Tuesday, May 9, 2017

11 Ways to Unschool Your School (Suck The Suck Out)

Part of the challenge - in addition to new standards, tech integration and overall pedagogical overhaul (technical) - is how school looks and feels (culture). With the demands of changing students in a rapidly evolving world, this often gets summarized as personalized education. Again, this is as much related to culture vs. technical. One of the many ways to think about how we re-create the learning experiences for our students at much higher levels could be to UNSCHOOL SCHOOL. In addition to weak or outdated curriculum and instruction, school often SUCKS for our students due to the many daily things that schools do that just make school look and feel even worse.

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HERE ARE 11 WAYS TO UNSCHOOL YOUR SCHOOL
(Why 11? Because it goes to 11)
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  1. ASK THE STUDENTS….ABOUT EVERYTHING. Ask all students about all aspects of the school and ask them often. Teachers and administrators should survey students regularly (at least several times a year) about their learning experiences and how the staff can work to continually improve them. However, it  doesn’t stop there. Students should be in on the rules, procedures, processes, handbook, hiring, schedules, facilities, course needs, purchasing and more. Trust me….students have great ideas and we rarely consult them. If you want to have responsible students who are truly prepared for their futures, turn as much of the school over to them. It’s called Democratization (maybe our leaders can learn how this is done). A truly student-centered school could be a tough transition for many adults, but so much better for students and learning.


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  1. LIMIT RULES AND RESTRICTIONS. Keep the list short and simple. Schools have a tendency to have dozens, or even hundreds, of rules in some giant, never read handbook. Like a good resume or cover letter, get it down to one page. Focus on the essentials and make sure that they are based on legal obligations and common sense/safety that students usually understand (and buy into). For example, dress codes should be based on essential common decency not style or fashion. Students are too smart to not understand that rules related to hair color or other preferences do not correlate well to learning. If you ban cell phones vs. figuring out how to incorporate, integrate and manage professionally, then you’ll never get it.

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  1. ACCESSABILITY. All the school personnel should be personal and accessible. Allow, even encourage, students to communicate in any way that works (text, instant messaging, calls, chats, etc.). Why are our cell phone #’s so sacred? What can someone do with it that is so scary? If it freaks you out, go Google Voice. Either way, if you use text and messaging (social media applications), you will increase the open lines of communication leading to better trust, relationships, sharing and culture.

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  1. SMARTSTART YOUR SCHOOL. If the first day of school sucks, where does one go from there? Many students, even in high school, anticipate the beginning of each school year and are excited that it might be different. Maybe it will be engaging, interesting and relevant this time around. This excitement or anticipation usually dissipates as they come to school and are inundated with long talks and preachings about rules, expectations, syllabi and more. What if that first day, first week and beyond were about the opportunities, the possibilities, the projects, the people and more? Think about creating a culture that facilitates academics vs. jumping into academics. What if schools focused more on what students can do vs. what students cannot do? http://bit.ly/SmartStartYourSchool

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  1. EXPAND THE WALLS OF THE CAMPUS. Our gates or fences need to also be literally and figuratively transparent in our schools. Our students should see lots of people in addition to their peers and teachers on campus each and every day. These include, but are not limited to career professionals, guest speakers, mentors, entrepreneurs, non-profit pioneers, community leaders and more. Additionally, our students should be off campus a great deal as well. They need work-based, place-based and community-based experiences to not only define their learning, but provide necessary context, contacts and community.

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  1. ALL STUDENTS NEED TO BE LEADERS, EXPERTS and FACILITATORS. All of our students need opportunities to pursue their interests and career goals. They need multiple opportunities to research, collaborate, present, partner, pitch, ideate, problem solve and more…..all in an effort to create a digital portfolio of work and accompanying badges, certificates and skill mastery. All students need to have some role or responsibility on campus and all students need to participate in showcases/exhibitions. It’s up to the school to find each and every student these opportunities relevant to them and their specific educational path. We cannot relegate student leadership positions to the traditional (sports, student government, clubs and the arts). We need to create new leadership positions on projects and in specialized applications.

