Two news reports recently grabbed our attention. The first, authored by the McKinsey Global Institute, described the staggering rate at which automation will render many of today’s jobs obsolete. The second, from the Pew Research Center, affirmed the marked rise in partisanship and polarization in politics. Perhaps the only thing surpassing the gloominess of these headlines was how unsurprising they are. And yet there is something to feel good about: Harwood’s embrace of proficiency-based education is preparing students to negotiate these disruptive forces.
Under Harwood’s old academic model, the typical student graduated with the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in the post-Harwood world. The problem was that graduation was not based on mastery of content and/or skills but merely on the ability to earn a minimum course score of 60 percent, a score sometimes achieved only by consideration of attendance and class participation. As a result, graduates of Harwood could be lacking as much as 40 percent of what, ideally, they should know or be able to do.
In order to earn a diploma in the proficiency-based system, students must demonstrate a range of skills, including problem-solving, creative thinking and communication. In other words, eligibility to graduate from Harwood is now based on students’ ability to demonstrate competency in 21st-century skills. Which brings us back to the headlines noted above.
Anticipating the job landscape 20 years from now is, of course, impossible. While it is certain, as the McKinsey report predicts, that automation will eliminate millions of existing jobs, it is not at all certain, as the report also points out, what the new jobs yet to be invented will entail. This is why the proficiency-based model of verifying skills competency is essential. By honing in on the most important and enduring skills of the 21st century (what, at Harwood, we call Learning Expectations) students have the best chance for success in a changing world. In Harwood math classes, for example, students are now assessed not only on how to find correct answers but on their ability to “create or identify strategies to solve a problem, adjusting the approach as needed.” By the time our students have entered the workforce, the equations may be different, but the problem-solving skills will be as relevant as ever.
One of the few areas of common ground between the political left and right seems, ironically, to be a sense of our polarization and the perception that views are not formed through objective facts but rather through emotion. Once formed, these views seem to grow louder and louder in the echo chambers of preferred media outlets. Again, we find solace that Harwood courses are teaching and assessing skills like how to use evidence and reasoning to defend an argument/claim. Whether in a humanities class or a science class, students must support their thinking with objective evidence – textual evidence, data from experiments. Simple appeals to emotion are not sufficient. Furthermore, teachers have embraced discussion-based classroom practices in which students participate in classroom dialogue. In this setting, students are required to use active listening skills and probing questions to build upon others’ ideas and deepen the conversation. Like problem-solving, this skill – precisely what our citizenry needs in order to return to a healthier and more vibrant civic discourse – is taught in a variety of classes across the curriculum, giving students repeated practice over the course of their high school career.
Perhaps the most important skill of all falls under Harwood’s Learning Expectation of self-direction: Persevere when presented with a problem or challenge. As we continue down the road of proficiency-based education, we will need to demonstrate perseverance to continue building and refining successful policies, processes and practices. If we, as a school community, can emulate the way of our students by solving problems and engaging in a healthy dialogue, brighter headlines will lie ahead.
Gershon, Deane and Ibson teach at Harwood Union.