How can we support students so that they take agency over their own lives, have exposure to myriad career possibilities, be comfortable with failure, and develop resilience so that they may pursue their dreams?
Landon Kreps is a senior at a public high school in Alamosa, Colorado. Until halfway through his junior year, he’d found participating in class, or even asking a teacher a question, extremely challenging. He was failing his English class.
Kreps, who spoke at an end-of-summer education conference hosted by the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, said he wasn’t learning as much as he wanted; he and the education system he was part of didn’t seem compatible.
"I didn’t like school very much," Kreps said. "I don’t seem to benefit a whole lot from standard education methods and things like that. And I was also extremely introverted and held myself back from a lot of people."
He wanted to do better but didn’t know how.
A teacher told Kreps about a small, private education initiative called GripTape that offers $500 learning grants and a "champion" to help students with any endeavor they want to pursue. Kreps applied and was accepted into the 10-week program.
He wanted to use beatboxing – a talent he’d practiced at home alone – to be a vehicle for learning. He set goals at the beginning of his 10 weeks: He wanted to perform in public, connect with a local music group or organization, and buy equipment and learn how to use it.
Founder Mark Murphy is the former Secretary of Education of Delaware. He said he started GripTape in New York in 2015 after talking to many students and hearing the same thing: they felt that they were in the backseat of their own learning experience. The experience of school was disempowering to them.
"They have all these dreams and passions and interests, but they don’t really have a way to pursue those things, especially if they come from families that don’t have much resources," Murphy said.
Those same students he spoke to also offered answers about what would help them drive their own learning. They told Murphy they needed three things: financial resources; the ability to make their own decisions; and a champion, someone who would support them by taking an interest and believing in them.
As Kreps began working toward the goals he’d set – in the beginning, that was trying to make sense of the equipment he’d bought. He needed the help of an expert. In asking for help, he was both driving his own learning and building the courage and resourcefulness to approach someone for assistance.
Murphy thinks education’s traditional goal for students is still valid: transitioning young people into adulthood with success. It’s the methodology to meet the goal that must be adjusted to equip children with the skills, knowledge, and disposition they need to move into being the next group of citizens and community leaders.
"You can make an argument that we should be doing three major things strategy-wise. We should be helping young people develop competencies, develop identity – 'Who am I in this world and what do I care about?' – and a sense of agency, like, 'I can drive myself forward in this world. I am an active contributor to my life. I’m not passive,'" Murphy said.
But development of agency, so often missing from formal K-12 education, is only one of the possible skills that moves a student toward better learning practices and likelihood of success in college and adulthood.
Some students don’t have any idea what’s out there that’s worth dreaming about. Kai Frazier, founder of Curated x Kai, a virtual reality education start-up in California, said that she recently visited a school where many students weren’t able to name more than five professions. Their isolation from the world of careers was holding them back; they couldn’t imagine anything outside of their line of sight. Frazier tries to solve the problem of isolation by creating virtual reality experiences.
This lack of exposure touches Frazier. She said that she hadn’t ever seen a college campus until she began her freshman year at a school in Richmond, Virginia. She said that, as an African American, it was rough to be in school located in a former capital of confederacy.
"Maybe if I would have seen different schools, I would have looked at a different school. I feel for a lot of my students: They don’t get to see schools; they don’t get to see jobs," she said.
Frazier is working to make her VR tech more widespread, so more students across the nation will see a variety of jobs, college campuses, and museums, as well as expand their cultural experiences – like seeing how people do their laundry in various cultures around the globe.
"We’re trying to do a real-life Magic School Bus, if you will," she said, alluding to a 1990s cartoon series in which a teacher loaded her class into a bus and went into space or deep inside a creature’s body in the name of science.
In a way, this is what Kreps achieved by having to look outside himself for help with his equipment and in working toward his other goal of developing a relationship with a local band or music organization.
"A lot of things turned to going to talk to people or changing the way that I talked to people or interacted with people," Kreps said. The experience exposed him to a wider variety of career options and types of people, it helped him develop the ability to speak to adults in a professional setting.
Although users won’t interact with the people in the places they virtually visit, Frazier’s VR experience videos get students "outside" of their classrooms to discuss a variety of topics outside the regular curriculum.
