I teach a variety of levels of classes. I have the treasured lettered classes (AP and IB) and classes which I co-teach with a special education teacher. I also have one class full of those students who, under normal circumstances, might not have a chance to graduate. And I know that a key to all of these students becoming functioning adults is having the skills needed to function in reality. Not necessarily the skills needed to function in school.
The question regarding the purpose of high school has been running through my head the last few years. The last couple of decades, in my mind at least, the purpose of high school has been to prepare students to become college professors, though only a few will get an education beyond a bachelors degree, much less be college professors. Regardless of this, the system still functions on the idea that all students will go to a four year college and study the liberal arts. The system, unfortunately, has not fully acknowledged the reality that our world is quite different, and the skills needed to survive in that reality have changed considerably. Try as it might, the system has failed to keep up with those changes of reality outside of education.
As I see it, my job is to get students ready to be functioning people in the world outside of the education system. As I told my AP classes the other day, the only people who really care about their GPA or the fact that they have taken AP classes are their parents and their college application. I know this might be sacrilege to many teachers, especially when it comes to AP and IB classes. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t matter what they have learned in any class until they can do something with what they have learned in those classes. As I write the previous several sentences, I think about a former student I ran into a couple of years ago at a restaurant.
He was in town for Christmas break after his first semester away to college, and he told me that high school had not prepared him for college in the least bit. He had taken a slew of AP courses and he did well in them. He was not valedictorian or even the top 10, but he did well enough to get a decent scholarship to the University of Arizona. I asked him where he was struggling the most. His list included, but not limited to, dealing with the work load, the time management, the expectations of self-direction, these were all a shock to him. After our conversation, it hit me, I had been far too focused on the content of the class and not the skills needed to function as an individual outside of school. I had bought into they myth that I needed to prepare my students, regardless of their level or interest, to be college professors. And the questions of my purpose as a high school teacher really began to take more shape.
I have spent the last many years of my career trying to wrap my head around the idea that content is far down the list of things many of us teach. Until a few years ago, I had had difficulty in determining what that thing was exactly. the answer to that thing finally began to take form at an IB conference whose keynote address was about skills over content. And since that keynote, the idea of skills over content has been taking shape in this cranium of mine. But I couldn’t name exactly which skills.
And that is where I am today. The Colorado Department of Education focuses on five “21st century skills.” Those skills are: collaboration, creative thinking and reasoning, information literacy, self-direction, and invention. Mind you, there are many more of these 21st century skills depending with whom you ask, but I have to be honest, I am down right giddy about this change. However (and this is the hard part), the system in which I still work continues to be focused on content. But (and this is the fun part), the system is changing.
I am one of those people who needs to name something before I can deal with it. During the last several years and these experiences, I can finally name what those things are that I should actually teach through my content. Given this revelation, over the next few weeks, I will be writing about and reflecting upon as I explore those 21st century skills and what I have done in my classroom to address them in my lessons. If I am to insist my students reflect on their process, then I will, too.
The first skill I will explore in some depth will be collaboration. If you have any suggestions about teaching collaboration as a skill through content, please share these in the comments below.