Monday, September 15, 2014

College and Career Readiness May Not Mean What We Think It Means.

In the desire to help our nation’s kids become College and Career Ready we must consider that our assumptions about what that means ( and how to get there) may lead us to have the opposite effect of what is intended.  David Conley, a leading advocate for college and career readiness, already warns us about limiting the scope or definition of college and career readiness.  This also leads me to ask the question “Should the primary goal of a classroom teacher be to prepare their students for college? For a career? For the next year in their schooling?” Perhaps it’s semantic but isn’t preparedness a byproduct of learning?  Isn’t achievement (by whatever metric you choose to use) the byproduct of maximizing the learning potential of our students?
When we dig deeper into Conley’s definition and expectations of college and career readiness, we need to not only recognize, but embrace the seismic shift that occurred between our own schooling experience and the world our students are going to be entering into themselves. This is not to say that we weren’t prepared for the world or that our teachers weren’t very good. It’s just that the world of college and work are completely different from the ones we experienced upon graduation.

When we look at the diagram above, we must be willing to reflectively and honestly assess how much of our curriculum and instructional/assessment practices embrace all four quadrants.  Where do you see yourself philosophically? Pedagogically? What do you value? What kind of culture is being created by the choices you are making?  

Maybe this is an unfair generalization, but most secondary classrooms continue to  primarily focus on what students “know”.  The most well publicized metrics by which we currently evaluate student success  (and are now being used to evaluate our effectiveness as teachers), state standardized tests and national exams like the SAT’s, mostly measure what our students “know”. There have been attempts to move assessment measures into the “think” realm as well. But these are often difficult to write or take too long to assess with validity.  We can tell what these classrooms look and feel like because they typically involve a teacher front and center talking at students or burying kids in content without intentional instructional practices. These teachers don’t typically formatively assess and therefore can’t let classroom data  drive instruction. They don’t typically respond to student needs because they aren’t aware of them. They believe that their job is to help kids “know” stuff. And if after the test, the kids didn’t learn the stuff, it’s because the student didn’t study hard enough.

Better teachers recognize that what students “know” only matters in the context of  how they “think” about what they know. Fewer classrooms embrace the mindset that focuses more on what students do with what they know and have learned. These teachers recognize that multiple choice questions have their place, but mostly in quick checks for understanding. Teachers who aspire to have their students “show what they know” believe in performance, authenticity of assessment, and multiple and diverse  measures of success (and achievement). They also recognize that the more they talk at students, the less likely that students will have the opportunity to share their learning or what they “think”. These teachers believe:


In 1778, Baron Von Steuben was given the task of whipping the ragtag Continental Army into shape. He is credited with being the father of the American military because he skillfully organized the troops through building common knowledge and instilling discipline  into the men at Valley Forge.  About the difference between European and American soldiers he is quoted as saying:  “You say to your soldier, 'Do this' and he does it. But I am obliged to say to the American, 'This is why you ought to do this' and then he does it.

Great teachers recognize that students need to be aware of context and relevance.They understand that it is as important for students to connect the content knowledge and the thinking skills to their own personal lives. These teachers challenge students to ask “Why does this matter?” or “Why should this matter to me?”  Teachers who do this conference with their students frequently and discuss content and skills in a greater context beyond academia. These teachers encourage students to explore personal interests and make connections to the curriculum and skills in the classroom and beyond.  Teachers who do this make metacognition and  student reflection a key element of their classroom design. These teachers intentionally develop a culture for students to truly be independent learners and encourage them to reflect on their goals.  In these classrooms, students make  connections between what they know, how they show it, and where they plan to “go”  when they leave their schooling behind.  

The best teachers understand that no matter what curriculum we implement, no matter what instructional and assessment practices we utilize, students can not be college and career ready if they are not the architects of their own learning.  Teachers do this by providing students authentic and meaningful choices such as which learning strategies and processes they will employ, the way in which they choose to access the  content, and how they wish to prove their learning. These teachers not only encourage students to develop their own questions, but they actively teach students how to do this better AND provide the necessary  time and feedback to become great at it.   A classroom in which the teacher and students are co-learning and collaborating together is evidence that not only is the classroom student-centered, but also student-driven. This does not mean the classroom is a free for all either. These teachers have very clear expectations of learning, are standards aligned, and provide scaffolded support too.

I’m not entirely sure what it means to be “college and career ready” yet, but I do know a few things it is not. It is not:

  • lecturing “because it’s what they do in college” (lecturing has its place but not as the primary method    of instruction or without frequent discussions and checks for understanding)
  • giving large final exams or midterms “because it’s what they do in college” (What do these types of assessments tell us about our teaching and student learning? )
  • giving lots of homework because we need to teach kids “responsibility”
(Responsibility is about doing whatever it takes to learn, not nightly assignments that have inappropriate 
cognitive demand for most learners.).
  • forcing kids into rigid coursework in the name of rigor and high standards (By all means we should afford students choice of coursework but a high level course does not guarantee high quality of learning. Rigor is about the individual students, not the course)
  • creating prescribed pathways and programs for all students (A one size fits all pathway doesn’t honor the individual needs and choices that being an independent and college and career ready learner demand)

Ultimately, if we want students to be successful  and productive adults, we need to help them to become the best learners they can be, not the best students (and there is a big difference between the two). We need to embrace the challenge that college and career readiness is going to require a different pathway for each student. We need to acknowledge that this goal is an ever-evolving and moving target as our definition of college and career readiness might already be irrelevant by tomorrow, let alone 4 years from now.  If we want our students to be college and career ready, we need schooling to be less like “school” and more like the real world. We need to afford our students the same autonomy (with support) that we as adult learners rightfully demand.  We need to ensure that our daily classroom practices and district wide processes don’t unintentionally widen the expanding gap between preparing our students for a world we can’t envision and holding onto a past that no longer exists.