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Shifting to Skill-Focused Graduation Requirements

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By Matthew Riggan, a co-founder of the Workshop School in the School District of Philadelphia

One of the most exciting, and scary, things we're working on at the Workshop School in the School District of Philadelphia this summer is a pivot to new graduation requirements based on the NGLC MyWays framework. We've always believed that the broader set of competencies expressed by MyWays is critical and that we need to focus on helping students build those skills just as much as content knowledge. But because content dominates traditional graduation requirements (4 credits of English, 4 credits of social studies, etc.), we, like many others, have had to get creative in how we make other skills a priority.

No longer. Starting next year, our students will earn credits and grades in Creative Know How (problem solving, creativity, collaboration) and Habits of Success (professionalism, project management, self-awareness) and Wayfinding (long-range planning, networking, negotiating college and career environments). This is both exciting and daunting. It's what we've wanted for a long time, but it's also forcing us to change and adapt quickly and to wrestle with our own shortcomings. While this is very much still a work in progress, the process has already produced some epiphanies for me.

Content knowledge is a byproduct of skill development. Increasingly, I find myself thinking about everything we teach in terms of skills. In our real-world learning approach (which includes projects, internships, entrepreneurship, and other out-of-school learning experiences), we teach students how to do stuff, whether that means working in teams, writing an argument, producing documentaries, or using a laser cutter. In the course of developing and using these skills, they build content knowledge. Too often in traditional schools, we assume it works in the opposite direction. Flipping that relationship does two things: It elevates skill development within the curriculum and it pushes us to think in much more flexible ways about what content students should learn.

We don't generate enough evidence of skill development. When assessing skills was embedded within a content-based course framework, it masked the fact that we don't assess these skills very precisely, or in enough different ways, or frequently enough. Now that we know that students will be receiving grades and course credits in skill areas independent of content knowledge, we're forced to wrestle with questions of evidence, expectations, and standards. This is pushing us is to find and create a whole new library of assessment tools and processes that we can embed within project work. It's also forcing us to get more specific about performance criteria so we can clearly communicate expectations to both staff and students.

More process means less product. If we are devoting significantly more time and energy to teaching and assessing skills, we need to invest less time and energy in other things. In our model, this means scaling back the number of deliverables we build into projects or reducing the scope of those deliverables. We are not asking students to work less, but we are asking them to work differently. For teachers, we're shifting their focus and energy from assessing work at the end of a project (product) to real-time assessment and feedback as the work is happening (process).

All of this is a little scary. We're letting go of some things we've done for a long time to leap into new areas where we feel much less comfortable. We're challenging old dogmas about what "rigor" means. We're putting ourselves on a steep learning curve as we try to assimilate lessons from other schools and research how to best teach and assess the skills we value most. And we're signing up to do a whole lot more work when there was already plenty to do. But if the result of that work is that we graduate students who are better prepared for life beyond high school, there is no doubt that the effort, and the risk, are worth it.

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