Doing Work That Matters

Let’s start with an uncomfortable statistical truth: In the United States, at least, today’s schools are failing our students.

DIV2While graduation rates may be at historic highs (Layton, 2014), almost 60 percent of the students in our high schools are disengaged (Busteed, 2013). Boredom is the driving force behind the decision to drop out – and that boredom starts early: 71 percent of the students who leave our schools without a diploma lost interest in schooling by 9th and 10th grade. Worse yet, the majority of high school dropouts are convinced that they could have graduated if they had been motivated to work hard (Azzam, 2007). Even the students who survive our school systems are struggling: One in three high school graduates who move on to higher education must take remedial classes in order to be fully prepared to meet college expectations (Sparks & Malkus, 2013) and less than half of all employers believe that college graduates are prepared to meet the challenges of the modern workplace (Mourshed, Farrell, & Barton, 2012).

Critical adults stand ready to hold students responsible for these statistics. Take Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation (2008), for example. As an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Bauerlein has grown tired of the growing number of seemingly unprepared kids sitting in his classrooms:

Whatever their other virtues, these minds know far too little, and they read and write and calculate and reflect way too poorly. However many hours they pass at the screen from age 11 to 25, however many blog comments they compose, intricate games they play, videos they create, personal profiles they craft, and gadgets they master, the transfer doesn’t happen. The Web grows, and the young adult mind stalls (Kindle 1683).

But instead of blaming students, the real blame for our failing system falls squarely on the shoulders of the parents, teachers, principals and policymakers who have allowed schooling to get in the way of learning. Determined to race our way to the top of international rankings and to hold our systems accountable for results, we have turned our schools into test-driven learning spaces where imagination, inspiration and innovation are pushed aside in favor of memorization, repetition and recitation. As school change expert Will Richardson explains in “Why School?”:

“We focus on the easiest parts of the learning interaction – information acquisition, basic skills, a bit of critical thinking, analysis – accomplishments that can be easily identified and scored. Learning is relegated to the quantifiable: that which is easy to rank and compare” (Kindle 226).

Kick-starting the young adult mind, then, depends on something more than our willingness to criticize the kids in our classrooms. It depends on our willingness to reimagine our learning spaces. The simple truth is that learning isolated skills in isolated schools is inherently dissatisfying to students living in an era where connections have changed everything. Learning alone is pointless when new partners, ideas and opportunities are available to anyone with access to the Internet. Instead of forcing our kids to march through an irrelevant curriculum in irrelevant classrooms, it’s time to give every student the chance to do work that matters while in our schools. As Paul Miller – Director of Global Initiatives for the National Association of Independent Schools – explains, “There are critical problems that are facing the entire world, and the thinking is that it’s not sufficient to wait for students to graduate, get jobs, and reach a point where they might have sufficient authority to address any of the these issues. What we really need is for them to start addressing these issues right away” (Cutler).

The best news for educational leaders is that turning schools into places where students do work that matters on a regular basis isn’t an overwhelming task.

Miller’s organization has worked diligently to give students chances to do work that matters by structuring biannual Challenge 20/20 projects. Based on the book High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them by J. F. Rischard (2003), Challenge 20/20 projects pair two or three interested classrooms in countries around the world together for six month studies of cross-border challenges like habitat loss, global warming, poverty, access to education for all, and the changing nature of intellectual property rights in a digital world. Students participating in Challenge 20/20 projects begin by looking at the problem through the unique lens of their own countries, cultures and experiences. Then, they work together to identify solutions that are worth pursuing. Finally, they use digital tools to raise awareness about both the consequences of ignoring the issue and the solutions that hold the most promise.

