I walked into a 5th-grade classroom Tuesday morning during our math block and almost walked right back out because I was sure the students were taking a test and I didn’t want to interrupt. The students were working fervently on a worksheet, pencil to paper, pausing periodically to reflect, erasing at times, and moving on to the next problem. Literally, a pin could have dropped and I would have heard it.
I slowly started to tiptoe backward out of the room when I caught the eye of the teacher who was looking over the shoulders of students at a cluster of desks.
“Are they taking a test?” I whispered.
“No, just independent practice.”
“Do you mind if I walk around and talk to the students?”
“Not at all.”
Now normally I wouldn’t ask, “do you mind if I talk to the students,” because that’s just a regular part of what I do when I go into classrooms, but I was still mesmerized by the perseverance of these students and was afraid if I talked I’d somehow break the magical spell and ruin the determined working the students were doing.
As I moved in closer (still slowly) and started looking over students’ shoulders I was even more impressed. Not only were they highly engaged, they were working on multiplying decimals, a concept that can be tricky, causing some students to shut down and give up without even trying. Not in this room though. The air was thick with intellectual engagement.
Each student I spoke with could articulate not only what they were doing, but why they were doing it. They had a process for checking whether their work was accurate and did this without prompting. There was a palpable feeling of this work is important and I want to do it well. When I think about Danielson Domain 2B, “Establishing a Culture for Learning,” this was it personified.
Deep Learning Doesn’t Have to Always Involve a Big Production
When thinking about student engagement, many educators (myself included) tend to think of having to create elaborate lessons that incorporate exciting content and usually require a lot of time and materials. Words like collaboration and creativity are hallmarks of next practice that deepen learning and motivate students to be engaged in the work they are doing.
The work that I observed that day incorporated pretty much none of these things and yet the students were unquestionably deeply engaged in the work. It was a good reminder that as wonderful and effective as collaboration creative projects can be, kids need time to process concepts and develop understanding on their own. When they work independently, they get to work at their own pace, choose strategies that work best for them and develop their own conceptual understanding. This leads to self-confidence in any subject area.
It also reminded me that as much as innovation is important in our classrooms, we also have to make sure we don’t just dismiss everything we did before just because we have learned something new. Sometimes we simply need to tweak what we know has worked in the past layering in new ideas. The work students were doing in this lesson was essentially a worksheet of math problems. Many would dismiss this as an ineffective old school practice. However, because the teacher had communicated clear expectations with success criteria to students, in addition to having a classroom culture that values learning and rising to challenges, the worksheet became a powerful learning tool for all.
When I go to parties I can’t help myself. As much as I try to avoid it, I inevitably talk about education.
Especially if there’s beer. One good IPA will get me waxing poetic about my vision of education for pretty much the entire night.
I’ve never actually had two in one sitting. I can only imagine the diatribe of fostering students’ passions and deep learning that would result from a double Union Jack or L’il Sumpin’ Sumpin.
Usually, these discussions involve my educator friends (That would be most of them). But on my favorite nights, I’m chatting with a new person, a non-educator person, a person who has a career outside of the classroom who is killin’ it in the “real world.”
At this particular party, it was Anti-Hero, on draught. And an economist. Double Trouble.
The outcome? A completely thought-provoking conversation about more than just education.
So much so that I’m still thinking about it over two weeks later.
Sourdough, A Blog, & Some Calculus
“I’ve been working on mine for days. It’s a delicate process.” Two gentlemen close to me were having a rather intense conversation about something that sounded like it could be food related. I’d heard there was going to be a guy at this party who had recently taken a fairly lengthy sabbatical to create a blog based on the science of food (which of course piqued my interest).
Based on what I had overheard I assumed one of them had to be him. I grabbed my drink and headed over.
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Sourdough??” I responded incredulously prompting one of the men to start telling me about the process. Based on the amount of information he was giving me I was now positive this was the guy I had been hearing about. I was just about to ask him about his blog when my friend Sarah came over. (The birthday girl)
“Oh! So you met S! Did you know he has a food blog?”
And that’s how the epic conversation began. It turns out that S’s company granted him an 18-month sabbatical and he and his wife actually traveled all over the world for it. He even ended up contributing to a few cookbooks during this time. To make the story even more amazing his company actually continued to pay him part of his salary during the entire time he was on leave.
I had to know more. “So, what do you actually do?”
“I work in capital markets. Basically, I help multinationals manage their global foreign currency, commodity and interest rate risk. We help their treasury department to set up a sophisticated and efficient risk management policy and structure.”
“So like an actuary?”
