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'How Do We Steer This Thing?' The Missing Element in Next Generation Learning

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By Dave Lash, principal at Dave Lash & Company and co-author of the MyWays Student Success Series

When I think of educational inequities and the pace of the innovation response we know as next generation learning, I recall an account I read in Henry Ford's autobiography. A full 10 years after building his first automobile, Ford and his team had still not thought of the steering wheel (employing a crude tiller instead). A few years later, after incorporating the steering wheel, half a million cars were cruising the streets of America! This fast-after-slow tipping point in innovation is common but not inevitable. Considering the urgency to reinvent public education in the United States and transform it into an effective "equity machine," it's clear we need a jolt like the steering wheel!

Such a jolt in education would do three things: signal where we're trying to go with next generation learning, show what it will look like when we get there, and spark students, teachers, parents, and community members to help get us there quickly. Developing students' "cornerstone careers" could be the answer. 

Students Need Much More Preparation for the New Realities of Life After High School

The "brawn to brains" dynamic of modern employment and college is more intense and demanding than anything previous generations have encountered. Prospects are dramatically worse for economic mobility of low-income and minority students. Three years of research for the MyWays Student Success Series highlights three educational priorities for improving equity and economic mobility:

  1. Preparing all students for the complex and risky "wayfinding decade" of working and learning upon leaving high school, regardless of their education and career goals.
  2. Ensuring that every student self-identifies as an apprentice-adult investing in personal strengths and abilities honed in the real world as well as the classroom.
  3. Equipping every student with the ability to develop a portfolio of basic "career capital" attractive to employers, including job-specific skills, work experience, and social capital, as well as degrees and credentials.

Along with learning science, these educational priorities should be helping steer next generation learning. Students need even more than the broader, deeper competencies outlined in frameworks like MyWays; their middle school and high school years, in particular, need to be reconceptualized as acceleration lanes in which they can gradually acclimate to the faster pace of higher education and the workplace.

Thoughts on Turning Next Generation Learning Into a Movement

Happily, next gen learning is advancing from the "beautiful exceptions" stage of isolated innovation to a period of increasingly broad, thoughtful, and sustained adaptation in schools across the United States. Competency-based learning, social-emotional learning, and more authentic, project-based learning—among other facets of next generation learning—appear here to stay. Yet, much like the early-automobile makers, we are tinkering with a multitude of self-designed, imitated, or acquired components. Local policies, resources, and constraints often steer the work more than a clear vision of student needs.

Furthermore, we lack a unified, compelling message for where public education needs to go—what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "stickiness factor" that helps trigger a tipping point. The very terms "next generation learning" and "21st-century skills" imply a need for change but not the nature of that change. To launch a movement, it's time for the steering wheel of next generation learning—the sticky message that will clearly signal to students, teachers, parents, and the community as a whole a dramatically different vision of education's means and ends.

A Proposal: Organize Next Generation Learning Around "Cornerstone Careers"

To make any technology or product understandable and sticky requires describing new characteristics in familiar terms, a process known as "natural mapping" in the field of user-centered design. For example, the Apple Macintosh in 1984 combined a host of new technologies into a "graphical user interface" that was made understandable by organizing the screen and icons as familiar desktop elements.

Similarly, we might organize and describe next generation learning around a small number of familiar cornerstone careers that encompass a set of broader, deeper competencies like those in the MyWays Student Success Framework. A cornerstone-careers approach wouldn't require difficult policy or budget changes: Any school or district, regardless of its current school model and constraints, could begin by layering the approach over its traditional and emergent learning systems.

Here's a set of possible cornerstone careers that schools can use to organize their learning models:

  • Reporter: research and interview skills, case making, writing and communications
  • Teacher: learning and teaching strategies, explanation and coaching, giving helpful feedback
  • Project Manager: scheduling, resourcing, delegating and coordinating, problem-solving
  • Scientist: observing, measuring, hypothesizing, experimenting in the physical and social realms
  • Creator: designing and building as a maker, artist, and/or entrepreneur

Most of the 20 MyWays competencies are rolled up into these cornerstone careers. In addition, most if not all of these five skill sets will be utilized in nearly any college major or career. Consider, for example, the various skill sets required to be a nurse or health-care manager, a web designer or IT staffer, or a bookkeeper or carpenter.

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Let's look at how the approach might work through a hypothetical example: a junior named Jasmyn attending her local public high school. Jasmyn's middle school and high school have traditional, standards-based school models, but teachers have modified many of their classroom assignments to be compatible with the five cornerstone careers. In fact, project-based learning connected to the careers is on the rise. In addition, many extracurricular activities have also been aligned to these five skill sets.

The cornerstone-careers approach at Jasmyn's school is communitywide and asset-based, offering an understandable and inclusive strategy to meet today's crisis in public education. Parents with skills in these five fields actively participate as do local professionals and college students. Community organizations offering summer programs and youth-development activities easily merge their efforts. Both teachers and students continually identify, vet, and incorporate extensive, free learning resources available online and through professional associations.  

Most importantly, while Jasmyn is gaining ability in all five career skill sets, she has discovered she has strong social and organizing skills that are particularly well-suited to teaching and project managing. Several nonteacher adults have connected with Jasmyn through the program, lending encouragement and acting as informal mentors. Thanks to her many classroom and real-world experiences, Jasmyn is now a confident apprentice advancing in two of the cornerstone careers and envisioning her possible future in these fields. Meanwhile, the integration of career development with traditional academic subjects is giving Jasmyn a greater appreciation for academic fundamentals.

While still in high school, Jasmyn's "five careers" have already made her a more productive student, as well as an apprentice-adult—better informed about career opportunities and ready to tackle the challenges in the years ahead.

A cornerstone-careers approach is not a separate CTE track; it applies to all schools that want to steer and accelerate education toward greater equity and economic mobility. The more schools and teachers participating in a given community, the more nonschool participants and partners come forward. Tapping community members and resources is especially crucial in high-poverty communities where students lack the family resources of more affluent students.

Ultimately, cornerstone careers have the potential to become the steering wheel of next generation learning by aligning and guiding collective effort toward the three educational priorities for improving equity and economic mobility: preparing students for the wayfinding decade ahead; ensuring every student self-identifies as an apprentice-adult; and equipping every student with the ability to develop a portfolio of basic career capital.


Photos, from the top:

  • Students at Vista High School in Vista, Calif., develop real-world skills and combinations like those proposed in the cornerstone-careers approach. (Courtesy of Next Generation Learning Challenges)
  • The five cornerstone careers. (Courtesy of Dave Lash)
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