Essential Skills Taking Hold

I had a very uplifting pair of meetings this morning... and if you know me, you know that runs counter to my normal feeling about meetings.

However, first thing this morning I sat with teachers who were given license to re-envision some of the "exploratory" subjects taught to students at one of our middle schools. These teachers were in the process of re-working the second version of a concept that they started using this year. Simply put, they are providing a structure for students to learn entrepreneurship, business, art, engineering, and some technical education concepts in one cross-curricular course that focuses on authentic, project and process based learning opportunities for the students. If that wasn't enough to knock my socks off, the teachers suggested that they were ideally hoping to use the Essential Skills our district has outlined as the primary learning targets for the class. (Essential Skills is representative of what is commonly called the "21st Century Skills" in popular educational buzzword improperly coined term if only because we are more than a decade into the 21st Century and most of these skills are representative of skills that have been consistently important up to and long after this date.)

The piece that was most fulfilling, though, was the general agreement between teachers that the "content" of their particular disciplines would roll up easily into the seven identified Essential Skills. To me, that was the absolute break-through moment of the conversation that I witnessed. To them, it was just a common understanding. Can we really grasp how earth-shaking that is? Secondary (okay, middle school, but they were dealing with kids in grades 6-8) teachers were willing to set aside the central focus of content, specifically the argument that good teaching is measured by our ability to teach and to assess content learning for the sake of learning content. Instead, they agreed that content was the means by which skills would be practiced and assessed. I can only compliment the forward-thinking teachers in that room today -- I hope this was a glimpse into a much wider series of conversations that happen naturally across the profession. (Oddly, the most frustrating part of it was the structure of grades, reporting, and teacher accountability that were once again the 50,000 lb. gorilla in the room standing in the way for well-intentioned educators trying to find a new path for educational innovation.)

I rushed in late to the next meeting -- the focal point of this meeting was also the Essential Skills. We've recently unveiled two tools in the district that would reasonably support the adoption of an electronic portfolio for students. We needed to discuss if an e-portfolio was truly a route worth exploring -- a route that we were willing to invest time and resources to achieve. There were conversations leading up to the meeting that dealt with the question of how to best assess student growth related to the Essential Skills. It has been fairly apparent to me that the only meaningful way to assess skills such as Communication and Collaboration, Creativity and Innovation, and Digital Citizenship was to turn to an evidence-based (artifact that represent the learning) reflection portfolio. What wasn't apparent to me, though, was that others so agreed with that thought. Those that surrounded the table were whole-heartedly in favor of a student-owned, evidence-based e-portfolio that could be used to assess growth related to the Essential Skills. So in favor of the idea that they were seriously invested in figuring out a way to put our efforts and resources behind the project. Perhaps I have not given my peers in education enough credit to this point, but I truly thought that movement in this direction would be more of a sales pitch than a campfire sing-a-long. Admittedly, the folks at the table were some of our most forward thinking (I'm fortunate to work with people who are able to see beyond the educational status quo) in our district. However, the fact that there was little question if this was a good step, and a lot more emphasis on the details of what it would look like and how it could be achieved, was a sign that the mountain I was anticipating we'd need to climb may be more of a foothill.

So, to recap what I saw today --
1) Teachers at a middle school are eagerly planning a cross-curricular, project/process based learning opportunity for students to demonstrate learning that is focused on teaching skills that kids will need for the rest of their lives
2) A group that openly embraced and supported the concept of a student-owned portfolio that focuses on students taking responsibility for showing their growth in the various Essential Skills, potentially in grades K-12.

Yeah, I'd say it was a pretty good day. And yeah, I would say that innovation in education has taken hold. I guess it is fair to say that the idea that the Essential Skills matter is truly taking hold.