When I graduated high school, it was very clear that there were two distinct types of learners: those who were college bound, and those who were “hands on learners.” Despite an effort in the 80’s and 90’s to move away from tracking learners, the system let learners track themselves in this very traditional way. Because of that, so many learners were ill-prepared, and ill-advised as they left high school, often falling into pre-determined pathways and seeing very few options before them.
Thank goodness education, and educators, are changing. Through the lens of proficiency-based learning, we can adopt a strengths-based approach to help learners discover their passions, and design their own pathways toward success. And justifiably so, this may or may not include college. With the average cost of one year of college tuition in the U.S hovering around $32,000, many graduates are choosing a less traditional path toward their chosen vocation, and we need to give them the tools to do that.
Our models of education rely on educators identifying what information learners need to be considered knowledgeable, and those decisions were based on a liberal studies model that evolved out of Greek schools of philosophy. While we want to ensure that learners are exposed to a wide variety of content, we’ve lost sight of the deeper tenets of the Greek schools which start with self-knowing and questioning. Before a learner can discover a passion and purpose for learning, they need to discover themselves. It’s our responsibility as educators to create the environments and structure that support this kind of self-discovery.
A recent high school graduate recently said to me, “Why would I go to college if I don’t know what I want to do?” This struck a chord with me on two levels. The first was that the school failed in helping her to identify her strengths and passions. Though she aced all the tests, she had no idea what to do with herself once high school was over. The second chord was the change in how this generation views post high school planning. Most teenagers I talk to want to get right to work. They are full of energy and agency. They just need guidance and support.
The Changing Landscape:
The explosion of the internet has changed the economic landscape as we know it. Websites doling advice on how to make money online are ubiquitous. Passion projects can evolve into industries. Everyone has access to funding, clients, and advertising, and yet, our education system has not evolved with the economic system. Educators need to guide learners toward their passions in a way that is organized and fruitful, and supports academic, personal and vocational learning.
So what skills do our learners need in this modern age? They need to be problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators. Personalized learning is an approach that refocuses the goals of learning away from rote memorization and formulaic writing to authentic demonstration and mastery of skills. It incorporates learners’ interests to generate the content material that can then be used to practice and hone transferrable skills. This approach will benefit learners regardless of what post high school path they choose, which in turn has a better chance of developing highly skilled members of our future communities. Teachers and learners need a platform in which they can collaborate on the learning process together. A platform that enables this level of collaboration between teacher and learner will, in itself, better prepare students for future endeavors and instill the kind of growth mindset that engenders a sense of agency that traditional teaching methods do not.
Ellen Repstad has been working in education for 18 years. In that time she has been an English teacher, a reading specialist and most recently an administrator. Ellen is most committed to facilitating systems change through education transformation and the empowerment of teachers and students. She lives in Bristol Vermont with her husband, two daughters and three dogs.