Think about what your grandparents did for work. Did they have one career or many? Work for one company or a slew of them? What sort of education did they receive that led them to their career path?
The trouble with thinking exercises is that sometimes they defeat the purpose — perhaps your grandparents worked as doctors, police officers, farmers, or teachers; these jobs have provided consistent job opportunities for centuries. Exceptions aside, the education and career path of your grandparents is likely quite different than the one your child will experience. On the first day of our district’s inservice, all FWSU educators watched the movie Most Likely to Succeed, based on the book of the same name, by renowned educators Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. Every single educator I spoke with came away floored by one inescapable reality — the 21st-century job market our students will enter is likely to be unrecognizable to us. It will contain jobs like “drone manager,” “self-driving car mechanic,” and “atmospheric water system architect.”
Black and white footage from “Most Likely to Succeed” showed World War II-era students sitting in rows, carefully practicing their manuscript according to a teacher’s cadence. Many of us can remember doing something similar in our elementary school classrooms. That scene begs a question: Does that kind of learning serve students in 2016? And it begs a more critical question: What have we learned about education since our grandparents went to school and what do we do to prepare students for the economy they’ll enter after high school or college?
What We Know: Students learn best when their learning is authentic (related to real-world problems and skills) and they know exactly what is being assessed.
What We’re Doing About It
Two years ago, in response to the State of Vermont Legislature’s passage of Act 77: Flexible Pathways to High School Graduation, BFA-Fairfax Middle School eliminated grades and transitioned to a new reporting paradigm called Proficiency Based Learning. No longer do students receive a 91% on a Language Arts essay, smile gleefully, and politely recycle their essay on the way out the door. If a student received a 91%, that student still had room to improve upon certain skills. Teachers now tie student performance to specific knowledge and skills. The skills teachers want to see in their classrooms are similar to those required by 21st-century thinkers – creativity, critical thinking, clear communication, collaboration, technological literacy, leadership and cross-cultural skills.
Teachers draw their intended learning outcomes from documents like the Common Core of State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the Vermont Agency of Education’s Transferable Skills. Students receive learning scales at the outset of units that dictate the precise knowledge and skills that will be assessed at the unit’s conclusion. They go into learning opportunities with their eyes wide open, the intended learning outcomes explicit and unambiguous. Students can assess their learning at multiple junctures throughout each unit before having their skills assessed at the unit’s conclusion. Since the learning outcomes are explicit, students can learn, re-learn, and attempt to meet the learning outcomes multiple times, if they so desire. This framework for learning aligns with an economy that is focused on complex skills rather than on rote knowledge retention and repetition.
What We Know: Students learn best when their learning is relevant to their lives, their interests, their passions, their challenges, and their aspirations.
What We’re Doing About It
The 21st-century skills referenced earlier are the same skills that students need to demonstrate in order to graduate from Vermont high schools. Act 77 mandates that, starting in the year 2020, in order to graduate high school, students must demonstrate proficiency in:
- Five high-leverage skills that cut across content areas (the Agency of Education calls them Transferable Skills).
- Several content-specific Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements (PBGRs) in each subject area.
Frankly, this is alphabet soup, even to professional educators. What is important is that Vermont is one of the few states in the nation in which students do NOT graduate high school by reaching a specific number of credits. Instead, they graduate by demonstrating proficiency in skills and knowledge.
Implicit in proficiency-based high school graduation is flexibility. Act 77 requires that students graduate with a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP), which is a living document that serves as the vehicle that students use to plan and chronicle their learning. Students set personalized learning goals that connect to the Transferable Skills; class content; and their own interests, strengths, or areas of growth. Students pursue those learning goals over time, updating their PLP with evidence they collect during or outside of school. Therefore, a PLP is a tool student’s use to make their school experience different from that of their peers. It is a tool to personalize learning.
Students start working on their PLP in sixth grade, using Schoology as the platform. By June of their senior year of high school, students will have a document that shows their distinct path to graduation. The Transferable Skills and PBGRs remain the same for each student, but every student can set different learning goals, use different learning opportunities as evidence, and reflect individually on their growth as a student and as a person. Two students that take the same sequence of courses will still have different learning experiences, driven by their differing creativity, learning styles, passions, and aspirations. Their PLPs will look entirely unique!
