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The Type of Schooling Our Students Need

I would like to recommend a YouTube video to you. We have watched a version of this video in a faculty meeting recently. It is titled “Did You Know 2014/Shift Happens.” The original of this video was created a number of years ago to stimulate discussion of two 21st century themes: 1) the changing position of the United States in the world economy, and 2) the need to educate our children in the skills they will need to be successful in a changing world. The video has been updated several times and is one small piece of a rapidly growing body of thought about adjustments in the American educational system which will better prepare our young people for high-level jobs in a technology-based global economy. While an independent school education has always been about much more than preparing for a job, it is important that we consider the types of skills and mindsets that will best help our children to be successful.

The October 2008 edition of the professional journal Educational Leadership contains another perspective on the need for changes in our approach to education — an article titled “Rigor Redefined.” The author, Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, held conversations with several hundred leaders in business, education, and other fields. He then conducted classroom observations in suburban schools. His goal was “to learn whether U.S. schools are teaching and testing the skills that matter most.” Dr. Wagner determined that “students need to master seven survival skills to thrive in the new world of work. And these skills are the same ones that will enable students to become productive citizens who contribute to solving some of the most pressing issues we face in the 21st century.” His seven skills are as follows:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration and leadership
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination

As you might imagine, he did not find a close correlation between classroom practices and his seven skills. His conclusion is that we spend too much time covering content and too little time on critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration.

Similarly, a national curriculum survey completed a few years ago by thousands of high school and college instructors across the nation suggests that colleges generally want all incoming students to attain in-depth understanding of selected topics with more emphasis on fundamental skills in their high school courses, while high schools tend to provide less in-depth instruction of a broader range of topics.1 This concept is often called covering curriculum “an inch deep and a mile wide” and we know that this approach does not meet the needs of today’s college-bound students. Twenty-first century workers (our students) will likely change careers multiple times and will need to be able to learn skills that are as yet undefined. Advances in technology improve access to available knowledge more quickly than in the past, making mastery of any particular content area less important. “Learning how to learn” must become the emphasis. Much of this new knowledge and new skills will be acquired in online learning environments.

Whenever we discuss establishing different learning outcomes for students, we must also examine changes in teaching methods which will help achieve those goals. Changes in methods must be embraced by the teachers themselves; however, school leaders can facilitate improvements through staff development, providing more technology, and by strategies as simple as providing more time in selected class periods. I am asking our teachers to consider some new strategies consistent with new ways of thinking about student needs. This will likely involve changes including more emphasis on the use of technology.

Imagine a school where Christian values, great extra-curricular opportunities, and 21st century teaching and learning are bound together in one package. That is a vision which we should all share and work toward together. As the SAIS-SACS accreditation process unfolds, these issues will also be examined through our self-study and our strategic plan. I will keep you informed of our plans and progress as we attempt to adjust our strategies and expand our offerings to best serve students in the 21st century.

The survey referenced above was conducted by the ACT, a non-profit organization which provides multiple services in education and workforce development. The organization is perhaps best-known in secondary schools for its college admission testing program.

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