College Readiness, Part Two: Turning Thoughts into Action

December 11, 2008

This is the second part of a two-part blog entry. Read part one.

In his article cited in part one of this blog entry, Tony Wagner describes visiting some of most highly regarded suburban schools and "interviewing leaders in settings from Apple to Unilever to the U.S. Army and reviewing research on workplace skills." In response to his findings, he calls for students to master seven skills to be successful in the twenty-first century.

Five of the seven essential skill sets Wagner mentions -- critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and leadership, effective oral and written communication, curiosity and imagination, and agility and adaptability -- are almost the same as Envision Schools's twenty-first-century leadership skills; these are what define who we are, what we embody, and what we value.

But at Envision Schools, we don't just post these skills on our walls as a reminder to students. We put our teachers to the task of designing curriculum and assessments that use academic content to teach and assess these twenty-first-century skills through our students' academic work and performance.

In addition, we evaluate student performance on a rubric, and we give them formal feedback on their twenty-first-century leadership skills with each quarterly report card, and they must demonstrate increasing proficiency in these skills through their Lower Division Benchmark Portfolio in order to transition from tenth to eleventh grade. Finally, students must demonstrate a mastery of these skills through their graduation portfolio and defense in order to graduate.

How do students learn these skills? There is no textbook for teaching twenty-first-century skills, and we cannot teach them through lectures. Instead, we must give our students the opportunity to practice them by assigning work that requires kids to embody these skills. And they must receive regular and consistent coaching to support their growth in the application and performance of these skills. This is why Envision Schools uses inquiry and project learning as a pedagogical strategy.

It is important to remember that project learning is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In project learning, student work is based on solving problems and is situated in real-world applications and dilemmas. Project learning uses challenging academic content as the context for learning, giving students the opportunity to learn, practice, and master twenty-first-century skills.

Wagner also highlights the skill of accessing and analyzing information. The Envision Schools College Readiness Graduation Portfolio includes eleven academic-performance tasks that ask students to compare, create, analyze, research, experiment, investigate, and communicate -- in essence, to produce artifacts that demonstrate they understand and can apply the essential concepts of the disciplines they're studying. Each task is distinct and has a rubric that clearly defines mastery.

Our university partner, Stanford University's School Redesign Network, and content-area experts have thoroughly vetted every task and rubric. Project learning and performance assessment are the tools that Envision Schools uses to prepare students for success in college and in life through their mastery of rigorous twenty-first-century standards.

So, what is our secret sauce? Why do we believe our students will be successful in college and life? The easy answer is that we have put a stake in the ground with our redefinition of rigor. You can see this in what we have our students produce: a College Readiness Graduation Portfolio that assesses both their twenty-first-century leadership skills and their college-ready academic performance.

This clear definition of rigor provides a framework for excellent instruction because it allows our leaders and teachers to design their schools and curricula in a way that ensures that students will experience rigor in every aspect of their academic journey with us. In short, we know what we want students to know and be able to do.

Still, there are other challenging questions. How can we think about this work systematically, and how do we redesign schools and school systems to make this transformation happen? Our hope is that by redefining rigor, we can begin a transformation that will affect every aspect of our network of schools. In turn, this will affect those schools we come into contact with when sharing our work, which may eventually influence public policy, leading to lasting change. We know that at Envision Schools, we've already begun to work on the transformation that we hope to see occur at all public schools one day.

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