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Preparing our kids for success...what really matters?

It is rare to find something that most people agree about these days. However, almost everyone that I know – educators, parents, and community members alike, all agree on this one thing…we need to change our educational system in America.

Last night I attended a screening of the new film, “Most Likely to Succeed". I have been reading the book by the same title, and recently followed the authors (Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith) on twitter, so when I saw that the film was playing in my area (with only 24 hours’ notice), I recruited both of my daughters to come and see it with me. I openly confess to using the terms “free movie tickets” and “girls’ night out” in my texts to them in an effort to convince them to join me. I admit I was being a little misleading…however, both of my daughters each have two children under the age of five. With their oldest children attending pre-school this year, education is suddenly a hot topic in their households. We drove together to the event, laughing and talking together as they enjoyed an evening free from bed-time hassles and filled with adult conversation. However, once we found our seats and I had a chance to glance at the program in my hands, I spied the words “panel discussion” listed on the agenda after the film. I turned and mouthed the words, “sorry” to my unsuspecting daughters. You see, I love this kind of thing…really, anything to do with education. Perhaps another confession is in order… I often weave in this passion for educational topics into our family discussions and have even been known to use my family members for experimental purposes (on occasion) as I create workshops for educators. I’m talking simple things here…like testing out Plickers (a technology tool that I wanted to use for a workshop with teachers) during last year’s super bowl game or breaking them into teams after a recent family dinner and timing them to see how long it would take them to flip a tarp without using their hands (another workshop activity I planned to use). I was really afraid they would be disappointed in their “Girls’ Night Out” and decide not to ever allow me to organize one again. The movie, however, did not disappoint. It was thought provoking….it reminded me of the way that I used to be able to teach in the classroom many years ago (incorporating Problem Based Learning and Socratic Circles). With today’s increasing demand on rigor and prepping for test taking, these ways of teaching are rarely happening in the classrooms today. This is not due to teachers’ choice. There just isn’t enough time for that kind of learning. The problem is the system, not the teachers.

I glanced over at my daughters throughout the film to gauge their interest. Afterwards, the panel brought up some great questions, the most important one being, “How do we make the necessary changes?” My daughters assured me that they had enjoyed the movie and secretly I was hoping that it might have struck a chord with them as they begin to consider the education of their children (my precious grandchildren). This morning I received a text from my daughter…”I can’t stop thinking about that movie. I want all my friends to see it. They need to see it.” I agree whole heartedly. So, for those that aren’t able to see the movie or read the book, here is a brief synopsis:

Why we need to change our educational system – Our system of education in America is based on a “factory model” that is over 100 years old. This model has valued and promoted adherence to routine and rote memorization as students learn in isolated subjects. Fast forward to the 20th century. Our educational model remains the same, yet our world has changed drastically. Innovation is moving at lightning speed and it’s simultaneously exhilarating and frightening as we anticipate the possibilities for our future. How well are we preparing our students for this new world of innovation? Dintersmith warns that students that are simply trained to follow directions and jump through hoops will be marginalized and/or chronically unemployed in the near future (he’s predicting millions of kids). We are a nation focused on numbers…how much percentage increase was there on our standardized scores? If a school’s standardized test scores are high, that school is deemed “successful”. Instead of teaching our students to be creative problem solvers and out-of the-box-thinkers, we are increasingly pushing our students to memorize more and simply regurgitate information (which is then easily forgotten). We need to take a minute to reflect and consider that sometimes what we can measure doesn’t really matter. This is the case with standardized testing. Schools need to be aligned with teaching students the skills necessary to succeed in life.

What should we change? Here are a few brief take-aways from the movie:

  • Realize that Relationships Matter – students need to feel connected to each other and their teachers in order to be willing to risk failing, and in turn learn something that sticks with them (not merely memorizing unrelated facts in order to pass a test).

  • We must embrace new models of teaching and learning – models of learning which emphasize collaborative problem solving and critical thinking skills are essential to preparing our students for the real world (think Problem Based Learning and Socratic Circles). We need to shift the focus from students answering the questions correctly, to students asking the right questions.

  • Public exhibitions of student work = authentic, relevant, and meaningful assessment – rethink the necessity and validity of grades obtained through standardized testing and assessments that don’t require students to create, collaborate, or communicate effectively.

  • Personal learning – “one size actually doesn’t fit all” in terms of educating students. For education to be personal it must include goal setting, planning, and time for reflection.

  • Invite parents and community members to be participate in education – value their input and encourage their support.

  • Developing non-cognitive skills in students is of paramount importance - leadership, perseverance, creativity, communication, and the ability to work with a team (sometimes referred to as C21 Skills) are the skills that the employers of today are looking for in the people they hire. These are skills that cannot be replaced by technology.

How do we change? This is the question that is plaguing everyone concerned with this topic. The film highlighted a school in California that is thinking out-of-the-box in terms of physical space, curriculum, and process. I’m sure there are other examples of schools doing equally amazing things. I don’t presume to have the answers, however I do know that we need to begin this important conversation sooner rather than later. I also know this, a few schools doing great things is not enough. EVERY student deserves the opportunity to reach their potential and be prepared for the future in order to be able to claim their title as, “Most Likely to Succeed”. You can request to have the film shown at your school or in your community, watch a recent Ted Talk by Ted Dintersmith, or check out a clip from the movie below to learn more about this topic.

I would love your thoughts (parents, teachers, administrators, and anyone else interested in our kids and their future) …What should we change in our educational system? Most importantly, how do we change it? Let’s get this conversation started!

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