Work Worth Doing

As a senior at SAMI, the Tacoma school at the zoo, Kennedy started a study group called America Through the Lens of Blackness during a Friday afternoon block called Adventures & Applications.

In 2014, Scott was one of the first high school students to be certified by leading robotics manufacturers at RAMTEC in Marion, Ohio, in 2014. Honda paid for his college while he earned a good wage training youth and adults. He got a big raise when he graduated and gets another big bump when he becomes Honda certified. Scott hopes to return to RAMTEC to teach.

At Cesar Chavez in Washington, D.C., seniors develop and present a thesis. James (left) studied the school-to-prison pipeline. Nicolas (center) became an advocate for Syrian refugees. SaDaja (right) unlocked causes of childhood obesity.

Jarrod was an unmotivated freshman at a traditional high school. As a sophomore, he caught fire at One Stone, an innovative new Boise high school where he learned to code and take responsibility for his learning.

“If the project doesn’t work out I don’t get a C, I continue working on that project until it works,” said Jared. “There’s no sitting back and giving up. You have to finish the project. You have ownership of the project.”

One Stone runs after-school programs where Boise youth produce world class products and services. Former students like Parth (below) report that quality is a function of feedback from peer leaders, coaches and, most importantly, from clients.

What do these varied stories have in common? They are examples of young people doing good work. Through formal and informal learning they had access to opportunity, time and support to go deep, and voice and choice in shaping the experiences. They received honest feedback in a supportive place with a culture of revision.

“For the rest of their lives, young people will be judged on the quality of their character and the quality of their work,” said Ron Berger, CAO at EL Education. “We should be supporting and compelling students to do well-crafted work that makes them, their families and their communities proud.”

Why Does Good Work Matter?

Following is a quick recap of what’s happening:

1. We live on an exponential curve. Moore’s law packed more transistors on chips, doubling computing power every two years and making computing, storage and access almost free. While Moore’s law may finally fail, it looks like quantum is next.

2. Platforms rule the world. We live, learn, work and play on platforms–ecosystems of users where everyone is a producer, where trust is conveyed and value is transacted.

3. Everyone & everything is connected. More than 8 billion devices are connected today, 20 (perhaps 50) billion by 2020. Sensors on one airplane throw off more data in a day than Facebook (when it turned the corner on a billion users).

4. Exponential tech + platforms + data = AI breakthroughs. A confluence of tech trends accelerates progress in artificial intelligence (AI). Rather than coding solutions, you feed large data sets into artificial intelligence apps and it learns how to perform tasks better and quicker than expert humans. Big recent breakthroughs include game play, image recognition and translation.

5. AI + big data + enabling tech = new employment landscape. A new generation of enabling technologies that leverage AI is changing employment:

  • AI + robots = industry 4.0 (local custom manufacturing)
  • AI + cameras + sensors = self-driving cars
  • AI + sensors + bioinformatics maps = precision medicine
  • AI + CRISPR = genome editing
  • AI + chatbots = personalized retail

6. AI will help solve big problems. The good news is that AI will help solve the world’s grand challenges and produce massive global benefit

7. AI may be a big threat. There will be waves of job loss (but different by sector/geography), more surveillance and less privacy, and growing income inequity. It may even pose “a fundamental existential risk for human civilization,” said Elon Musk.

8. There’s never been a better time to make a difference. It’s never been easier to code an app, start a business or launch a campaign. The open tools available to everyone get better every month.

It’s clear that AI is the biggest force reshaping life and livelihoods–and every high school and college student should be well versed in its implications.

What Does It Mean?

Waves of novelty and complexity are headed our way. What does it mean? What should young people know and be able to do to be contributors in the face of uncertainty?

“The two things we should teach kids are how to lead and how to solve interesting problems,” said Seth Godin.

The fundamental changes underway suggest eight next steps.

1. Update your graduate profile. Districts, networks and schools nationwide are holding community conversations and updating their desired learner outcomes. One of our favorite elementary schools is Katherine Smith in San Jose. Below are their priority outcomes, promoting deeper learning and laying the foundation for their project-based approach.

2. Focus on learner experience. Consider the kinds of experiences likely to produce desired outcomes. If student agency, collaboration, initiative and problem-solving are a priority they call for extended community connected challenges.

3. Personalized learning. Blending tools like adaptive learning make it possible to create unique pathways for every student. But we should avoid just replacing paper worksheets with digital worksheets. Students should use digital tools to produce not just consume.

4. Competency-based learning. In competency (or proficiency, mastery, performance) based systems, students show what they know in periodic demonstrations of learning and they progress based on mastery. We want students to progress as quickly as possible without racing–prioritizing speed over depth.

5. Focus on character and quality work. As Ron Berger said, young people will be judged on the quality of their character and work product. The good news is that these are not expensive; the bad news is that they are not easy. At Katherine Smith character and quality are a product of student agency, goal setting, learning targets, driving questions, trust, culture of revision, student led conferences and tours, public art, exhibitions and portfolios.

6. Leverage teacher leaders. Given the challenges of personalized learning, it’s more important than ever to identify and leverage teacher leaders.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 uses a distributed management approach that empowers employees to take a leadership role and make meaningful decisions. The rules are transparent and roles and structures are regularly updated through small iterations.

7. Work together in networks. New learning models are complicated. Schools should work together in districts and networks that share learning models, platform tools and professional learning opportunities.

8. Encourage work worth doing. “The way you teach your kids to solve interesting problems is to give them interesting problems to solve,” said Seth Godin.

We’re at a period of reconsideration in American education when it’s not only possible but critical that we ask again “what should young people know and be able to do?” We have the opportunity to help young people shape work worth doing and create environments where that work is done well and shared widely.

We should help young people become good problem finders not just problem solvers; we should empower them with empathy, creativity and a spirit of craftsmanship.

Are we assigning and supporting worth that students will remember in 20 years? Will it result in public products that their families and communities will be proud of?

For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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