It’s early fall and each school has communicated to teachers, students, and parents how this year will be better than the past.
Small changes have been made to the scope and sequence, perhaps there is new professional development offered on formative assessments: a fresh coat of paint on an old car. New technology has been bought for thousands of dollars and soon an already overburdened faculty will be trained on new platforms, systems, and apps—all of these modifications designed to bring the future to the classroom.
In education, there is a huge emphasis on teaching students to be future-ready. To most, this means one-to-one devices, learning how to code, new robotics clubs, and opportunities to use virtual reality (VR). These changes to the classroom are focused on building more adaptable students who are prepared to work with new technologies and make learning more engaging and efficient. All of these updates will benefit students, but few will enable higher levels of preparedness for a future where basic work can be automated and human-based skills are essential. Unfortunately, the way that the majority of time is spent in the classroom will not change and that will prevent our students from truly being ready for the future.
After all the money is spent and the faculty has been trained, students enter classrooms still eerily similar to the classrooms that we once wandered into. There are rows of desks, guided notes, and PowerPoint presentations of lectures. In a classroom like this students are expected to be passive in their learning. They come in at the right time, sit in a place they did not choose, and are expected to be quiet and polite while someone else tells them what they need to know. They have no agency in their learning or autonomy in their space. They are cogs in the machine of education.
This way of learning is not natural, nor does it prepare students for the future. Even when computers are being used, or new apps are selected to drill content, the lack of agency and engagement is prevalent. Students are doing work to play the game of education, but the learning is not intrinsic or purposeful. Students do not know the purpose of the content they are learning or how it applies to their lives. They do the work because they want the grade, learning nothing but how to game the system.
If we want to prepare future-ready students we must reevaluate what learning is and what it looks like. We cannot rely on old systems because that’s the way it’s always been done. With new technology, interconnected systems, and global markets, our students cannot be passive in their learning. We must prepare them with AI-proof skills that will build strong foundations of empathy, active listening, communication, and decision-making. These are the ways to build adaptable people ready to tackle complex problems and find systems-based solutions.
This does not mean scrapping all of the content and starting over by teaching kindergarten students international business norms. The content can stay. But, the way work gets done needs to change. Students of all ages, especially starting in elementary school, need to have agency in their learning, working in teams, and discovering knowledge. This seems like a complete overhaul that would take years of training and millions to launch. Fortunately, these changes are simple and easy to try, one at a time. The small changes can start tomorrow, with incredible results in the culture of the school, the level of intrinsic learning of the students, and the happiness of the teachers and parents.
Answer Wide Open Questions (WOQ)
We all know what essential questions are and why they are beneficial. We know that posing a well-crafted question at the beginning of a unit will help hook students’ interest and set them on a path of learning. Unfortunately, many essential questions are heavily content-based, pushing students towards one final “right” answer, when in actuality there’s the potential to find a variety of great solutions. Instead of content-based questions, create Wide Open Questions that will allow students to build connections between new knowledge and interests they already have. This helps students personalize their learning and build deeper connections to the new content.
When crafting a Wide Open Question it is important to think about the end goal that you want students to achieve. What are the Big Ideas of the project that you want students to be able to explain at the end? It cannot possibly be a summary of every standard and all content. It is at most 2 or 3 overarching ideas. When Big Ideas can be identified, Wide Open Questions can be crafted. They usually begin with open-ended question words like “Why” and “How”. The question needs to be open enough that students can find ways to bring their interests and prior knowledge into the creation of the solution. For example, if students are studying social contract theory, their Wide Open Question could be “How can power be distributed equitably in a just society?” The WOQ begins with social contract theory and can blossom into many different responses and solutions that address some of our current political challenges. There are many ways to try to find this solution and students now have the option to bring in knowledge about topics they are passionate about, which brings higher levels of personalization and engagement to the project.
The remainder of the learning is then scaffolded to ensure that students understand social contract theory, annotate and marginally note their readings, pass their quizzes, and participate in discussions. In their final assessment and essay, they must show how knowledge of the work of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau helps support their solution. They are still learning the mandated content but the Wide Open Question allows them the opportunity to combine their new knowledge with their passions, which builds a stronger schema and deeper understanding of the content. This is evident in the ways the students answer the questions. Using this framework, 45 groups were challenged to tackle this question and no two solutions were the same. All students were able to discuss in detail the differences between the three philosophers months later as they continued to learn about government systems.
This is a small change to pre-existing units that will have a deep impact on every classroom.
When students need to learn new content they are typically assigned readings, some videos, and a mini-lesson or lecture to reinforce the learning. This system of delivery makes the students passive in their learning, while the teacher carries the burden of finding resources, curating them, and delivering it all while focused on classroom management, grading, and a host of other responsibilities.
A small change in delivery can have a huge impact on the classroom. In an agile classroom, the teacher gives students choices. Provided at the beginning of the unit the teacher gives students resources from different media. There are readings, videos, podcasts, and texts. If directions must be given they are pre-recorded for students to listen to over and over, or whenever they have a question. Some work can be mandatory and some optional. The work can be placed in categories. For example, there can be a MUST box, a pick three box, and a pick one box. In the boxes, the teachers sort the resources, and students have the choice of when and how they complete their learning. The learning can be controlled by the student. They can utilize the learning that they need when they need it.
This way of learning empowers students because they have autonomy over their learning. While still getting the content for the class they are also understanding how to make decisions, manage their time, and organize their work. They are building independence, and they feel proud that their teacher trusts them to make choices. If working in a group, the students must learn to actively listen, develop empathy for others, and problem-solve to keep the group on the same page. These are the AI-proof skills that build future-ready leaders.
Teachers are passionate about learning. They want what is best for their students, but the artificial time constraints and bloated scope and sequence placed upon them make learning rushed. Many teachers often express frustration with how fast learning must happen to stay on “schedule”. This leads to teachers using methods that are not based on organic learning and result in passive students.
A small change can have impactful results by changing the way one teaches. What if the students were able to pull their own work because they have options and the teacher switches roles from leader to facilitator? The students have a wide open question to solve and have the content resources to solve it. The teacher can then move around the room working with students that are stuck, or prompting students that can push further. The teacher is ready to scaffold how to communicate, organize work, and manage time. The conversations are genuine and the interactions are meaningful.
In an agile classroom, the teachers employ open-ended questions to help students problem-solve for themselves. The passion comes back to the classroom because both the teacher and the students are treated and respected by having real communication. The students that need extra support get time with the teacher, while those that do not need the extra support are prompted to push themselves further. The teachers teach AI-proof skills like how to collaborate, conflict resolution, and time management to students at the moment that they need it, where the context for learning is real. These moments of problem-solving, or working through decision-making are precious for students that must learn how to navigate a complex social world in the future. The students are still learning the content, but they are also learning the future-ready skills that transcend school classrooms, grade levels, and auditoriums. They are learning how to work with others, the foundation of success.
These simple changes are just the beginning of what can happen when a teacher or administrator adopts an agile mindset. Intrinsic learning is through genuine interactions with new material and people that can be attached to background knowledge. These simple changes in how classrooms function can have incredible impacts on teachers and students. Instead of spending weeks learning a new app or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new system, consider the simple changes that can be made to truly prepare our students for the future.