In addition to acting as a portfolio of students’ learning experiences, PLPs are intensely introspective: students use their PLP to reflect meaningfully on their strengths, challenges, interests, values, communities, and short- and long-term aspirations. In fact, at the first student-led conference in December, you can expect your child to unpack some of the introspective components of their PLP with you. By the second student-led conference, students will have set academic learning goals that tie to the transferable skills. Students will continue to develop their PLP every day until they graduate high school.
What We Know: Students learn best when their environment’s expectations, systems, and language are consistent, safe, and inclusive.
What We’re Doing About It
One of the best things about the middle school is the positivity and professionalism of the educators who work with students each day. A recently-arrived member of FWSU remarked earlier this year that, “You guys don’t know what it’s like out there…people are nice here.” The culture that has been built is one of enthusiasm for learning and genuine caring for our students. The passage of Act 77 and the wording of the Transferable Skills, particularly Self-Direction and Responsible and Involved Citizenship, which call for collaboration, flexibility, ethical behavior, respect for diversity, and individual responsibility, provided the backdrop for the work the middle school faculty has done to formalize and make consistent school-wide expectations for student and adult behavior that reinforce the enthusiastic, caring environment that has persisted for years. Beyond the legal mandate for students to demonstrate these habits of mind, it is just good practice for students and adults to create an environment that is safe, inclusive, and open to academic risk-taking. We know that students make good decisions when they feel supported by their teachers and when they are confident exactly where the boundaries are. Teachers have taken steps this fall to strengthen these relationships and boundaries, all with the goal of maximizing student learning.
We believe that it makes sense for a student in Mrs. Young’s math class and a student in Mr. Psaros’ social studies class to be held to the same fair, coherent behavioral expectations. We also wanted to provide students with some guiding principles that they could take with them to all school environments, including the cafeteria, the hallways, the bathrooms, and the buses. Teachers made some decisions centered on consistency:
- In all school environments, the essence of the rules is that students and adults will be safe, responsible, and respectful.
- In all middle school classrooms, teachers will follow a prescribed set behavioral interventions (except in the cases of violations of school policy such as harassment, fighting, etc.), including a teacher warning and opportunities for students to take a break and visit a reset space in another teacher’s classroom, all before a student is sent to the support center. These interventions have the intention of minimizing missed instructional time and of teachers having positive, purposeful conversations with students about classroom norms.
- All teachers will explicitly teach these school-wide norms to students, in much the same way math or history is taught.
Later this year, middle school teachers will receive training, as a school, in a school-wide system for supporting behavior known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS; a system focused on teaching positive social behaviors that is already being used in Fletcher Elementary School and Georgia Elementary and Middle School), in an effort to more fully support students’ social and emotional wellbeing. The work that the middle school has done to establish simple, coherent expectations for students and adults is the first step in this process and will set up middle school students to feel immediately comfortable in this new behavioral framework.
In addition, PBIS encourages schools to develop positive, school-wide celebrations. At the middle school, we are developing and refining different ways to meet this expectation. This year we will have six school-wide events to recognize and celebrate the positive contributions of our students. This year we will have three All School Celebrations. Each grade level team will facilitate one student-led assembly where students will recognize academic performance, citizenship, and community involvement. We look forward to having families joining us Friday, December 16 at 8:30 am for our first celebration. Also, we will continue to have school-wide trips off campus to celebrate our students making positive choices.
To be clear, these are big changes to persistent norms in education. In fact, many educational structures – curricula, grading, and homework policies, for instance – have remained unchanged, even in the face of significant changes to federal and state education policy, over the past 50 years. It is sincerely challenging for teachers and administrators to design learning opportunities, unlike anything we ourselves personally experienced as students. These changes have required us to break down our time-hardened conceptions of what school looks, sounds, and feels like. It is both daunting and exciting. Most importantly, it is our responsibility.
Chris Palmer is an Administrative Intern at BFA Fairfax Elementary/Middle School. Last year Chris was a Middle School Science teacher at BFA. Follow him on Twitter @cpalmer0608