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  1. TO HELL WITH THE BELLS. This is intended to be literal and figurative. Nothing seems more antiquated and old school than bells. Haven’t we taught students the hands on a clock at an early age? Bells say factory. If you need a reminder, use music or something fun. But to me, bells don’t make people on time, Importance, urgency, buy-in, involvement and engagement make people on time. Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 1.37.53 PM.png


  1. FLIP THE FOOD, FLIP THE FEEL. Our cafeterias and snacks bars need to be more like Food Trucks. Our libraries and media centers need to be more like Starbucks. Our classrooms need to be more like contemporary work spaces. Our administrative offices need to be more like Hospitality or Concierge centers instead of places of doom and gloom. This is more than just trying to compete with the outside world. It’s about making everything in our schools inviting. When we want to be somewhere, we are more engaged, perform better and respect it more. My former high school had a drum set in the office, several meat smokers on campus, decaf coffees in the library space and more.

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  1. THE GEAR - GO BIG, GO PRO AND GO NOW. Yes, we have budget limitations. But we also seem to purchase things that are just not current or sexy. All of our programs need to have current technology and applications. Music needs to have the kickass sound system. Culinary needs the commercial oven. Art needs the studio space. Whether it’s grant writing, corporate or community donations or something else, we need to find a way. Our schools need to have cutting edge equipment that students do not typically have at home. We need anything and everything to produce creativity and inspire innovation - this includes, but is not limited to 3D printers, plasma cams, robotics, digital video tools and applications, audio gear and so much more.

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  1. BEYOND THE GAME…..MORE THAN THE DANCE. For far too long, our social options in school have primarily been limited to athletic events and school dances. These are probably not going away, but do not appeal to everyone and generally don’t have long-term applications for our future professionals. But what if all of our schools had student art exhibitions and art hops, student project showcases, car shows, student film festivals, niche guest speakers, rock concerts, unplugged acoustic nights, culinary competitions and non-profit just to name a few? What do most of us like about college or our communities? It’s specialized, unique events that appeal to our interests where we often can even play a role. If our schools are the cultural hub of our student communities, make them reflect the student community. Prom might be a tradition, but it’s not something sustainable for the rest of our lives.

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  1. MIX IT UP, CHANGE IT UP AND KEEP IT FRESH. We know that students, just like all humans, depend on certain levels of structure and predictability. The challenge is that structure and predictability are contrary to the 21st century skills such as creativity and deeper learning. So many things in school become so institutionalized that they are engagement killers. Everything including, but not limited to our schedules, courses, classrooms, assignments, projects, furniture, events and more need can be up for grabs in terms of intentional deviation. The book Who Moved My Cheese? can become a handbook on how to do this. A few examples from my past include reversing the daily schedule (backwards days), taking those “lame duck” days before vacations and scheduling inter-session courses or mini electives, allowing students to take over the school’s social media accounts, teachers swapping classes for the day/week, moving the location of classes….you get the idea.

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It’s time to redesign the entire definition of school. Students, parents and educators are realizing that real learning often happens outside of school. We need to bring that to school. School needs to look and feel very differently from how we have traditionally known. If students think school sucks, we owe it to them to create a place that doesn’t suck. If we do, learning and success will more likely follow..

