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Building the Schools of the Future: How Long Will We Wait?

“We need schools that provide young people with well-structured spaces in which to discover who they are and what they care deeply about. We need schools where adults prepare students for active citizenship and the 21st century work place. And we need schools to reinforce democratic practices that extend beyond the school’s walls, helping adults unite behind the shared belief that all children deserve to be seen and heard.” –Sam Chaltain American Schools – The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community Sam Chaltain sums up succinctly and eloquently the change that is on the horizon for American schools – if we choose to embrace it.   We must rethink what school is for, and that requires us to revisit what we deem to be a life well lived. If we keep going down the current path, we will continue to graduate high school students who are all too often disengaged from their own learning and unsure of what the purpose of their education is. Moreover the stress they are under to meet perceived expectations in terms of college entrance requirements saps the energy and joy out of the high school learning experience. The hyper focus on grades, SAT scores and creating the perfect profile for university applications places the goal of education at some obscure distant point in the future rather than a process of human unfolding and personal growth. We are at a crossroads in education in America. We need to choose between a pathway that unleashes the human creative spirit or a pathway that literally dulls the mind and deadens the heart. This crossroads demands we have the courage to abandon the constraining curriculum structures of the past and allow for more individualized and cross-subject learning. It forces us to pause and reflect how we can fashion standards that serve as useful benchmarks but don’t reduce the human learning experience to the tabulation of bubbles filled in by number 2 pencils. The signs at this crossroads implore us to answer several key questions: Why are we evaluating? What are we evaluating? And how are we evaluating? Why are we evaluating? We should evaluate to find out if we are doing a good enough job in supporting students in developing their unique Talents and Passions. We should evaluate to check whether the internal motivation of a student is increasing and whether they are developing the Discipline and Drive necessary to achieve their dreams down the road. We should evaluate to help students know if they are on the pathway to becoming good citizens and to finding the opportunities they desire in the 21st century work force. What are evaluating? I would postulate that the reason we evaluate is to determine if students are making progress toward goals they themselves have set and toward learning objectives that comprise both content and aptitudes. Information and factual knowledge is of course indispensable for students as they head toward the career path of their choice. However the complex world they are entering will require very refined skills in how to gather, verify, combine and share the myriad kinds of information.  In addition, students will be all the more successful and fulfilled in that complex world to the degree they have a personal ethical code and an understanding of civic responsibility. How are we evaluating? For decades we have measured learning as if it were a lake that is a mile wide and an inch deep. New types of measures will be required to help schools and schools determine if aptitudes such as critical thinking, information literacy, innovation, collaboration and communication are being acquired. This will require teachers to learn new techniques that foster student self-reflection, peer-evaluation, digital portfolios, presentations and exhibits - as well as teacher to teacher professional development.  Such a shift in emphasis will in turn require that teachers be liberated from the pressures to teach to the type of tests that now drive so much of the curriculum and consume the vast amount of class time and school resources. In his book American Schools, Sam Chaltain quotes Fred Givens, middle school principal of Bronx Prep Charter School in New York City: “Some of us have learned that – despite what intuition might suggest – structure actually creates freedom. Through experiences implementing democratic principles in the classroom and in the process co-creating our shared culture, it has become clear that the potential for looseness, play, free thought and creativity is generated when the structures are so elegantly constructed that they become nearly invisible. This has been a fundamental revelation.” In other words, it is not that we need to abandon structure altogether in order to foster the creative thinking and love of learning we envision for the new fabric of our schools. Rather it is imagining new types of structures that allow the development of what I call USP™ - Unique Student Potential. Every student has a particular constellation of Talents and Passions. Understanding each student's Talents and Passions and empowering him / her with the Drive and Discipline they need to develop them - should form the basis for the curriculum frameworks and evaluative mechanisms going forward. The rapidity of change in our world is staggering. The tide of the future is already here. Let’s give our students the tools to confidently ride the waves to the shores they seek.