“I use some of the same math, but no, not an actuary.” He then explained to me in more detail what he actually does on a daily basis helping me to understand the difference. It sounded insanely interesting and super mathy (which you know I am obsessed with) and I found myself wishing someone would have explained more math-related career options to me when I was trying to decide what to study in college. But I’ll get into my point about that later.
“So how can I follow your blog?” I asked as I pulled out my phone to open up the WordPress app to find it.
“It’s pretty easy. Just look up my name.” The bar had suddenly gotten louder so I had a hard time hearing which prompted me to move closer.
“I see you have the WordPress app. Do you blog as well?”
And that was that. I explained that yes, I had JUST started blogging and my passion was education. I told him that I am most passionate about creating learning experiences in school that better prepare kids to be successful in the innovative and dynamic world we live in.
So, of course, this led to me asking him about his school experience. How much of what he learned in college and high school did he feel prepared him for what he currently does? (I’m not shy. I have no qualms about asking people fairly personal questions regarding education.)
“A lot actually. I use a ton of calculus in my work. Most of my classes in college were math related. They built on the math I learned in high school. I learned about finance and economics. I wouldn’t say I’m in the majority though. I think the statistic is something like less than 8% of math taught in school is used in jobs and the percentage is even smaller for daily usage. Don’t quote me on that though.” (On a side note, I was curious and looked this one up after our conversation. He was pretty accurate. Check out this article in the Atlantic. I was surprised to read that it’s more prevalent that blue collar jobs that use calculus in their roles.)
We talked more about school and how I thought that we needed to include more opportunities for students to grow curiosity and build creativity. That many students see themselves as poor students or not smart because of the emphasis historically placed on how well they do in traditional subjects. (Not that they aren’t important, but that we need to broaden our definition of intelligence) If we changed schools from a focus on compliance to giving students meaningful learning experiences connected to the world around them, we would empower them to grow their passions, build on their strengths, and leave school already knowing the gifts they have to offer.
We agreed a lot during our conversation, each person adding in a different layer to the conversation. But at the end of our talk, he challenged me on one thing.
One MAJOR thing.
“You know people shouldn’t create a career out of their passion right?”
Huh? This one surprised me. He had just taken an 18-month sabbatical from his career to travel around the world creating a food blog. (which I still think is totally awesome)
“I remember seeing a title of an article about something like that on Medium recently. Tell me more.”
“School can’t be about people following their passions. It’s not economical. It could never work for society. You remember the bread conversation we had earlier?”
“Well, homemade bread will always taste better, but it’s not practical for everyone to make it daily. When mass produced bread was created it allowed people all over the world to start eating it on a daily basis. It solved a problem, especially for poor families.”
“You run into the same issue with careers. Think about the limited amount of jobs out there for people with a specific talent or passion. Mathematically it just doesn’t work out. There’s no way that every job would match up with every individual. Besides the point that most of those types of jobs don’t pay well or the higher salaries only go to a select number of people who become specialized and well known for that area. Take chefs for instance. The ones who are slaving away working in regular or even elite restaurants are making probably…(he listed a figure, but I honestly cannot remember the total)
Even though they are doing something daily that they love they are scraping by most of the time. When I was on my sabbatical if my company hadn’t continued to pay me a percentage of my salary there’s no way I could have gotten by. The entire sabbatical I probably made about $30,000 and that was including money made from contributing to a few cookbooks.
We need students to learn skills in school that will prepare them for jobs that will make them money. If we don’t, we are essentially setting up a greater economic burden.”
Wow. I had to think about that one. I understood his point about the mathematical probability of matching everyone’s career with their ideal passion, but I also know that if there’s a will there’s a way and people who are passionate about something will make something new. That’s how innovation works and the world changes right?
Seeing so many stories in the news lately about the middle-class shrinking and jobs being replaced by technology gave me pause though. Plus, it was midnight, and this party girl was about to turn back into a mommy. So I offered a few ideas and thanked him for the thoughtful dialogue. We both agreed to follow one another’s blogs and I left the bar to drive back to the suburbs.
Preparing Students for Success…in Anything
One of my favorite quotes from AJ Juliani is:
“Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”
For me, it’s a great anchor for making decisions about school. At some point, I seriously need to get it framed.
So when I was reflecting on the drive home, this quote immediately came to mind. If we are going to prepare students for ANYTHING (or rather empower students to prepare themselves), a definition of what anything constitutes is important to define and explore.
In the context of the conversation I had with S, I wanted to explore more the economic side of that supposition.
