions.  Old Work rigor is still about having the right answers and the more the better. Asking good questions, critical thinking, and problem solving, represent the First Survival Skill of the new global knowledge economy.”

Learning to question doesn’t just happen. Due to their years in school, their years as being answerers, students need now to be taught how to be questioners.

Essay Writing

Students also need to be untaught that there is one kind of thinking and one kind of essay writing. No doubt about it: It’s important to be able to write an essay that supports a thesis and presents a coherent argument. We always have and always will teach students to write that kind of essay. Deductive, logical thinking is a valued kind of thinking, and the proving of a position is a valued kind of writing. But deductive reasoning is a kind of thinking, not the only way to think, and thesis-based essays are a kind of essay, but not the essay itself. The world of the future demands other kinds of thinking and other kinds of essays.

Teaching Students To Explore Questions Of Importance To Them

One of those other kinds of essays is an essay in which students explore a question rather than prove a point or make an argument. The writer engages in open-ended and speculative thinking, and the essay follows a path of inquiry. The writer explores a question from several perspectives and considers various possibilities, using pertinent evidence. The writer doesn’t try to convince the readers of anything but rather shares her thinking about her question with them. The writer might determine an answer to her question by the end of essay or might not. She may, instead, pose deeper and more penetrating questions at the end of the essay. For sure, though, the writer lets the readers know where the inquiry has taken her. These essays provide seeds of creativity and are incubators of innovation. The writers are thinking of what could be rather than defending what is.

Teaching Students To Write About How They Came To Know What They Know

Another kind of essay is one in which the writer tells his story of thinking about a topic, a concept, or an idea. The essay gives the chronology of the writer’s thinking, referencing various texts read and class discussions. At the end of this essay, the readers know where the writer is in his thinking and how the writer got there. It is story about how the writer came to know what he knows. Friedman, Wagner, and the writers in Ed Week all say that learning to learn is essential for the workplace of the future. Writing about the development of their own thinking makes it likely that students will leave school knowing that they do know how to learn and can do it again….and again….and again.

Toolkits For All

All of this may seem way too heady and beyond many students. But it’s not. I have worked with teachers in schools that are called high performing schools and in ones that are termed “failing” schools, and I have seen the students in both thrive when asked to question and to think and write in these ways. The students are ready. The future can’t be pushed back. The time to teach students to question, to think creatively and innovatively, and to see themselves as learners is now.

The Common Core State Standards do not ask students to think in these ways. They are falsely marketed as being about critical thinking; those standards do not give students the learning and thinking skills needed for the future.  Also, no standardized test in the United States assesses questioning, collaborating, creative thinking, or learning to learn skills. Every minute of class time given to preparing students for those tests takes students away from what they really need to learn.

The future is almost upon us; it is just about here. It’s time to give students what they need. Invite them to question, to explore possibilities, to imagine solutions, to grow and change as thinkers, and to fall in love with learning. Then sit back and watch where they take us. It will be better than we now know.

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