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March 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 6
Learning for Life
Asking successful professionals which skills they think graduates will most need the most pushed these middle school teachers to change their practice.
How do we prepare students for a world that doesn't yet exist?
For years, the middle school faculty at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas, has wrestled with this question, trying to determine what skills students will need to succeed in the world they will be entering. We read Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators and Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel's 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. We developed portraits of our ideal middle and high school graduate. We did a lot of talking.
But we needed a mechanism to take our conversations a step further—a way to galvanize the faculty and create a sense of urgency for reshaping curriculum around the most essential skills.
Enter Project 2025.
In fall 2014, we launched a faculty action research project with the goal of developing an informed empathy for our students' future selves. We hoped to imagine the challenges and opportunities that our Trinity Valley alumni might face once they leave formal schooling and enter a workplace very different from our own. Trinity Valley is an independent (private) school with a socioeconomically diverse student population: 18 percent of our students receive needs-based financial aid, and 29 percent identify as students of color. Typically, 100 percent of our graduates enroll in college.
As a faculty, we needed to step out of the education echo chamber and hear from leaders and professionals on the front lines of our workforce. So we set out to interview experts in various professional fields—people who could give us an informed picture of what our students might encounter when they looked for their first jobs around the year 2025.
Before reaching out to interview subjects, we determined what we wanted to know. We established an interview protocol with three lines of inquiry:
Agreeing on key questions not only enabled us to compare results easily, but also provided a clear framework for teachers who felt anxious about conducting an interview of this nature.
Each teacher chose an individual to interview. This project was the focus of our professional development for two years, and all middle school teachers participated. To identify interviewees, we brainstormed together and shared personal contacts, then asked our contacts to share contacts. As we began to talk about our project with parents and peers outside the school, we were flooded with additional possibilities.
Our 34 interviewees covered a range of professions. We talked with individuals in public service—including a U.S. diplomat stationed in China—and in the arts—including a renowned Broadway performer and a visual effects artist. We also interviewed the managing partner of an oil and gas company, a geographic information systems specialist, and others in the energy or land management fields, as well as many workers in health and STEM-related fields. And considering that a tech startup company is now the first "job" for some youth, we talked with entrepreneurs in the tech or social media fields, including the chief operating officer of a social media company. Other fields represented included finance, real estate, law, and business endeavors. A few of our contacts were nearing retirement, some were in their late 20s, but most were in the middle of their professional career.
Despite feeling some initial nervous energy, the faculty was pleasantly surprised by how eager interviewees were to share their ideas and insights. Many had given a great deal of thought to how schools could do a better job of preparing students, but they'd never had educators ask them to share their thoughts. On average, interviews lasted about 30 minutes; some went much longer.
Each teacher took notes during the interview and then wrote a detailed summary of the conversation, which we compiled and distributed to the whole faculty. That's when our work really began!
In January 2015, we dedicated a full professional development day to synthesizing our results. Each middle school faculty member identified five to eight key takeaways from his or her personal interview. We broke into small groups, shared our findings, and built upon our colleagues' observations. We looked for patterns and common themes in the takeaways—and we found them, lots of them.
After this small-group exercise, we engaged in another round of synthesis as a full faculty to zero in on what these leaders had told us. Several insights emerged about the skills, experiences, and habits our students would need to be successful in their future careers.
This wasn't a discussion of someone else's 21st century skills. It was our own research—and the act of conducting research gave our teachers ownership over the results and an investment in using the findings to improve their classroom practice. Although we did this project faculty-wide, any professional learning community or department could do a similar procedure on a smaller scale, conducting informal interviews with acquaintances in a range of fields or sending a short survey to the community.
We synthesized what we heard from these professionals into five attributes of tomorrow's leaders.
Nearly every interviewee emphasized the primacy of strong communication skills—including the ability to write clearly, speak effectively in public and private, and listen carefully to colleagues and clients. For example, the mayor of a large city described how vital it was to be able to "connect with others"—to serve as a mediator between competing opinions, communicate effectively with a diverse constituency, and forge international relationships that benefit the city. The chief medical officer of a health group noted that he spends a lot of time collaborating with people in other industries. He emphasized that people in the medical technology industry must be able to clearly communicate concepts and needs with nonmedical professionals.
Although interviewees talked about the importance of subject-specific expertise, they also emphasized the advantage of cultivating an ever-expanding, diverse knowledge base—driven by curiosity and hands-on, real-world experiences.
A leader at a financial firm said she is more apt to hire a generalist—someone who can perform a variety of tasks well and take on the challenges of a shifting macro-economy—than a specialist. A U.S. diplomat explained that successful state department employees are "curious about the world" and want to learn as much as possible about how it works. He recommended that students travel to different countries, explore various professions, and resist locking themselves into one field of study or one way of doing things.
As our interviewees reflected on how their professions are changing, they made it clear that the ability to pivot in response to new information or technology is a necessity. Successful leaders adapt to changing conditions, explore problems from a variety of perspectives, manage "the unexpected" with grace, and integrate new understandings into existing systems.
A bank marketing president said that flexibility or "a willingness to change" is the key characteristic she looks for in new hires. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur told us that she wants employees who "enjoy solving problems in creative ways, especially when resources may be constrained, time short, and expectations high." A physicist turned entrepreneur described the "invention game" he played with his children, asking them to look around the room, identify a problem, and create as many scenarios as possible for how to fix it. He said he would like to see the "craft of inventing" become part of the K–12 curriculum.