If you look at the unemployment trendfrom the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over the past ten years unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.9%, but has been on a steady decline annually since and in December 2018 was 3.9%. That being said, according to the BLS Economic Situation Summaryfrom Jan. 2019, there are still 6.3 million adults in the United States who are unemployed.
A few days after my conversation, an article from Fortune magazine titled, The Shrinking Middle Class: How We Can Fix It, ended up in my inbox adding another layer to the economic conversation. According to the article, the middle class in the United States has been steadily shrinking over time due recently in part to the burgeoning “gig economy.” (Many people associate this with jobs like Uber, but it can be any kind of contract work.) People make a wide range of wages in these jobs, but what is causing a greater problem for many of them is that benefits like health insurance or a 401(K) are not included in the position. As a result, many are living paycheck to paycheck, in a constant state of stress. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as much as 48% of contract employees struggle with poverty.
Besides the gig economy, the author also attributes private equity as another major factor in the decline of the middle class. These private investors often borrow heavily to purchase a company placing them greatly into debt. In order to repay their loans as well as investors, they have to “wring cash from holdings,” leaving little money to pay workers. Sears and Radio Shack are cited as examples of employees who suffered from this practice.
To find solutions to these problems the Fortune staff reached out to a variety of business leaders, economists and politicians to ask their opinion. The responses were mostly related to government-provided solutions such as raising the minimum wage, creating legislation requiring companies to provide benefits regardless of employment status, childcare tax credits, or universal basic income (UBI). The article even recommended emulating the government of Denmark where 98% of households with children under age 15 receive financial assistance from the government.
So what about the other side? The jobs that are out there? What skills do they require? LinkedIn annually analyzes hundreds of thousands of job postings to find out what careers are growing as well as what skills companies are looking for to fill these positions. In their recently published 2019 Report, the most promising jobs are wide ranging from Machine Learning Engineer at number 15 with a projected 96% increase to Data Scientist at number one, projected to have a 4,000+% (wow! is that number even possible???) increase in job openings this year. The other Top 5 positions on this list include Product Owner, Product Designer, Enterprise Account Executive, and Site Reliability Engineer. My favorite on the list was a position called a “Scrum Master.” You would not believe my disappointment when I found out this was not a pirate-related career, but someone who is involved in agile software development and project management. With the exception of Customer Success Manager, all of these jobs had median base salaries of $100,000+.
Additionally, LinkedIn uses this analysis to come up with the Top 5 hard skills as well as soft skills that companies are looking for. Job seekers can use this information to improve their employability by acquiring these skills and listing them on their resumes. For 2019, the hard skills most in demand are cloud computing, artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management and UX design (user experience design). Making my heart (and Sir Ken Robinson’s) do a happy dance was the fact that creativity debuted as the number one soft skill companies are looking for. Time management, adaptability, collaboration and persuasion round out the rest of the list.
Implications for Education
So, what’s the final verdict? Is the purpose of education to build students’ strengths, develop their passions and foster their natural curiosity or is it to give students the skills and strategies so that they are qualified for a successful and high paying job? If we’re using the Juliani Standard (Yes, I made that up, but it should be a thing right?), then the correct answer is YES!
Reviewing and reflecting upon current economic problems as well as needs in the complex world we live in, schools are clearly not adequately preparing many students for the society they are graduating into, much less inspiring them to chase their passions and change the world. I admire the contributors to the Fortune article for brainstorming ideas to help others who are very much struggling in this new economy, but what they are not recognizing (with a few exceptions) is that no matter how much legislation we put into place, if we do not fill the knowledge and skill gaps of the individuals involved then we are just continually perpetuating a cycle of dependence on others.
Despite various government interventions over generations to help lessen the disparity between social classes in the United States we continue to have little growth in closing the gap. According to a 2018 report from the PEW Research Center, median middle-class income increased 6% from $74,015 in 2010 to $78,442 in 2016 with lower-income households (29% of adults) increasing 5%. Although those percentages point to a similar gain, when we look at actual median income dollars, 5% is really only an increase from $24,448 to $25,624 or a little over $1000 in a six-year period. Even worse, the median income was actually higher in the year 2000 ($26,923) indicating a negative growth over the past twenty years for low-income households.
We need to empower students before they enter the workforce not only with the technical skills to be successful, but with the understanding of what it takes to succeed in every aspect of a very dynamic world. We have a moral imperative as well as an incredible opportunity in education to close the gap during this innovative time known as the 4th Industrial Revolution.
In his book What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith shares stories of amazing schools and educators that are both inspiring students and causing them to thrive in the world beyond school. In an epic journey he took to visit schools in all 50 states in just one year’s time he found these schools incorporated the following elements into learning :
Purpose: Students believe in the importance of their work.
