I work with an amazing group of innovative high schools around the country, and in the course of my work, we talk a LOT about what it means to be “college ready.” We want the kids that attend our schools to have access to all kinds of opportunities, and to be able to make choices about their futures. However, in this age of rapid economic and social change, I would argue that students might be better off viewing “higher education” as a lifelong off-road adventure of self-selected learning experiences than as an A-to-B-and-you’re-done-in-four-years highway. And getting students ready to navigate THAT route may need to look a little different.
Rising tuitions, exorbitant student loan interest rates and limited post-college job opportunities combined with an increasing number of great free or cheap informal learning opportunities (MOOCs, community hacker/makerspaces, skillshares, meetups, everything-on-the-Internet, and of course, the good old library) have combined to create fertile ground for a revolution in post-secondary learning pathways. Books like Better than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, and Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More than Your Peers Ever Will shed light on the increasing appeal of DIY lifelong learning. And the problems our society currently faces–rising economic inequality, environmental degradation, global conflicts– are not likely to be solved in a lecture hall.
Which leads me to the question… what does it take to be ready to learn outside of college? To ask real meaningful questions about the world, to get deeply engaged in a subject for its own sake, to seek out resources and build communities and start things, to stick with challenges when they are hard even if there is no diploma-shaped pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And how do we structure K12 schools that will cultivate scrappy, smart, self-sufficient, collaborative, driven learners who can thrive in any environment? Here are a few ways to start:
- Blur the lines between school and not-school
If we want adults to be effective learners at work, in community spaces, and online, why not set those expectations for kids as well? Inviting kids to bring their outside interests into the classroom and to apply what they learn in the classroom to other aspects of their lives is a start, but we take this further at a systemic level. Offering significant credit for independent study, internships, service learning projects, entrepreneurship experiences, mentorship programs, and online projects and courses is a powerful way of communicating that learning isn’t just an 8am-3pm activity. The book Leaving to Learn, by Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski, offers a terrific perspective on the importance of out-of-school learning.
- Help kids find and cultivate multiple passions
By “multiple passions” I don’t mean encouraging students to pad their college application resumes with membership in infinite clubs and sports teams. I mean making the time and space for students to identify and go deep into their interests. So Jorge is thrilled by the study of 18th century women poets in English class and won’t close his book when the bell rings? Arielle runs to the gym at lunch time to practice dribbling? Vernon keeps sneaking peeks at his cell phone during math to monitor news updates about cybersecurity policy and hackers? These are golden opportunities, yet we often respond by shutting them down and rushing students to the next activity. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, has suggested that schools build “20% time” into their schedules. This scheduling shift, inspired by Google, would challenging our students to learn to structure their own learning and allow them to go deep on topics that matter.
- Teach kids how to communicate what they know and can do
Letting go of the diploma model leaves employers/partners/clients/co-conspirators with a dilemma: without a piece of paper, how do I know what this person can really do? We need to give our students lots of opportunities to produce real, high-quality work that has value outside of school, and to talk about this work in thoughtful ways. Guiding kids to create substantive portfolios, to build networks of people who can vouch for their skills and knowledge, and to speak comfortably in a wide variety of contexts is a really good use of in-school time– and might get them further than another round of test-prep.
- Stop working harder than our students
Ironically, this is… hard. I know. But if we want our students to be capable, self-sufficient, curious, ethical human beings, we need to start early. And if we want them to be good drivers capable of deviating from the beaten path, we need to hand over the keys.
About the Author: Sarah Field supports New Tech Network’s team of digital facilitators in the design and development of project-based online courses. Before joining New Tech, Sarah taught elementary bilingual students on the Texas-Mexico border and in New York City, created curriculum materials for publishers and school districts, and developed video-based professional development for classroom teachers. Sarah holds an EdM in Technology, Innovation, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. When not working with amazing teachers to create new kinds of learning experiences for students, Sarah enjoys making things (homemade popsicles, yoga poses, campfires, trouble), reading fiction, and exploring the Bay Area.