Look to the Future and Break From Tradition for Student Success

This month I oversee my 13th graduation ceremony as a New Hampshire high school principal. Between the tones of the bagpipers that usher my graduates to the stage to the tears of joy from family and friends, I see nothing but hope, drive, and optimism in my students’ eyes as they wait for the moment their teachers have been talking about for many years. My students, like so many across the nation, are about to enter a brave new world. It is one in which their ability to engage in soft skills such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management will determine the extent of their success. These skills, according to the World Economic Forum, are the most in-demand skills companies are looking for today.

Our world has changed drastically while our graduates have been in our schools. Just two months before they started first grade, the iPhone was released to the marketplace for the first time. This device, along with all other brands of smartphone, have revolutionized just about every part of our society in some way. Many of today’s jobs didn’t exist when our students were in first grade, and yet we as educators had a duty even back then to prepare our students for this unknown future. It is getting more and more difficult to predict what our future will look like. Given this, how are our teachers preparing students for this brave new world? Have their instructional approaches changed? Have our school priorities changed? Do they need to change?

Our American preK–12 education system is at a crossroads, perhaps one of the most critical of its 350-year existence. Our profession needs to choose our next path, and the path we choose will be critiqued and debated for many years to come.

To understand the magnitude of this choice, consider a similar situation from the private sector. Just 20 years ago, Blockbuster was the leader of its industry with a store in just about every community across America. The chain thrived on a model where the consumer would go to the store to browse the hundreds, if not thousands of VHS and DVD titles available for rental. Around the turn of the millennium, this company made a fatal flaw when it opted not to acquire a little-known competitor, Netflix, that was building a business around mailing movies out in little red envelopes. The company later jumped onto streaming technology when it became widely available. The executives at the brick and mortar video chain either couldn’t or wouldn’t take note of the rise of streaming technology, a concept that was going to revolutionize the industry in just a few years. They believed that as long as its company guarded the content, it could control the market and decide when and how consumers would gain access to it.

Education faces this same dilemma. For centuries, schools were built on the assumption that they existed to store all of the world’s knowledge through books and the expertise of their teachers. It was the school’s job to distribute that knowledge to students, piece by piece, until students could reach a point where they would be ready to create new knowledge and understanding to impart to society. The rise of technology and information-sharing over the last 20 years has taken away the need for schools to be the keepers of that information.

We learn new things each day without the assistance of a teacher. Just last week, I learned how to change my bathroom faucet by watching others do it and post their results on YouTube. My 12-year old son, Brady, fixed my lawn mower this past summer using the same learning tool. Decades ago I had a part-time job at the college library, which was the building that held every piece of information that Boston University stored. Today, I carry a handheld electronic device in my pocket that has access to considerably more information than that Boston University library could ever hold today. In fact, it would probably take thousands of libraries to store that same amount of information. The problem we face now is that we have too much information. Some is good, some is bad. How do we use that information to make sense of our world?

The game has changed. Schools are no longer the gatekeepers of the knowledge. Their primary purpose is now to help students apply and transfer that knowledge and skills in and across content areas. Like Netflix mailing out videos in red envelopes just 20 years ago, many schools have started to figure this out. They have found ways to break from tradition and actively engage students in deeper and more authentic learning using strategies such as competency-based learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, blended learning, inquiry-based learning, personalized learning, performance assessments, portfolio assessments, and student-centered projects. Sadly, there are still some schools that can’t or won’t make this shift. They may suffer the same fate that Blockbuster endured as a result of its inability to keep pace.

Principals play a critical role in shaping the future of education and the direction their schools will take. They have to break from tradition and navigate tricky waters as they embark on this journey by recognizing their school’s limitations with regard to resources, policies, politics, and their community’s willingness to break from tradition in order to evolve.

What will it take from you as a principal for your school to be ready to implement a personalized, competency-based system?

Brian M. Stack is the NASSP 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, the author of Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work, 2018 by Solution Tree, and an expert for Understood.org. He consults with schools around the country engaged in school redesign. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children—Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey—on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter@bstackbu or learn more about him by visiting his blog.

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