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What is the ‘Goal’ of Secondary School? No Student Left Unknown

Once a foundation’s been laid, then what?

Last week I shared my response to Tim Kaine’s policy recommendation for elementary education, which I thought was based on an unnecessarily narrow view of student capacity and potential. But when Kaine speaks to secondary education, I think he’s on to something: He asks, “why don't we personalize learning for every student?  Shouldn't we strive for an educational model that involves individualized education for all?”

Kaine continues: “We don't live in a ‘one size fits all’ world and our education system should reflect that.”  He makes an analogy to IEPs (individualized education plans) that are developed for students with learning disabilities. Shouldn’t every student have something equally personalized? In fact, there is already a term for this: an ILP, or individualized learning plan (Talked about here: Planning for Life After High School), This would be a great improvement over the factory model that has dominated public education for the last 100 years.

(As an aside, this is another reason the move towards standardized assessments as a graduation requirement is so misguided. As I’ve said elsewhere, requirements such as the Keystone Exams in Pennsylvania will only serve to entrench a mid-20th century approach to education. We’re trying to stuff new wine into old wineskins!)

Further, memorizing ‘stuff’ is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world; especially since 1) most of what you might want to know can be looked up in a matter of minutes or seconds, and 2) unless that ‘stuff’ is personally relevant to you, you’re going to forget most of it, anyway. How much of high school biology do you remember? But I’ve digressed.

Two broad skills are becoming increasingly important: 1) the ability to take what you’ve learned and apply it to real problems; and 2) ‘learning how to learn’; that is, knowing how to go about acquiring new skills or information when you need it. ‘Life-long learning’ may sound like a cliché, but the days are long gone when ‘everything you need to know’ for your career could be learned in college. The Partnership for 21st-century Skills has helpfully framed this skill set around the four competencies of  Critical-thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity - skills that will be needed for the rest of one’s life and career (and which are not easily measured with standardized tests).

But to truly individualize instruction for high school students would require that we first build the capacity to better know them as individuals.  (As expressed in our high school faculty’s new motto: “No student left unknown.”)  Bill Daggett articulated it this way: first relationships, than relevance, than rigor. You build relationships so that you understand what is ‘relevant’ to the student, and that relevance provides the intrinsic motivation for ‘rigor’. You can’t get to rigor without relationships.

This is what it might look like: every student, along with parents, periodically sitting down with a trusted teacher and developing both a long and short-term education plan. Some components would be common to every student – literacy in math, science, communications and civics, in addition to the other ‘21st-century’ skills – but even these competencies would be in service of the student’s own goals and interests.

Finally, we shouldn’t expect students to know what they want to do with their lives when they’re 15-years-old. (Given how quickly the world is evolving, many students may not know even ten years from now.)  But that’s not important. What is important is getting in touch with what’s meaningful to students now, and allowing them to pursue that interest with intent and enthusiasm - gathering essential life skills along the way. This will be the foundation for whatever they decide to do later. 

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