(photos courtesy of Foter, Getty, Pixabay, iStock Images)

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Three-Prong Education Solution - This Is All We Need

Let’s face it. If any of us had a nickel for each of the education plans and ideas that have been produced on blogs, tweets and elsewhere in the last few years, I could pay every teacher in America a $2,500 bonus. Right?
Well, what are we going to do? When can we agree that we have a few educational pedagogies and foundations, relevant to our changing world and new economy, that we can identify as where all of us need to go.
My suggestions is this simple: We need to combine the best of project-based learning, career technical education and career readiness, and the best available digital tools and resources. I should be superintendent of the western world right? OK, until then, can we work towards collaboratively calling out the three areas driving it all. How complicated is this? It’s not. PBL, CTE/Career Readiness and Tech really do cover it all. Let’s do this. Here we go:
The Pedagogy

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Project-Based Learning, or some derivative, is the future. Check with most people that are connected to the future of work and the world, and ask them what students should be doing. They will all describe something that looks like PBL. They may call it inquiry-based, challenge-based, problem-based or something else. But they are essentially talking about students taking on real world problems, challenges and issues -  that allow them to dive deep and have ownership - while producing professional, public work. Yes, it includes lots of inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and flexibility. BTW, we can embrace this or fight this, or anything in between, but it’s going to happen one way or another. Everything most of us are encouraging educators to pursue pedagogically, who are really trying to do anything relevant or impactful, is something that is PBL-like. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s more student-driven. Yes, it’s more than lesson design (it’s project design). Yes, it involves work way beyond a textbook, note taking, tests and worksheets. Work is project-based so our learning needs to follow. Anything less is not sufficient or relevant. If teachers cannot adopt or adapt, they may have to get out. Maybe new ones will want in if they see it being more interesting and meaningful.
Here are just a few of the major advantages of adopting a project-based pedagogy:
  • Real World Applications
  • Public Work
  • Student Voice & Ownership
  • Collaboration & Partnerships
  • Reflection and Metacognition
  • Problem Solving is Job Relevant and Leads To Job Creation
  • Deeper Learning
  • Portfolio Development
  • Students Can Articulate Skills and Concepts Learned
  • Community Connections
  • Four C’s Skill Development

The Purpose & The Product (True Career Readiness)

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For far long, the disconnect between school and careers has been apparent to almost everyone, including our students. Educators and others have leaned on the phrase “you’ll need this in college” when it came to explain the why to students. Simply, we need to be much more honest and explicit and make sure that we are doing in our classrooms and courses indeed has direct connection to skills and applications that our students are going to face in this very new 21st century global economy. Context, relevance, application, authenticity, engagement are all very necessary to make education work for our young people and connecting our content to careers is the means to this end. Yes, it’s Career Technical Education. But it’s really much more than that. It’s true Career Readiness that works towards creating all students to explore and identify specific career interest areas, as well as opportunities to truly develop both the technical and soft skills that the world is demanding. Career Fairs are not nearly enough. Career Reports only scratch the surface as well. We need to embed career components and connections in all of our core and elective courses. Additionally, we may need to go a lot further. For example, why can’t our English classes be a place where all students read, write, research, present and more related to various career possibilities? Since all high school students have English for four years, imagine if English became the mechanism  to connect students to work-based experiences such as internships, develop digital portfolios and professional web presence, social media literacy and so much more. Our students are entering a much more independent contractor - oriented economy and they will need these universal skills regardless of career or industry.
Here are just a few of the major advantages of connecting our education to career readiness for all students and all programs:

  • Relevance
  • Application
  • Mentoring
  • Work-Based Opportunities & Experiences
  • Career Exploration
  • Soft Skills Development and Training
  • Improved Higher Education Success and Understanding
  • Professional Learning Networks

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The Platform (Ed Tech Resources - i.e. the internet)


Over the last several years, we have seen a huge influx of technology into education. Indeed, we call it Ed Tech. This includes teachers incorporating technology into their curriculum and instruction. But even more importantly, it’s become our students using technology to produce more professional, relevant and applicable work - individually and collaboratively. Still, a good part of our education system is clinging to edu dinosaurs like textbooks, paper and pencil, low level tests and exams and industrial models of lecture-based approaches. However, the time has come for us to acknowledge that Ed Tech is just now Education. That’s right. If we are not using technology as our primary tools and and resources, we are essentially cheating our students. We now have dozens of devices and thousands of applications that allow all of us, and especially our students, to create, collaborate, ideate, innovate and initiate.
Here are some of the advantages of recognizing tech as the tool for learning for all ages, grade levels, courses and programs:

