Showcasing What Learners Can Do

March 17, 2017
Knowledge Works

by Katherine Prince

A key opportunity for shaping the future of learning is to renegotiate definitions of success, examining what education systems aim to achieve and who gets to say. As “Shaping the Future of Learning: A Strategy Guide” and the companion “Shaping the Future of Learning: K-12 School-Based Education Strategy Workbook” highlight, the changing external environment is calling into question current assumptions about the fundamental purpose of education. In particular, the changing nature of work – which is being reshaped by new machine partnerships and contingent employment structures – is challenging current notions of college and career readiness.

In response, the education leaders with whom we talked in creating these publications questioned the fundamental purpose of education. They also raised the need to broaden measures of success beyond the scores and rankings that most often measure individual, school, and district success today. Our ongoing work on the need to redefine readiness to prepare all learners to navigate the changing employment landscape highlights the need to place greater emphasis on foundational social-emotional skills, as well as on cognitive skills and practices that can help people navigate ambiguity and adapt to new contexts. These skills and practices can be some of the most difficult to assess.

Therefore, as education stakeholders attempt to broaden definitions of success, identify corresponding measures, and ensure that learners and communities have a voice in that discussion, showcasing what learners can do is one strategy that educators in K-12 schools can employ today. Supporting learners in sharing their work, talents, and ideas publicly can help counter the broader public’s often limited view of what young people, especially low-income young people of color, are capable of and what impact they can have on their communities. It can also spur adults to rethink their beliefs about learners’ abilities to demonstrate agency in their learning and follow their interests.

Some schools and school networks are beginning to find ways of showcasing learners’ ability to impact their communities. For example:

    • Students at Big Picture Schools intern in areas of interest, complete authentic projects, and present exhibitions of their learning to staff, parents, peers, and mentors.
    • Students at New Tech Network, a former subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, present some projects to audiences that include community members as well as people from the school community.
    • Students at Boise’s One Stone complete public exhibitions of their project-based work to real-world audiences at the end of each term.
    • At Iowa BIG, a partnership of three school districts, students choose interdisciplinary projects that must have a participatory third-party audience so that students address a real community need.
    • Students at Highland Academy of the Anchorage School District in  Anchorage, Alaska, make presentations at the end of a level of learning called Personal, Social, and Service Standards. This content area focuses on social and emotional learning as well as on culture, health, and work ethic standards. A panel of peers, staff members, and sometimes parents participates in the assessment of the end-of-level presentation.
    • Students at R5 High School of the Mesa District 51 school district in Grand Junction, Colorado, use community-focused performance-based learning projects to showcase their learning and connect to their community.
    • The Knights STEM Academy at Kenowa Hills School District in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is an authentic school-business partnership for students to learn off-campus at an advanced manufacturing business and work next door to employees from DeWys Manufacturing and Move Systems, which manufactures next generation, 21st Century food carts that utilize green technologies. Students hosted a celebration and open house with other local businesses, policy makers, government officials, and other local community members to showcase their purpose and connect to the community.

In another approach, University of Chicago Charter School is introducing a student agency score to help convey to students that their ideas matter. As Shayne Evans explained it at SXSWedu, the agency score aims to incentivize students to take control of their own education and their own leadership. Students will earn points toward badges through activities such as leading program at school, facilitating a classroom discussion, or participating in out-of-school activities such as Girl Scouts or chess club. Evans said, “We believe once we track it, students will get more reps at it. If they get more reps at it, they will get better at it.”

These examples can serve as sources of inspiration and tactical ideas as you explore the strategy of showcasing what learners can do, shifting adult perceptions and bolstering young people’s confidence in themselves. As you consider possible ways of implementing this strategy in your context, you might begin by reflecting on how you currently give learners the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and interests, academic or otherwise. Then consider your ideal measures of success and how you might bridge the gaps, even in small ways, between today’s approaches and your future ideal.

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