The Future of Career Preparation & Why we Don’t Take Sick People to Hospital Signs

hospsignImagine that your kids are climbing trees in the back yard. One of them falls from a branch and breaks his arm. You put him in the car and head off to get him some help. About a mile down the road, you see a large hospital sign. Relieved, you pull over and lean your son against the sign to get better. This is an absurd scenario because we all know the difference between a hospital and a hospital sign. The sign points to the hospital. It is meant to direct people to the place dedicated to helping people get well. However, the sign itself has no healing powers. It is just a sign. Hopefully, it is a good one, meaning that it does indeed point people in the right direction. Good hospital signs truly indicate that a hospital is near.

What does this have to do with education? I’ve been thinking more recently about the difference between being competent in an area and having a symbol, sign or credential that is supposed to show some level of competency. As a teacher, I have teaching licenses in the state of Illinois and Wisconsin. That is intended to indicate that I have the pre-requisite knowledge and skill expected to teach in a state-authorized school within those states. Most of us know that it is possible for someone to be a highly competent teacher without having that credential. It is also possible to lack competence but potentially have a teaching license.

It goes a level deeper. In most cases, getting that teaching license also requires me to earn a degree from a higher education institution and it typically requires me to go through a prescribed teacher education program at a University. Even if I go through an alternate route like Teach for America, I still need the credential of a college degree. In other words, becoming a licensed teacher is not as easy as having all the pre-requisite knowledge, skill, and competence. I could gain all of that in an alternative manner (like through self-study, observations, informal mentoring, etc.), but that would not enable me to be a licensed teacher in these states.

I am increasingly confident that such models will be challenged in the near future. In five states in the US, I can become a lawyer without going to law school or having a degree. All I need to do is study, apprentice with a practicing judge or lawyer, and pass the bar. In the end, I must demonstrate the same competency, but the pathway I choose and use to become competent is not dictated. What I need to know and be able to do is prescribed, but not how I go about learning it. This means that some could become a lawyer while bypassing massive school debt. It opens the field to people who are competent without restricting those who lack the financial resources to take the standard pathway. And this is not new. Many like to point out that Abraham Lincoln was a self-taught lawyer who gained entry into the profession without a college degree.

Things are changing. We live in an age that is rich with increasingly well-organized and high quality information, personal learning networks, open learning, immediate access to mentors/coaches/tutors/guides, adaptive learning software, growing interest in competency-based education, increased knowledge and research on how to become a self-directed learner, emerging technologies that help us plan and organize our own learning, and learning organizations that are discovering the power of giving students control over learning time/place/place/pathways. The convergence of these will soon lead to alternate pathways to many professions that currently require credentials like high school diplomas and college degrees for entry.

I suspect that competence will dominate in the future. At the end of the day, whether I am getting a haircut, need medical attention, need someone to help with home repair, need clinical counseling, or drive over a bridge designed by a team of engineers; it is not their degrees that matter. It is their competence. As it stands, most of society remains comfortable using diplomas and degrees as a partial measure of of this competence. In some professions, they add requirements like apprenticeships, passing specific exams, and conducting background checks. Moving forward, expect to see more alternate career paths. Some professions that require diplomas and degrees will not. They will expect the same or a higher level of competence, but there will be multiple pathways to demonstrating that competence. This change has already started in new professions and those that are less regulated. It will be most delayed (perhaps indefinitely) in the those professions that are highly regulated or considered the highest stakes (like in many medical professions).

This is how disruptive innovations work. They gain traction where there is less resistance and regulation. As they grow in public acceptance and adoption, others try them out. Eventually, the innovation becomes a mainstream option in areas that likely scoffed at the technology years earlier.

What does this mean for schools and Universities? Formal learning organizations can respond it many ways. They can point out the value of their community apart from career preparation. They can draw people’s attention to the wrap-around support and services that come with becoming a member of that learning community (also known as a “student”). They can point to the limitations of competency-based education, and defend alternate models. They also have the choice of considering how they might embrace and integrate competency-based education, helping teachers/administrators/students/parents make the shift in thinking from one-size-fits-all models of instruction to organizations that value and welcome personalized pathways to learning.