  • Multiple Sources and Resources (often free and not dependent on one text)
  • Interactive
  • Adaptive
  • Continuously Expanding Options and Choices
  • Models Professional and Academic Uses of Technology
  • Flexible (web or cloud-based available anywhere)
  • Develops Technology Skills, Digital Portfolio and Positive Digital Footprint
  • Professional Learning Networks
  • Students Become Teachers, Facilitators, Experts

Well, there you have it. To me, anything else we can discuss related to education can fall into one of these three categories that have multiple iterations and paths. Our students need to experience learning related to a project-based, career-skilled and high tech economy and world. Let’s do it (ok….if it were this simple, we would be universally doing it).
(Photos courtesy of Foter, Pixabay and Free Images)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Let's Drop 'College Ready' and Be 'Career Ready'

Education may not consistently be good at many things. But, it does seem to be great at both acronyms (CTE, PBL, EDI, ELL, SPED, PLC and so on)  and catch phrases (21st century learning, personalized learning, future ready). One of the more popular catchphrases as of late is College & Career Ready.
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Indeed, the ‘Career’ part is a more recent addition. For years, we really just said (and lived) College Ready. I’m here to suggest it’s time to drop the College Ready and only use Career Ready. Don’t get me wrong. I do think almost everyone needs some sort of post-secondary training, especially in our new globalized economy. But I am suggesting that we use Career Ready only knowing that one’s career path should dictate their post-secondary education or training path. Additionally, it will allow us to focus on the requisite skills and planning required for young people to have lifelong employability in the 21st century.
One of the early questions to me is what does college ready really mean? There have been some established standards relating to essentially basic skills, as well as critical thinking and communication. But they are incomplete at best. At worst, they are not even relevant to true success. After all, no matter what has been done in our secondary systems, college folks have always said that our students are generally not ready.
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However, I’m not here to debate the definition of college ready. I am suggesting that there is far sinister method to the madness. It is my belief that our entire secondary system has been and continues to be focused on College Readiness for all - and not true Career Readiness.
Indeed, our courses, requirements, testing, counseling and student time are heavily devoted to college-related matters. And although we have now added the world ‘Career,’ as well as a renewed dedication to CTE, the college mindset is firmly embedded in our students, parents, teachers and communities.
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One might be thinking at this point, what’s the bad thing? Everyone wants to college. Isn’t that a good thing? It sounds good, but has actually a produced a series of challenges that continue to be hard to overcome.
First, while we have devised the college or university for all mentality, we forgot to check what is actually taking place in the workplace, the labor market and the economy. Here are some data points:


  • 7:2:1 - this is the ratio of jobs in our economy.  For every 10 jobs, only one requires an advanced degree, only two require a bachelor’s level and degree and seven of them require a two-year or technical degree. Actually, this has been a steady trend line for several previous decades and it is anticipated to be going forward for many decades to come (go to Dr. Kevin Fleming’s Success In the New Economy to find out more). Essentially, why have we convinced everyone to go to college while ignoring the realities of work and pathways to get there.


  • Many studies reveal that only half, or less, of all students that enter a four-year university or college degree program ever complete the program. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the total number of undergraduate-level completions per 100 full-time students, in all degree programs taking one year in length or more, is only 22.6%. You can look state by state, or college by college, and it doesn’t get much better. We have pushed more people to go, but too many of them end up not going anywhere unless you count large debt and no specific career path.


  • Grey-Collar Employment Challenge. And for the ones that are graduating or completing degree programs, ⅓ or 33% of them are either unemployed or underemployed (Grey Collar jobs) well into their 30’s.
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  • Time and Money are Time and Money. Our completion rates are abysmal. Our average length of time to get a degree is abysmal as well. Then add in the financial crisis of students loan debt, and we have one messed up system not helping our young people find career success or happiness at any acceptable rate.