Essential Skills and mindsets: Learning experiences foster competencies that are essential to adults (e.g., creative problem solving, critical analysis, communication, collaboration, citizenship, character).
Agency: Students create their learning experiences, set their goals, manage their progress, and evaluate their work.
Deep, retained Knowledge: Students develop real mastery of the topics they study. They can apply it, ask thoughtful questions about it, and teach others.
When I think about the elements of PEAK, my passion has been in making learning meaningful by incorporating students’ personal interests and building their strengths. They have created projects, set their own goals and reflected on their progress. I have observed this strength in many of the educators I have worked with in the past as well as present trying out a variety of new ideas including passion projects or genius hour, flipped classrooms and in general giving students more input in the classroom and designing learning with individuals in mind as opposed to following a boxed curriculum.
When I reflect on the other parts of PEAK, combined with the findings of the LinkedIn 2019 Jobs Report I realize that I myself have some huge knowledge gaps of what the current and future “real world” constitutes. Although I have played around a bit with coding and have a basic understanding of Artificial Intelligence and the implications it has for our society, I have zero idea what UX design really entails other than what I have read in articles. Many of the jobs listed in the report were fairly foreign to me. So how can I take the abstract concepts I’m teaching to students and give them relevance and meaning when I myself don’t have this knowledge?
Beyond reading about these jobs or taking some online courses to educate ourselves in these skills, the true learning is going to come from actual experiences themselves. What if part of the professional learning we offered our teachers involved spending the day at companies that did the work that our students may be doing one day? This could be an ongoing collaboration and partnership where employees visit the schools as well and mentor kids in the school. In reflecting on the P or Purpose in PEAK, kids would see any subject, but especially math as so much more meaningful when they see how it is incorporated into jobs that people are currently succeeding at. We spend a lot of time telling kids, “you’re going to use this one day,” but very little time giving them experiences in what that actually looks like.
What to Start?
As an educator you may be thinking this is great, but how can I actually do all of this? I have standards to meet and a curriculum to follow and I don’t really have control over much of the professional learning in my building or district.
If you’re not already regularly incorporating student interests and strengths into your lessons start there. It can be as simple as looking at problems you are using in your math lesson and changing the context to include experiences your students have had or topics they are interested in. Even more empowering, have your students help you with this process. In literacy, offer them choice in what they are reading or topics they are writing about. When you are planning and evaluating the work that you will be asking them to do think about whether this work is going to cause them to gain meaningful skills that will prepare them for their future or just an experience that will reinforce the target of the day. I understand that sometimes the necessary answer is the latter, but we need to show students how practicing that one small skill will lead to a much greater purpose.
Approach lesson planning with a broader perspective. Many of the jobs, as well as skills that students need to be successful in these jobs, require students to work across disciplines drawing from a variety of strengths. When you reflect on the standards you want your students to achieve what is the common thread that links them all together? Create a Big Question that students are working to answer during the week. Instead of teaching reading from 9:20-10:20, math from 10:20-11:20 and science from 1:20 to 2:20, approach each day with the lens of that question. This will help students to make more connections, ask deeper questions and see learning as a connected process which is more analogous to the work they will do one day in their career.
Although you may not be able to time shadowing people in their work, talk to your friends who are in a different field. Find out what they do regularly and what skills or attributes they needed to be successful. Start following experts in a variety of areas on Twitter. Expand your PLN to include people who are in a different field or who have a different perspective than you. Look for ways to incorporate how the learning experiences you are providing fit into these fields. Better yet, share the 2019 jobs report with your class and have the students explore what the careers and skills described entail.
Try new things. There are so many free courses out there where you can learn many of the skills that were listed in the LinkedIn Report. This list from the Muse is a great start. Next on my list is their graphic design course. I plan on incorporating what I learn into a student production group I am working with this year.
In the book Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, the authors (Fullan, Quinn, McEachen) discuss something called the Equity Hypothesis which posits that if we give students deep learning experiences (those that incorporate the 6 C’s of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship) then we will engage all students at high levels essentially closing the economic gap that has existed for generations.
When thinking about the purpose of school in the context of the conversation I had with S, it’s not an either or, it’s a synergy of one thought leading to the other. People can pursue their passions AND make money doing it. It’s up to us as educators to make that happen by making the school experience more readily prepare students for the complex world we live in.
In case you were wondering, S and I are now Facebook friends. We have plans to continue the conversation at a future date. I’m sure it will be equally as thought-provoking and I will share any new thoughts that evolve.
As always, thank you for reading (or listening). I know this was a long one.