Guest Blog: What’s Next? By Suzanne Malek

What’s next? Enforcing “time served” is for prison guards, not stewards of genius.

Vinci Daro and Theresa Morris are two razor-sharp colleagues of mine. Among other qualities, they are math curriculum and assessment designers; they also help teachers shift the focus of learning to center students. The teacher works to guide, encourage, and create conditions for unfettering the growth of all students as full human beings, as problem solvers, thinkers, learners, and doers. That’s how I understand it, anyway. It is the opposite of my experience with high school math in particular, and I literally love them for it.

Once I heard Theresa very quickly answer a question about her mission and purpose: “Recovering lost potential.” Another time I saw Vinci’s response to a question about the values and principles she proposes when she is coaching or facilitating, and I think it was the only thing she wrote: “Students are brilliant.”

Think about that. What is happening in a course built on those directives? Let’s explore.

A few years back I heard from two high school students from different schools who designed and prototyped shoes with batteries built into the soles, which recharge via kinetic and solar energy from being used like shoes – walking around, and it helps if it’s sunny. Both students researched previous attempts at such a design. Both devised and revised proposals, plans, designs. Both went into the world to share their inquiries and challenges with professionals, mainly scientists and engineers. One used design thinking and the other used the engineering design process to get to a working prototype, and they did not solve the design challenges in the same way. One of these innovators was acquiring a patent in hopes of a licensing deal and navigating all of that, while the other had a batch of shoes manufactured and shipped to families in Ethiopia so they can be less impacted by rolling blackouts. He raised the money for that, too! They both spoke publicly about their process, challenges, and learning and expertly Both answered a barrage of questions from adults. One shared her story through a professional presentation in a giant auditorium and the other stood by a digital display of his project and walked groups of people through as they approached and investigated his station.

How do we design for that? One answer may strike you as suspiciously familiar.

  • Decide what learning matters most. Collaboratively designed and research-based “graduate profiles” or “portraits,” “21st century leadership skills,” and “competency-based learning” encourage us to aid student development in certain authentic skills that are transferable and in high demand. Students aren’t going to have fully mastered these skills by the time they are seventeen years old. Adults in the building won’t have mastered them all either.

  • Define your competencies. Clearly formulate measurable outcomes that comprise this or that competency. This should define “what” students will do and leave plenty of room for student agency and choice on “how” the outcomes get demonstrated. “Backwards planning” and “Understanding by Design” are two approaches that empower teachers to think outside the box of traditional assessment and then “teach to a test” that is an unfettered expression of brilliance.

  • Design courses around tasks, units and projects that grow up out of student agency. Instead of having student choice sit in the sidecar, focus on helping the people in your class take the wheel (or handlebars); as much as possible at any given point, turbo-boost their collection of strategies and mindsets that help them build on their strengths, challenge themselves, and move toward independent demonstration, meaningful application, and unique creations full of evidence of the learning that matters most. “Performance assessment,” “assessment for learning,” “project-“ and “inquiry-based learning,” support all that. Allow students to decide what and how they create. Let them make outrageous proposals, justify them, develop them further… Applying skills to new, real and unpredictable situations is a skill in itself and is also rigorous and engaging! Offer experiences worth reflecting on.

Schools have found themselves bogged down by inflexible structures at a time when we need flexibility most. Some educators worry about students completing work too quickly and then not having anything to do with the remaining class time.

Rooting conditions for school success in things like seat time ultimately dilutes the data that actually measures student learning. Here are some things we will miss: what students can do now, their strengths and needs, how to support them, and what’s next for them. Pretty important stuff! Once you have them in front of you, how will you use that time to answer those other questions, and teach things that can be learned? Relationships, home visits, personalized interventions, bus passes, carpools, and other creative community support are more effective ways to address the high crimes of absence and tardiness!

Education shouldn’t be like serving a sentence. Let’s instead refocus our approach on what matters most and prepare ourselves to cultivate some genius. Model those transferable skills, bring all students relevant learning experiences, assist them in gaining useful strategies, expressing themselves, creating real things, taking initiative, and generally developing their powers! Let the reality of student brilliance and the high stakes of lost potential set the terms, not “time served.”

In other words, your students are not done yet. They’ve got way more to offer and more to learn. So what’s next for each of them and how will you let them do it?

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