"I wanted to find a way that I could, at a very low cost or no cost, bring the experience to them," Frazier said. "When kids take field trips, they’re 25% more likely to graduate high school, and they earn 12% more in their lifetime than the kids who did not go on field trips ... It’s that exposure that lets us know there’s hope."
However, once they see the possibilities, and they begin to work toward a particular career, Frazier said they encounter another issue: They’re not comfortable with failure. She said one of the problems she’s seen first-hand in tech is young people not doing well with having to work out the bugs in a program.
"For my students who are used to getting straight As, and they hit a bug, or they can’t get it immediately, they kind of crash and burn and feel it’s not for them," Frazier said. They need to know it’s okay to fail.
She said in order to succeed in the workplace, students need the ability to fail, as well as the endurance and tenacity to move through and past failure, and then talk about what happened and what they learned.
During Kreps’ learning challenge, he said his own goals pushed him through the possibility of failure – even when he was scared.
When his hometown held a battle of the bands competition, he wasn’t so sure about trying out or even the idea of performing in front of people, but that was the challenge he’d created for himself.
"My champion pushed me to submit a video, and out of 80 bands that submitted videos, I was chosen for the top five," Kreps said. "I went and performed, which was my first ever public performance, with a 30-minute set at the battle of the bands, and I got third overall."
Neuroscientist Vivienne Ming, co-founder of Socos Labs, also headquartered in California, combines machine learning and cognitive neuroscience to boost students’ cognition and life outcomes. She said her method is like the experience Kreps had with his learning challenge; it differs from traditional education in that it’s experiential, not fact-based. When the skill that needs developing is resilience, teaching a fact just won’t help.
Ming thinks teachers need to be given the time and tools to focus on meta-learning – learning skills like resilience and ability to fail. "Turns out learning how to do Algebra is a great way to learn resilience, but you have to be intentional about the resilience side of this," Ming said.
Ryan Flurry, principal of career education campuses and coordinator of career and technical education for the Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, said his district has programs in place that should help those who participate to learn all of the skills Kreps ultimately experienced in his challenge, as well as those Frazier and Ming see as absent.
"At Shawnee Mission, we’re trying to go beyond the old-school metrics of No Child Left Behind with our new strategic plan and with the Kauffman Real World Learning team to expand on those entrepreneur experiences, the internships, measures beyond an ACT score, a MAPS score, and SAT score that really gives kids some assets, internal assets."
The district’s Center for Academic Achievement is a facility built apart from its five high schools that houses special programs for high school students in the medical field, engineering, education, and more. Because these real-world preparedness programs take students away from their home schools, the district offers alternative ways of earning mandatory English credits, such as crediting students for the writing they do while working in the culinary center.
Ming said the bottom line, in her opinion, is that if students are to succeed in a world where an increasing number of jobs are automated away, education needs to be about turning out craftsmen rather that tools. She understands that teaching skills like resilience is a greater challenge than teaching facts, because learning that isn’t fact-based, or objective, is experience-based, personal, and subjective.
Flurry believes his district’s approach is teaching to the student as a person rather than as a future factory worker. However, he sees a lot of systemic challenges that still need to be overcome. Each education innovator acknowledges that American public education is a big ship to turn in another direction; the changes they think are best for students will take a great deal of time.
Murphy of GripTape said that in order to implement all those competencies on a large scale, we might begin by asking what an educator’s role is. As it is, one common perception is that an educator is someone who stands in front of a room full of children and tells them facts about a subject for 45 minutes.
"That is not how our society is designed at all, and that is not how kids get any level of deep learning, or any level of transferable learning," Murphy said.
Murphy believes it takes a system that allows educators to facilitate learning experiences, like Kreps did with his challenge and Flurry’s district has tried to do with its Center for Academic Achievement. By the end of Kreps’ learning challenge, not only had he met the goals he set for himself, he’d also discovered how to work with others in a classroom. His grades went up by two letters in most of his courses.
"My network of friends and acquaintances opened up tremendously, and in turn, I participated a lot more in class because I was comfortable around the people I was with. Then the really big thing with me learning was I started talking to my teachers. I used to be relatively intimidated by teachers, just because they’re in an authority position. I learned that they’re there to help the kids, so they’re willing to answer questions."