Questions for Reflection

  • For three minutes, brainstorm all the areas of competence that you have that did not come from formal schooling, areas that don’t have any credential associated with the competence. How did you learn it?
  • What are the best reasons for having everyone in a given profession take the same (or a very similar) pathway to mastery or entry in that profession?
  • What are the best reasons for providing multiple pathways to mastery and demonstrating competence in a given profession?
  • Imagine a future world where people could gain basic qualification for entry into a job by demonstrating a high level of competence, apart from earning a diploma or degree. In which jobs would you be most comfortable with this? In which jobs would you be least comfortable with this? Why?
  • What would it look like to re-imagine learning organizations around mastery and competence through personalized learning pathways? What would be the benefits and drawbacks to this?

12 Thought-Provoking Ideas for Student-Centered Schooling: Reflections on the Acton Way

I’ve been reading and learning more about the Acton Academy in Texas, a learning community with a wonderfully student-centered vision for schooling. The following video provides a quick introduction to some of their core ideas. Following the video, I’ve included my thoughts and reflections about 12 fascinating aspects of the Acton way.

“Every student who walks in our door is a genius who is destined to change the world.”

This statement is packed with power and meaning. It is powerful in that it provides a lever for “doing school” in a different way. Some might read it in a simplistic way and think that it is little more than an effort at false self-esteem, telling students how great and wonderful they are without any connection to real thoughts and actions on behalf of the students. Yet, as I am coming to learn about “the Acton way”, this does not seem to be what they mean. Instead, they recognize that every student has some unique contribution to make to the world. They may not all be geniuses at math or brilliant artists, but each student has a unique combination of gifts, talents and abilities that can be identified, nurtured and used to “change the world” in some small or monumental way. This statement protects us from designing a school and curriculum that reduces human value to a short list of standards, or skill sets that are deemed to have special national significance in a supposed international competition for intellectual and economic prowess.

“Students should be in charge of their own learning.”

Depending upon your context and background, this statement might conjure different images. One person might imagine a room of unruly and undisciplined students with a teacher fast asleep at his desk. This is certainly not the intent with Acton and others who espouse student-centered learning. Instead, this statement typically stems from the desire to help students grow into competent, confident, self-directed learners. If this is our ultimate goal, something that we hope to see in adults, why not provide a learning environment where student discover how to be in charge of their own learning?

“Asking great questions is far more important that regurgitating correct answers.”

This one reminds me of a quote from a Michael Card song, “Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” Of course, this is not ignoring the importance and value of discovering answers. However, we can tell a great deal about a student’s learning and thinking by the questions they ask. And asking questions is the starting point for many wonderful student-centered learning journeys. As Thomas Berger noted, “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”

“Learning to do and learning to be outweigh simply learning to know.”

Schools tend to have a bias toward facts and knowledge acquisition, which are important. The problem is that the rest of the world expects us to embody and be able to do something with that knowledge. To be a musician and be able to play music goes far beyond just knowing about music. The same is true when it comes to math, science, social studies, building relationships, collaborating with others, being a servant leader, inventing things, designing things, helping people, and much more. If school is going to help equip us for this sort of a life, then it calls for an education that emphasizes learning to do an be as much as recalling a set of facts.

“Using adaptive software for core skills”

While Acton is clearly a student-centered school with ample opportunity for students to help generate the curriculum, they also recognize the value of emerging adaptive technologies that help students grow in skill acquisition, especially in areas like math. These tend to be more computer (as teacher) directed, but it also constantly adjusts/adapts to the learner’s readiness, providing a sweet spot of challenge that resides between too easy and overwhelmingly difficult.

“Learn to love reading.”

As a bibliophile, I was delighted to see their embracing this 16th century skill that continues to be a valuable skill for life and thought in the 21st century. As Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.” Or, in the words of Victor Hugo, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” Literacy is a foundational skill for the self-directed learner.

“Write… a lot, but not just traditional essays. They do authentic writing in the form of thank you notes, posts on the web.”

Learning to write is learning to think and communicate. I love the fact that Acton invites students to experience many authentic forms of writing. Instead of having students only focus on writing tasks that are unique to schooling contexts, they invite students into forms of writing that will empower them to engage with the world.