One idea that quickly rose to the surface was the relationship of failure to success. Interviewees talked about success as a process—one that requires internal motivation, a willingness to take risks, and the ability to self-assess and learn from setbacks and mistakes. Tomorrow's leaders will also be skilled at recognizing and seizing opportunities—including less-than-glamorous challenges that others pass up.
An inventor talked about the grit and discipline that propelled him when his product was rejected multiple times. And a small business owner noted how vital it is for students to "experience building, failing and building again" as they prepare to take on real-world challenges.
Our research pointed to these traits of successful innovators: empathy, persistence to see a project through to fruition, and enthusiasm for the work. These attributes lead successful people to pay attention to the little details that will affect the lives of coworkers, clients, and end users.
The head of a social-network aggregation app said that all their marketing is relationship based: "You sometimes have a 30-second window to make a connection. From that you can build a relationship. You must be concise, understanding, listen to people, and connect what you are doing to them." As a physician asserted, "Any innovation that will truly impact the larger community must be driven by empathy and an understanding of those who stand to be impacted." Empathy, he said, comes from both interacting with patients and gathering data about their wants and needs.
As the next step, our faculty made concrete plans for changing their practice to strengthen these attributes in students. Trinity Valley teachers always set annual goals for how they want to stretch as practitioners. Project 2025 changed the trajectory of those goals.
At a September 2015 faculty meeting, we engaged in a visualization exercise. Teachers imagined meeting one of their former students at an airport in the year 2025 and hearing his or her excitement about a new job opportunity—then hearing a "thank you" for some specific preparation the teacher had provided. Each teacher then conducted an imaginative dialogue with this student, exploring what skills, experiences, and mindsets the student had taken from their time together in middle school.
After this initial exercise, we talked about practical ways we could enhance our classroom practice. Each teacher framed a goal around one of the five attributes of tomorrow's leaders. Here's a sampling of teachers' goals and shifts in practice.
A science teacher set a goal to adapt her traditional study of monarch butterfly migration—which already involved planting a butterfly garden and passing out milkweed seeds at the local botanic garden—into a way to help students communicate and collaborate with the community. Her interview subject, the marketing director of a popular app, had stressed the primacy of building relationships. So she created opportunities—at local elementary schools, the children's area of local public libraries, and a senior center—for students to share their knowledge about the butterflies with others.
This outreach has ignited her students' enthusiasm. Many told her that their presentations to children in the community have been a highlight of their year, and one student took it upon herself to create a monarch butterfly outreach program for ham radio operators across Texas. We now have a waiting list of schools that want our students to visit and share their knowledge.
One humanities teacher was inspired by the physicist who urged schools to teach the "craft of invention." Traditionally, this teacher begins each unit with an essential question related to the history and literature the students will study. This year, she added a new dimension to this practice: Students will identify a contemporary problem or issue that relates to this essential question, frame the problem clearly, and use design thinking to begin to brainstorm solutions. She strengthened her own understanding of design thinking and taught students this approach to problem solving.
The idea of "self-starters who grow from failure" intrigued another humanities teacher. He postulated that increased metacognition skills—an ability to evaluate their work, identify areas of struggle, and devise strategies for improving—would help his students develop a growth mindset. He has implemented an ePortfolio system for students to collect and reflect on their work, focusing on written and spoken communication skills and collaboration. His learners set specific goals for themselves in these areas, make plans for improvement, and evaluate their progress.
One student set this as her goal: "In the past, I have struggled with evidence in my writing. In this essay, I will more skillfully explain my topic, embed my quotations, and clearly show how my evidence proves my thesis." The goal identified a true weakness in the student's writing, but her teacher noticed that the girl's efforts on the next essay didn't correct the problem. When the student read his comments and saw that she still wasn't using evidence as she'd hoped, she asked for a conference. Student and teacher together looked at examples; the writer asked questions and then rewrote the essay—to great effect!
The humanities teacher's teaching partner added self-reflective surveys and teacher-student conferences to the writing process, asking students to see drafts as launching points rather than as end points. For example, after a student revises a section, this educator asks process-oriented questions such as, "Why did you change that sentence?" and "How can you use this information to improve other sections of the paper?"
One math teacher wanted to encourage risk taking in her classroom. After carefully researching the topic, including causes of risk aversion, the gender disparity in problem-based math competitions, and how to destigmatize risk taking in academic contexts, she examined how well her classroom culture welcomed risks and mistakes. For each unit, this teacher developed inventive, challenging problems that require students to stretch. After presenting the problem, she gives students time to individually explore potential solutions, then asks them to work with a classmate to share and combine ideas. Finally, students test solutions, including truly inventive ones, as a whole group.
The teacher has dubbed these problems "humdingers," and she strives to make them application-based so students can draw from their full arsenal of math skills. Although initially students were uncomfortable and wanted to be told how to solve each problem, after a few months, the teacher saw increasing levels of creativity in students' approach to the problems. Students are now asking for the humdingers. Their teacher noted, "I hear great vocabulary from them—phrases such as, 'Here's how I would apply that' or 'Have you considered looking at it this way?'"
Our exploration of the skills students will need for bright futures is ongoing. We've reached out to alumni, sharing Project 2025 and asking for volunteers to become part of a speaker series to share something about the skills and experiences that have helped them find success. Next year, we might conduct a second round of interviews with young alumni in diverse fields.
What began as a set of simple conversations—each teacher reaching out to one professional and asking three questions—has become a galvanizing touchstone as we strive to build a dynamic program that will equip students with the skills and experiences they need to engage their future with confidence.
Michael Kris is head of the middle school at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas.
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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