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Schools Must Help Students Understand How Important They Are

If we’re honest with ourselves about what schools communicate to students and the world, I’d say predominantly it’s how important school is for students. Most often, students are told, both explicitly and implicitly, that the information in their classes will be important for them in college and later in life. Conversely, how often do schools communicate to students that they can positively impact the world now -- create a product or service, conduct important research to improve/save lives, or help solve one of society’s thorniest problems? Furthermore, how often do schools engage their students and give them agency to positively impact the world while they’re in school? Again, if we’re honest, I think the answer is not often enough.

After re-reading sections of Building School 2.0 by Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase, I was struck by the following passage and the parallels it draws to the article, “Wake-Up Call for Grads: Entry-Level Jobs Aren’t So Entry Level Any More,” in the May 11th print edition of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Here’s what Lehmann and Chase wrote:

“School must help our students understand how important they are. Whenever and wherever possible, we endeavor to help our students see their work as having real meaning now, not just that it might have meaning at some vague time in the future. Students will do the scut work necessary to make real connections and do meaningful work when students have ownership of the world and see how the work is important to both their lives and to the lives of others.”

Now let’s turn to the WSJ article, “Wake-Up Call for Grads: Entry-Level Jobs Aren’t So Entry Level Any More,” that describes the skills and qualities needed in today’s college graduates. According to the article, the bar for entry-level jobs has risen considerably. Gone are the days when new graduates had a few years to hone their product/service knowledge and technical and professional skills inside an employer’s organization before they interface directly with customers.

“...employers are looking for fast learners who can quickly evolve and have exceptional soft skills -- the ability to write, listen and communicate effectively. Specifically, the four top skills employers want from young hires are:
  • Communication - to work with clients rather than be stuck in the back office

  • Listening - to solve problems for clients

  • Numeracy - to work in Excel, analyze data and run queries in datasets

  • Adaptability - to learn new skills as their job evolves

[Furthermore,] learning to lead without authority is now the only way to get anything done.”

So if employers are telling new graduates, by the work they are giving them, how important they are from the first day on the job, shouldn’t schools be doing the same in order to prepare young people to hit the ground running when they enter their first job? Yes, you may say, but isn’t this the job of colleges and universities? At Pathways High and other learner-centered schools, we contend that this mindset and skill preparation should begin much earlier in a young person’s education. Each day, our staff strives to help students see themselves as important contributors to our extended community. One way we accomplish this goal is by making the students’ work highly visible to the community.

“What do the walls say?” is an important question posed by leaders at High Tech High in San Diego, as described in Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s new book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School. “It is barely an exaggeration to say that all available wall space, including that of the bathrooms, is covered in student-produced artifacts.” I can corroborate this statement as I visited High Tech High in April 2016 and was awed, like many others, by the exceptional creativity and quality of the students’ work prominently displayed everywhere. I was so impressed by the women’s bathroom that I even took several photos of it as can be seen here in this blog post. I can honestly say that I’ve only taken a photo of a school bathroom twice and the second time was at Pathways High during our mid-year student exhibition this year. Shouldn’t all school bathrooms be worthy of photographing?

Exhibiting high quality student work communicates to students, staff, and the community what is valued. According to Mehta and Fine,

“For students, the constant reminder of what their peers produce is a more powerful motivation to do their best work than any grading rubric; it communicates with unwavering clarity that they can and are expected to produce work that holds its own in the public eye.” According to one veteran teacher, “Nobody wants to be the one with nothing to show when people are going to see your work. (The lack of a specific reference to 'teachers' or 'students’ here is intentional.)"

At Pathways High, Excellence through Purpose is one of our four core values. When students are motivated by a purpose they care deeply about and both high expectations and examples of excellence are made visible, the outcomes can be incredibly powerful. Pathways High is only in our second year of living our value of Excellence through Purpose, but I’m encouraged by our students and staff’s commitment to producing meaningful, high quality work right now. We believe we cannot afford to wait as the work that needs to be accomplished is growing ever more complex and pressing. The Pathways High end of year exhibition is Tuesday, June 11, 4:00 - 7:00 pm. Will you join us?


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