“QuestBased Projects – Connecting multiple real-world projects… that build on each other.”

This is a brilliant idea. They do not simply engage in a series of disconnected projects. Instead, Acton helps students live and experience a story, a hero’s story, that weaves multiple projects throughout the year. I am intrigued by this concept and intend to learn more about it over the next year. Human brains crave novelty but also thrive and patterns and connections. Teaching and learning through connected projects seems to be a helpful way to feed both of these brain cravings.

“Real world apprenticeships – Help them find their calling / gift that they are called to share with the world.”

There is so much that we learn, and so many possibilities that we discover by observing others. By adding apprenticeships, Acton invites students to explore the possibilities for their own lives.

“Weekly surveys to students and parents, asking them what worked this week and what did not?”

This is such a simple idea, but I know of few schools that do it. It is a quick and simple way to get feedback on what is working and what is not, allowing teacher and others at the school to adapt, adjust, celebrate, reconsider, and imagine new possibilities for the students. It also demonstrates interest in and honor for the voice of students and parents. Regardless of your schools vision, simply adding this one practice and seriously reflecting on the weekly results has immense promise to help you take your school to the next level.

“Create a driving question that ties everything together for the year. In 2012, they asked, ‘Does the past determine the future?'”

This is an interesting way to help students make sense of the many things they learn throughout the year. It also seems to encourage depth and not just surface level learning about different topics. By having a central question, it is also likely to help students make connections, learning to see relationships between different concepts and experiences that would otherwise seem unrelated.

Kids learn that, “they are the protagonists in their life’s story. They are the heroes.”

Much of the school vision is tied to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey, a pattern that Campbell discovered in many of the great myths throughout history. However, at Acton, they also invite students to think of themselves is a Hero in their own life story; a creative way to help them recognize that their lives have meaning, that they have gifts and abilities that can be a blessing to the world, that life has challenges and mountaintop experiences, might even help them cultivate the long view of life.

I’m far from an expert on Acton Academy. At the time of writing this, I’ve never visited it in person nor have I interviewed those who work there. However, even from my cursory review of what I read and watch on the web, the school strikes me as having a powerful and promising vision for schooling, one that shares features of many high-impact and deeply humane schools that I’ve visited over the years. These twelve concepts give all of us possibilities to consider for our own informal lifelong learning as well as the learning organizations in our communities.

What Story Shapes Your School?

When I visit and observe schools, I find myself asking, “What story drives the thoughts, actions and culture in this place?” Or sometimes, I simplify it and ask, “Does this school tell the story of the American Dream, the American Experiment, or the American Factory? I’m not sure why I gravitate to those three, perhaps because it seems like many school stories seem to fit well in one of those three, or they struggle to tell any story.

There are schools where I find it hard to notice any consistent or coherent story that informs what they do. People follow the bells from class to class. Teachers frame their thoughts about time in terms of weeks, months and a school calendar. Teachers view grading as essentially processing paperwork. Students view homework as tasks to complete in the work day. But overall, if I try to tease out a compelling story, people don’t seem to be able to describe it. I don’t call this the story of the American Factory, because I think it would be misrepresenting some of the best factories in America, one’s where the individual is valued, where people understand their contribution to a final product they value and believe in supporting with their time an effort. Instead, I call this a school without a story, which I contend is a dangerous path. Schools without stories risk nurturing students who have a fragmented view of life and learning, who live without cohesive and compelling life stories.

In Neil Postmans’ 1996 book, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, he suggests that having a clear narrative is an important starting point for thinking about schools of the future. He proposes five potential stories to drive our vision for American schooling. He suggests “Spaceship Earth” as the story of people as caretakers of the planet. In this story, the students explore ways to be innovative as they seek ways to care for their communities, cities, and the planet. In “The Fallen Angel”, he suggests a story of human history, one ripe with errors and discoveries on the journey toward increased knowledge and discovery. The next option he proposes is “The American Experiment.” As Postman tells it, this is a story that defines Americans as people who grapple, argue, debate, and experiment. His forth narrative is called, “The Laws of Diversity”, a story about how differences among people produce a richness and vitality, and that we can have a deep unity amid our diversity. His final suggestion is, “World Weavers.” This is the story of people who create meaning and our view of the world through language. We explore definitions, metaphors, and questions that shape and shift our thinking. In addition to Postman’s suggested narratives, there is also the persistent and arguably dominant story of “The American Dream”, a person of limited means achieves success through persistence, hard work and ingenuity.

