And Is Better Than Or

I spend a lot of time thinking about strategic planning.  I think a good strategic plan is an integral part of a successful school district.   As a part of that, I spend a lot of time looking at mission statements.  Rousing stuff I know…but a good strategic plan is carefully aligned to the district’s mission statement.  One thing you’ll find in the mission statement of most school districts, in one version or another, is a reference to being a life-long learner.

I think you’ll find those references to life-long learning are there for a couple of reasons.  One is that it sounds really good.  Somewhere along the line, “life-long learning” became part of the educational zeitgeist for school districts.  But prior to that, as our nation began to make the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, I think good school districts began to understand that the metacognitive ability of students was as important (or perhaps more important), than the individual or collective content matter being provided.   Translation,  learning how you learn is as important as what you learn.  And I would argue, given the nature and influence of technology in our society, it’s never been more important.

Research shows that most of our students will make several career changes in their lifetime, and even those that don’t, will need new knowledge and skills as their industry changes over time.  Education is my second career, and it certainly required a change in skills and knowledge for me.  But the skills I have needed within education have also changed dramatically over time.  The skills I need to be a superintendent are different than the skills I needed as a teacher.  And the skills and knowledge you need to be a successful teacher today, are different than teachers needed 10 years ago.

So, we need to prepare students to be life-long learners.  That’s yesterday’s news you say.  That is old news, but the conversation about HOW we do that isn’t.  For students to learn how they learn, they ultimately need lots of opportunities to monitor their learning and adapt their own learning strategies.  For this to occur, they need to be placed in a variety of academic situations where they are challenged to the point of failure.  Don’t panic.  This doesn’t mean students are on the verge of getting an F in a class, it means that individual assignments are highly rigorous, and they challenge the student’s current learning pathways.  For the fitness buffs in the crowd, think about the technique of muscle confusion.   These types of academic challenges drive learning adaptation, and establish new learning pathways for the student which they will then begin to understand and apply in different situations.

My real point here, as obtuse as I have probably made it, is that in an effort to effectively prepare our students who want to go to college, we’ve forgotten some good old Wyoming horse sense.  Not every kid is going to go to college.  Dang right, say those people who want to see our high school with less emphasis on college preparation.  Well, if you’re one of those people, you might not like what I’m going to say next.

As a popular advertising advertising campaign for Ford says, “And Is Better Than Or“. Throughout the country, schools are working to prepare their students for college AND career readiness, not college OR career readiness.  Somewhere along the way we’ve come to equate the learning pathway for career track students as the less rigorous track, when its my belief that it should be the MORE RIGOROUS track.

If the sum total of a student’s formal education will be K-12, where will they obtain the metacognative (life-long learning) skills that other students are getting while at college?  Where will they face the rigorous cognitive challenges that drive learning adaptations and develop new learning pathways and skills?  In the workplace?  I can tell you that’s not what our employers want.  They don’t want to teach those skills.  They expect them to come with the employee.  And beyond the work world, the challenges each of our students face in life, will be similar for everyone.

So, if we are going to work towards true equity for all students, the students who are not choosing college as an option should be equally (or more) prepared with metacognitive skills at the high school level, than those who will have additional opportunities to learn those skills at the post-secondary level.   That means our career and technical tracks should be as rigorous as the one college bound students take.  Does that mean every student should take Calculus?  Of course not, but right now, the majority of our most challenging coursework occurs in our college prep courses.

The solution lies in collectively agreeing that our career track students will benefit from our college track courses as well as ensuring that all of our courses meet the same standard of rigor and higher order thinking skills.  I can tell you from personal experience, that my brain works harder at understanding small engines and miter joints than it does mitochondrial DNA.  Everyone has different intelligences.  The key is to get students outside of their academic comfort zone, and force them to learn new ways to learn things.  For many students who feel comfortable in career track courses, this may mean taking courses like Algebra II or Physics.

For career track students, taking these classes doesn’t mean we’re trying to cram them down the college path, it just means that we want to send them into the world prepared to deal with any learning challenge they might face.  It also means beefing up the rigor of classes where they do feel comfortable by including STEM topics and 21st Century skills.  Most importantly, it means that everyone involved in the life of our students believes that all students can learn at a high level, AND that they SHOULD learn at high levels, regardless of what choice they will be making after high school.  College AND career ready is certainly better than college OR career ready.

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About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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