  • Lost in a Maze / Haze. Too many of our high school graduates are enrolling in college with no set career plan or understanding of their path. They often enroll at community colleges to take their general education classes. Sadly, the often use up their financial and burnout long before they complete any sort of degree or certificate.


  • The ‘Uber” Effect. Experts predict 40% or more of that work will be ‘freelancing.’ (See Forbes’ article The Rise of The Freelance Economy). How are our classes, programs, curriculum, instruction and career preparation addressing this phenomenon?
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So, let’s be honest. Our high school counselors are college counselors and not career counselors. This is not their fault. They are agents of system that has dictated that college is our focus.
The average high school student is bombarded constantly with information about college including, but not limited to applications, scholarships, testing, financial aid, housing and more. On the other side, we have large #’s of high schoolers still going through our system with very little career planning or preparation. The majority are taking any CTE courses or classes connected to careers. Most do not spend any time in their core or elective classes researching or planning careers. Indeed, most attend a Career Fair or two and basically throw a proverbial dart of their post-secondary training and career possibilities.
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Dr. Kevin Fleming and his associates have offered a variety of solutions. One is to examine how we guide our students in choosing a college. He argues that we have traditionally seen students, with support from their parents and educators, first choose a college, then a major and then a career. Fleming suggests, and I completely agree, that we have it backwards and that it should be flipped. Watch this short video that explains that and more related to Flipping the College-Decision-Making Paradigm Video.
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As Fleming and others will point out, we have created a culture of college for all students. We have convinced them to go to college, but have not created understanding of why. Our classrooms, schools, websites and literature K-12 are full of college pennants, information and facts. But we include very little, if any, about careers and career skills.
So, what should we do in addition to dropping College Ready and going with just Career Ready? Here are some ideas:


  • Change the conversation from where do you want to go to school to what do you want to do in your career?
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  • Build Career Advising into our counselors’ pedagogy and priorities. We need to start with career before we go to college.
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  • Build career-related curriculum into our core courses (see my previous work of Integrating CTE Into the Core Curriculum. For example, since high school students take four years of  English, could not part of their English courses focuses on career exploration and preparation. After all, what could be more important to read about, write about, research, and connect to than one’s career path? See my Odysseyware blog post "Integrating CTE Into The General Curriculum" on this. Also, What if we had math, science, and social science incorporate career exploration and CTE work into their subject matter? Why not show how professionals use these content areas and skills?
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  • What if high schools had a CTE requirement each year? No offense to our other requirements, but what is going to prepare students more for their collective and diverse futures? If we had a general CTE preparation course, 9th and 10th grades could be devoted to exploration and info gathering, while 11th and 12th grades could be for internships and other work-based experiences.
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  • What if our courses focused on skills acquisition and mastery ? Too many students don’t have the skills they need and many can’t articulate the ones they have. The future of work is less focused on degrees and credentials and more focused on skills that can be demonstrated. In addition to any technical or specific career pathway skills, the world of work is also asking for everything from soft skills to newer skills from the digital, global economy.
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  • Some schools have gone to work-based graduation requirements such as internship for all juniors and seniors. But this can a variety of things including job shadowing, externships, internships, summer experiences, mentoring and more.
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  • We need to well beyond an annual career fair or career interest inventory. Students need to spend concentrated amounts of time consistently throughout their high school career getting ready for their professional career.
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  • Build in things like individual student portfolios, websites and presentations throughout curriculum and instructional programs. These will enhance one’s resume and ability to connect with employers for internships, externships, jobs and more.  


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My guess is there is a lot more that we could do. However, it won’t happen until we change both the language and the focus. It really challenges us to reflect on what the primary purpose of education is? If it’s about getting one ready for life, then we have to acknowledge that this means career first and foremost. College, or post-secondary training of some kind, will undoubtedly be in the mix for most students. But we have to make career the goal, the foundation, the conversation and the priority.

(photos courtesy of Getty Images, Foter, Flickr)