Schools and education are steeped in tradition. The general organization and operation of schools today remain very similar to what our students’ grandparents experienced. Yet, the world has changed dramatically and the pace and scale of change continues to grow each decade. Our schools were designed for an era when what students learned in school could be expected to serve them for a lifetime. Current projections are that a large portion of today’s students will be working at jobs that have yet to be designed, using skills yet to be defined. When students leave high school, they will take with them only a small portion of what they will need to be successful throughout their careers and lives.
If we hope to prepare today’s students for their futures, we must abandon a number of common but obsolete practices. Let’s examine five of these practices and why they need to become part of the past.
Our mental model for teaching and learning is a good place to start. Schools are largely based on the assumption that teaching and learning involve the teacher transferring what he or she knows into the heads of students. At a time when students only needed to know what the teacher taught them, this model may have had some merit, but we know that learning that lasts actually starts when the learner makes a connection with what he or she already knows, sees a purpose or benefit in what is to be learned, and has the learning skills necessary to be successful. We need to make the “empty vessel” model of teaching and learning obsolete and replace it with an understanding that the student actually is the best resource for his or her learning. If we build the capacity to learn in each student, we invite greater ownership and understanding in the process and give students the ability to learn even when a teacher is not present.
A second practice we need to consider eliminating is operating schools from a compliance perspective. Most incentives and sanctions operating in schools are based on compliance behavior. Adults make the rules and decide what is to be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and how it will be assessed. Little incentive is left for learners to decide, own, and commit to learning. The conditions created convey a message that we do not believe students will learn if they are not threatened and manipulated. Yet the work environment they will enter after their formal education ends will value and demand initiative, self-regulation, and commitment. We shortchange learners if we fail to provide experiences and an environment that nurtures these skills and attitudes toward learning. Equally important, we need to provide a similar experience in the work environment for adults if we hope to have them value it for young learners.
A third area for our attention is the lockstep connection between time and learning. Most school years and curricula are tightly tied together, and reflect the beliefs that all students learn at the same rate, in the same ways, or that there’s a correct pace for learning. We know this is not correct. Unfortunately, we also make it difficult for students who do not learn at this pace or learn in ways not envisioned in the schedule and curriculum. Learners who are able to go more quickly are expected to wait until others are ready. Learners who need more time are penalized or placed in remediation as though it is they who need to be fixed and not the system. It is time to make the lockstep pace of learning obsolete and support learners to progress at a pace that matches their needs.
Yet another practice we may want to consider obsolete is our tradition of valuing and respecting only learning that is taught at school. The credit students receive and their opportunity to move forward in their educational lives typically are based on in-class learning. Yet, today students have a wide array of options and opportunities to learn beyond the walls of the school and the influence of assigned teachers. If we hope to nurture learners who can and will learn independently throughout their lives, we need to recognize and respect learning that occurs in locations other than the school and from sources other than teachers.
A fifth practice worth making obsolete is our over-dependence on question-based assessments to measure learning. While we can gain some information about learning from asking questions, research is abundant and clear that the information gained from this process is dependent on the clarity, comprehensiveness, and relevance of what is asked. Make no mistake: We can understand so much more about what a student has learned from demonstrations, performances, and other representations of their progress. Equally important, little learning typically occurs from completing a question-based test, while learning continues to grow in depth and coherence when students demonstrate or present what they have learned.
The wise board understands that we are not preparing today’s students for their grandparents’ or even their parents’ future. Instead, we are preparing them for their future. We also know that the future of today’s students will require continuous learning, adaptability, independence, initiative, and personal commitment. We need to ensure that the practices and approaches we employ to prepare students align with what they will actually need. The board must know most of what students need to learn for the future is not known—it awaits them.