398px-Heroesjourney.svgThese are all potential stories, by they do not make up an exhaustive list. One of my joys is visiting schools and learning new stories that shape their vision of education. Take, for example, the story that drives Acton Academy, and wonderfully innovative blended learning school in Texas. They shape the the learning experience around Joseph Cambell’s monomyth or Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s study of great narratives throughout history and around the world, he surface what seems to be a consistent pattern, what he calls the Hero’s Journey. So, at Acton, they have created a school around the notion that every student is on a Hero’s Journey in the their life story, and that they are guides along the way. Watch a couple of the videos on their site and you are likely to discovery a passionate and compelling narrative that they use to drive their thoughts, planning and actions. It is a story about young people discovering the gifts that they have to offer the world. Acton is not unique. As I visit charter schools around Wisconsin and other parts of the country, I often find such compelling stories shaping their work and life in school.

Of course, this leads me to a question for all of us.  What story shapes our lives, families, schools, and other places of work? Is there a clear and compelling story? How much does it permeate the entire culture or community? Or, is it perhaps a story told by a handful of people, but there are competing stories that leave learners and/or visitors confused about where the school stands and why it exists? How does the story guide you through making tough decisions amid limited resources? How does it lead you to decide what to embrace and what to let go? If your community does not have a compelling story, how might you go about becoming a storyteller, that ancient role that helps imbues meaning, imagination, and vision, and sense of purpose in communities and cultures?

Beware of Badges as Biscuits

The digital badge revolution is nearing. I continue to see open badges as far superior to past and present forms of documenting learning and achievements (See How Badges and Micro-Credentialing Will Change Education). However, as I talk with educators about the potential for digital badges, it I find many gravitating toward the idea of digital badges as 21st century smiley stickers and start to put on the top of student papers. They often think of digital badges primarily as a reward mechanism, not unlike the use of dog biscuits to reward a pet’s good behavior. I can’t deny that earning a badge sometimes comes with a little drop of dopamine in the brain, activating the reward center.

Yet, I see no reasons why we want to return to an era where behaviorism dominated work in education. Pavlovian visions of education reform continue to have a strong draw for some, but many of us are fixing our eyes on the horizon of connected learning, defined by the Institute of Play in this way:

A theory of learning that strives to connect and leverage all the various experiences, interests, communities and contexts in which learners participate “in and out of school” as potential learning opportunities.

While traditional forms of credentialing and reward mechanism remain faithful servants of a behaviorist’s vision of schooling and education, a vision of connected learning class for imagining how we think about credentialing in the 21st century.

Toward that end, I am increasingly convinced that focusing upon “badges as biscuits” misses the true power and potential of digital badges. The longer I dive into the world of digital badges, the more I am convinced that the truly transformational attribute of badges is how they redefine the currency of credentials. While I’ve written about these before, here are five examples of how digital badges offer and new and potentially superior currency.

  1. Traditional transcripts are maintained and controlled by schools. The moment a digital badge is earned, it can be posted, transferred, and displayed by the learner.
  2. Traditional transcripts and grades often lack a detailed data about what one did or did not accomplish. Badges are biased toward competency to the point that meta-data in badges includes criteria that one needed to meet to earn the badge.
  3. Digital badges lead toward “micro-credentialing”, recognizing accomplishments or learning at a more discrete level.
  4. Unlike many traditional credentialing technologies, digital badges allow one to incrementally add new accomplishments and evidence of knowledge/skill to one’s digital resume or portfolio.
  5. Digital badges give any person or organization the ability to offer a credential for accomplishments or learning. Some see this as a challenge to or risk for traditional schools and Universities. They are right. Digital badges will help democratize the education industry.

Digital badges are a new currency for credentialing in a world of connected learning. They are more than glorified digital biscuits for good behavior. While they may have motivational elements to them, their greatest potential is in revolutionizing how we think about credentials in the digital age.