Ben Owens spent 20 years as an engineer in industry before becoming a math and physics teacher at Tri-County Early College High School in Murphy, N.C. He was the recipient of the 2017 Bridging the Gap Distinguished Teaching Award in STEM Education by the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research, is a virtual community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality, a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, a former member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, and the co-author of a soon-to-be-published book on how open source learning can transform education. He is also a Community Teaching Assistant for the upcoming course through the EdX Platform: Envisioning the Graduate of the Future.
Here’s a challenge: Ask any teenager to describe what she/he thinks about the purpose of high school. The OECD did this back in 2013 by studying a large group of 15-year-olds from participating countries and found that most spoke positively in terms of school preparing them for college or careers (What do students think about school?). But at the same time, a too high number of these students - 9% per the OECD study - saw that school was a waste of time. What would your results be? Would the students you poll see a clear connection between the work they are doing in school and the skills they will need for future success? Or would they see school as simply going through the motions to get a diploma? My colleagues and I asked the students at my school this question about 10 years ago and realized we had some work to do.
One of the pillars of Stephen Covey’s famous “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is to begin any task with the end in mind. Doing so not only allows one to better prepare for the essential steps along the way, but to also synthesize those steps so that they are better aligned and relevant to the end goal. This is especially important within organizations of people whose work is guided by a common purpose - clearly a school is one such organization.
Despite the assumptions that our students would be able to consistently identify the core purpose of our rather innovative school, the results when we asked the above question told another story. This sobering outcome set in motion a process to not only revamp our school’s mission and vision, but to also create systems to ensure its words and purpose resonated through every aspect of our unique approach to teaching and learning. A key part of that process occurred when as part of a summer workshop, a group of teachers and administrators did a book study of Tony Wagner’s “The Global Achievement Gap.” This book so perfectly described the goals we wanted for our students that we completely scrapped our old (and admittedly confusing) mission and vision and collaborated until the wee hours of the morning developing a new one that has helped define everything we do from that point forward (refer to my previous article on tips to create a powerful mission and vision for your school).
But what brought even more potency to our new mission and vision was when we developed our Graduate Profile as part of our application for the XQ Super School competition several years later. That process allowed us to validate and further refine these core documents based on listening session feedback from students, alumni, and parents, as well survey data from what we deemed our “customers,” members of business community, local government and non-profits, and higher education partners. We then synthesized these data into a document that clearly articulates the endpoint skills and knowledge each student will develop over the time they are at our school. This graduate profile and the accompanying rubric has now become the “touch stone” that drives how we design our projects, how we assess students for their depth of knowledge of fundamental literacies, how students present their work to public audiences at our PBL exhibitions and at bi-annual portfolio reviews, and how our teacher-powered team shares and reviews student data to make the changes that can quickly respond to their individual needs.
The graduate profile is so much more than just an abstract document. It has become so deeply woven into the school’s DNA, that it is the embodiment and manifestation of our purpose - a source of common language, a tool to establish priorities of our limited resources, a way to broaden the definition of individual student success, and a powerful answer that every student can easily point to as why we exist as a school.
There is no shortage of ideas on how we can improve our schools to make them more responsive to the needs of our students and the communities in which they live. But the ideas that have the potential for greatest impact are the ones that aren’t just window dressing on the status quo but change the culture of the community of learners in the school. No standalone document will change a school’s culture. However, a graduate profile based on a well-developed mission and vision, that has collaborative input from all your stakeholders, and that infiltrates and guides the actions that occur every day, in every class, will indeed be a game changer for your school. No longer will students have an ambiguous response to the question “What’s the purpose of our school?” because they will clearly see alignment and focus in the actions the school does each day to prepare them for a rapidly changing world. Join me in accepting that challenge!
Envisioning the Graduate of the Future is a free MOOC from MITx on EdX starting March 8.
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