The students involved in Michael Furdyk’s DeforestACTION initiative  – an extension of Microsoft’s Asia Pacific Partners in Learning Program that is designed to empower learners to “take control of the planet that they will inherit” by fighting back against global deforestation – are also doing work that matters in school. Bringing learners from across continents together to solve a complex real-world problem is an example of what meaningful pedagogy in a modern learning space can look like in action. As educational expert Michael Fullan (Stratosphere, 2013) explains:

“Over 80,000 students from more than 60 countries are developing as global citizens by collaborating to solve global problems; reviewing and evaluating the causes, impact and politics of deforestation at the local and global levels; analyzing, planning, and organizing by using collaborative technology; preparing and implementing action plans by engaging in interactive activities; and taking part in valuable conversations with peers and mentors.” (Fullan 50)

What Miller and Furdyk have both recognized is that meaning and motivation go hand-in-hand for today’s learners. While core competencies, goals and expectations still stand at the center of the purpose-driven learning experiences created by Miller and Furdyk – it’s impossible to work together with global partners to solve real-world problems without mastering the kinds of skills and content detailed in state and national curricula guides – the students involved in Challenge 20/20 and DeforestACTION projects are more than just college and career ready. They are also community ready – driven by a purpose that goes far beyond earning the right grades or passing the next tests or getting the best jobs. They develop an action-orientation towards citizenship and stand ready to make a real difference in the world around them.

The best news for educational leaders is that turning schools into places where students do work that matters on a regular basis isn’t an overwhelming task. New technologies aren’t necessary in districts that have already made initial investments in both devices and high-speed connections to the web. What’s necessary is a willingness to start asking uncomfortable questions about the way that the tools that you have already purchased are being used in the classroom. Are the students in your schools using devices and connections to participate in the world around them? If not, you are missing out on the real potential of modern learning spaces. As Michael Fullan argues, “If we are going to invest money, time and other resources in purchasing and integrating technology it needs to be hugely value added with respect to student learning. Moreover, it needs to lead to the development of 21st Century skills and ways of thinking required by students to be global critical citizens who can help change the world for the better” (53).

New curricula are also unnecessary. In fact, the chances are good that no matter where you live and work, mastery has already been redefined. Responding to the realities of the innovation economy – where solving problems efficiently, thinking critically while managing multiple streams of information, and working collaboratively with peers have become the new entry level skills – the knowledge-driven outcomes that long dominated state and national curriculum guides are being pushed aside in favor of sets of standards that expect students to do something with what they know. Determining, analyzing and evaluating have largely replaced objectives that emphasize nothing more than remembering. That means that giving students opportunities to wrestle with complex challenges in purpose-driven learning spaces may just be the best way to teach the required curricula.

What’s needed, then, is nothing more than a new attitude about what it means to be educated. Change starts only once we are ready to retire our tried-and-true notions about schooling and students and success. The simple truth is that our kids are ready for something more – and it is our responsibility to create the meaningful, action-centered learning spaces that they deserve.

Works Cited:

Azzam, A. M. (2007, April). Special report: Why students drop out. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 91-93. Accessed at on January 3, 2015.

Bauerlein, M. (2008). The dumbest generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30). New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

Busteed, B. (2013, January 7). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year [Web log post]. Accessed at on October 10, 2014.

Cutler, D. (2013, August 23). Changing the world with Challenge 20/20. Accessed at on October 22, 2014.

Fullan, M. (2013). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Dons Mills, Ontario, Canada: Pearson.

Layton, L. (2014, April 28). National high school graduation rates at historic high, but disparities still exist. Washington Post. Accessed at on January 3, 2015.

Mourshed, M., Farrell, D., & Barton, D. (2012). Education to employment: Designing a system that works. New York, NY: McKinsey Center for Government.

Richardson, W. (2012). Why school?: How education must change when learning and information are everywhere. New York: TED Conferences.

Rischard, J.F. (2003). High noon: 20 global problems, 20 years to solve them. New York: Basic Books.

Sparks, D., & Malkus, N. (2013, January). First-year Undergraduate remedial coursetaking: 1999–2000, 2003–04, 2007–08. National Center for Education Statistics: Statistics in Brief, 2013(13), 1-12. Accessed at on January 3, 2015.

Image credit: Berkeley Lab

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