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, Harvard professor 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 their thinking evolved  and changed.

These suggestions make real the Tony Wagner Seven Survival Skills for the future: 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. The also help students to succeed in the rapidly changing world Friedman describes.  Most of all, students do what Ed Week points out is  necessary for their future – develop as learners and thinkers.

Teaching Students to Question 

To prepare young people for their future, learning can no longer be 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 showing him 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 writing had to change if I were to develop students who 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. All questions are welcome. The teacher helps students to ask increasingly complex questions that are multi-layered and lead to even more questions. Discussing the questions offers more ideas than any student could ever have on his or own and broadens and deepens each student’s individual thinking.

Asking good questions about the facts or data about what happened, questions about interpreting what happened, and philosophical questions that come to mind because of what happened is not only for English classes. Asking questions is at the heart of learning science, math, history, art, and technology. Questions are intrinsic to all academic disciplines and apply to all kinds of work. Tony Wagner wrote that, instead of having the right answers, “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.”

Learning to question doesn’t just happen. Due to years in school, their years as being answerers, students need to be untaught to be answerers and taught 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. 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 explores a question from several perspectives, considering various possibilities and 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 the story of the development of his thinking about a concept or idea. It gives the chronology of the writer’s thinking – where his thinking began, what he read and learned in class discussions, and how his thinking evolved.  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 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, do know how to develop their thinking, and can do it again….and again….and again.

Toolkits For All

All of this may seem way beyond many students. But it’s not. I have worked in schools that are called high performing and in ones that are termed “failing” and  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; those standards do not give students the learning and thinking skills needed for the future.  Also, no standardized test in our country 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 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.

Rigor Or Not

Bulletin: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts are NOT rigorous!

How can that be? Everyone says they are.

The truth is that what is called rigor depends on who has the power to say what rigor is.

David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts who, however, has never taught English, has that power. He says that a chief reason that the Common Core has rigor is that narrative writing is cast aside in high school and not tested at all on Common Core–aligned tests for high school. He makes fun of narrative thinking and writing by saying that in the work environment no one is going to say to you, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but, before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

David Coleman’s and, therefore, the Common Core’s, definition of narrative is that it is a story, either true or fictional, written to entertain. And entertainment is not consistent with being “college and career ready”. All of the emphasis, therefore, in the Common Core high school English curriculum is on writing arguments in which a thesis is supported with evidence and developed by linear, deductive reasoning. Arguments do not explore multiple ways to look at a question or explain the story of how the writer came to think about a topic or develop an idea.

The Common Core specifies that arguments must be written in an anonymous, impersonal voice devoid of any personal story. David Coleman repeatedly has said that high school students must realize before they get to college or the workplace that: “ No one gives a **** what you think and feel”.

The National Council of Teachers of English has a much broader definition of narrative. The theme of the NCTE annual conference in November 2014 was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing”. There were 642 presentations at the conference, and only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core with its limited definition of narrative.

Presentations at the NCTE Conference were about narrative as a way of fostering student engagement and motivation, narrative as a way to understand other people’s cultures or environments, narrative as a way to create student voice, narrative as a spur to innovative thinking, narrative as a way to learn any academic discipline, narrative as a form of persuasion, narrative as a way to create personal meaning and new knowledge, narrative as an impetus for social change, narrative as a way to inspire creativity, narrative as the beginning of inquiry, narrative as an expression of imagination, narrative as a reflection on one’s own process of learning, and narrative as the basis of collaboration among those with multiple perspectives.

It is no wonder that NCTE did not endorse the Common Core. The Common Core’s treatment of narrative does not come close to the concept of narrative expressed in hundreds of presentations at the NCTE conference. Those presentations explained narrative as a way of thinking and a way of knowing. Now that is real rigor!

Not only is narrative as a way of thinking and a way of knowing rigorous for high school students, it is precisely the skill needed for our future as a democracy and an economy. In his recent book, Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner of Harvard University points out that our future as a nation depends on our capacity to teach students to have the curiosity and imagination to be innovators. Fostering curiosity and imagination begins with students knowing their own stories and being able to tell them, engaging with a diversity of perspectives offered by the stories of others, seeing the stories implicit in theories and concepts, and envisioning new stories and new possibilities. We can teach students to be innovators, but we can’t do it without narrative thinking.

Human beings are hard-wired for stories. It is how our brains work. We think in stories. We are moved by stories. We create new ideas through stories. We need to unleash that brainpower in our students so that they live empowered lives and contribute to their society in meaningful ways.

Let’s begin here in Connecticut demanding real rigor for our students and not allowing them to settle for the limited education offered by the Common Core.