The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.
All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready. But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.
Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.
Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.
Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.
STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.
No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.
Like a lot of children, my sons, Toby, 7, and Anton, 4, are obsessed with robots. In the children’s books they devour at bedtime, happy, helpful robots pop up more often than even dragons or dinosaurs. The other day I asked Toby why children like robots so much.
“Because they work for you,” he said.
What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is, someday he might work for them — or, I fear, might not work at all, because of them.
It is not just Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking who are freaking out about the rise of invincible machines. Yes, robots have the potential to outsmart us and destroy the human race. But first, artificial intelligence could make countless professions obsolete by the time my sons reach their 20s.
You do not exactly need to be Marty McFly to see the obvious threats to our children’s future careers.
Say you dream of sending your daughter off to Yale School of Medicine to become a radiologist. And why not? Radiologists in New York typically earn about $470,000, according to Salary.com.
But that job is suddenly looking iffy as A.I. gets better at reading scans. A start-up called Arterys, to cite just one example, already has a program that can perform a magnetic-resonance imaging analysis of blood flow through a heart in just 15 seconds, compared with the 45 minutes required by humans.
Maybe she wants to be a surgeon, but that job may not be safe, either. Robots already assist surgeons in removing damaged organs and cancerous tissue, according to Scientific American. Last year, a prototype robotic surgeon called STAR (Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot) outperformed human surgeons in a test in which both had to repair the severed intestine of a live pig.
So perhaps your daughter detours to law school to become a rainmaking corporate lawyer. Skies are cloudy in that profession, too. Any legal job that involves lots of mundane document review (and that’s a lot of what lawyers do) is vulnerable.
Software programs are already being used by companies including JPMorgan Chase & Company to scan legal papers and predict what documents are relevant, saving lots of billable hours. Kira Systems, for example, has reportedly cut the time that some lawyers need to review contracts by 20 to 60 percent.
As a matter of professional survival, I would like to assure my children that journalism is immune, but that is clearly a delusion. The Associated Press already has used a software program from a company called Automated Insights to churn out passable copy covering Wall Street earnings and some college sports, and last year awarded the bots the minor league baseball beat.
What about other glamour jobs, like airline pilot? Well, last spring, a robotic co-pilot developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, flew and landed a simulated 737. I hardly count that as surprising, given that pilots of commercial Boeing 777s, according to one 2015 survey, only spend seven minutes during an average flight actually flying the thing. As we move into the era of driverless cars, can pilotless planes be far behind?
Then there is Wall Street, where robots are already doing their best to shove Gordon Gekko out of his corner office. Big banks are using software programs that can suggest bets, construct hedges and act as robo-economists, using natural language processing to parse central bank commentary to predict monetary policy, according to Bloomberg. BlackRock, the biggest fund company in the world, made waves earlier this year when it announced it was replacing some highly paid human stock pickers with computer algorithms.
So am I paranoid? Or not paranoid enough? A much-quoted 2013 studyby the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science — surely the most sober of institutions — estimated that 47 percent of current jobs, including insurance underwriter, sports referee and loan officer, are at risk of falling victim to automation, perhaps within a decade or two.
Just this week, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report that found that a third of American workers may have to switch jobs in the next dozen or so years because of A.I.
I know I am not the only parent wondering if I can robot-proof my children’s careers. I figured I would start by asking my own what they want to do when they grow up.
Toby, a people pleaser and born entertainer, is obsessed with cars and movies. He told me he wanted to be either an Uber driver or an actor. (He is too young to understand that those jobs are usually one and the same).
As for Uber drivers, it is no secret that they are headed to that great parking garage in the sky; the company recently announced plans to buy 24,000 Volvo sport utility vehicles to roll out as a driverless fleet between 2019 and 2021.
And actors? It may seem unthinkable that some future computer-generated thespian could achieve the nuance of expression and emotional depth of, say, Dwayne Johnson. But Hollywood is already Silicon Valley South. Consider how filmmakers used computer graphics to reanimate Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin as they appeared in the 1970s (never mind that the Mr. Cushing died in 1994) for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
My younger son Anton, a sweetheart, but tough as Kevlar, said he wanted to be a football player. Robot football may sound crazy, but come to think of it, a Monday night battle between the Dallas Cowdroids and Seattle Seabots may be the only solution to the sport’s endless concussion problems.
He also said he wanted to be a soldier. If he means foot soldier, however, he might want to hold off on enlistment. Russia recently unveiled Fedor, a humanoid robot soldier that looks like RoboCop after a Whole30 crash diet; this space-combat-ready android can fire handguns, drive vehicles, administer first aid and, one hopes, salute. Indeed, the world’s armies are in such an arms race developing grunt-bots that one British intelligence expert predicted that American forces will have more robot soldiers than humans by 2025.
And again, all of this stuff is happening now, not 25 years from now. Who knows what the jobs marketplace might look like by then. We might not even be the smartest beings on the planet.
Ever heard of the “singularity”? That is the term that futurists use to describe a potentially cataclysmic point at which machine intelligence catches up to human intelligence, and likely blows right past it. They may rule us. They may kill us. No wonder Mr. Musk says that A.I. “is potentially more dangerous than nukes.”
But is it really that dire? Fears of technology are as old as the Luddites, those machine-smashing British textile workers of the early 19th century. Usually, the fears turn out to be overblown.
The rise of the automobile, to cite the obvious example, did indeed put most manure shovelers out of work. But it created millions of jobs to replace them, not just for Detroit assembly line workers, but for suburban homebuilders, Big Mac flippers and actors performing “Greased Lightnin’” in touring revivals of “Grease.” That is the process of creative destruction in a nutshell.
But artificial intelligence is different, said Martin Ford, the author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”Machine learning does not just give us new machines to replace old machines, pushing human workers from one industry to another. Rather, it gives us new machines to replace us, machines that can follow us to virtually any new industry we flee to.
Since Mr. Ford’s book sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place, I reached out to him to see if he was concerned about all this for his own children: Tristan, 22, Colin, 17, and Elaine, 10.
He said the most vulnerable jobs in the robot economy are those involving predictable, repetitive tasks, however much training they require. “A lot of knowledge-based jobs are really routine — sitting in front of a computer and cranking out the same application over and over, whether it is a report or some kind of quantitative analysis,” he said.
Professions that rely on creative thinking enjoy some protection (Mr. Ford’s older son is a graduate student studying biomedical engineering). So do jobs emphasizing empathy and interpersonal communication (his younger son wants to be a psychologist).
Even so, the ability to think creatively may not provide ultimate salvation. Mr. Ford said he was alarmed in May when Google’s AlphaGo software defeated a 19-year-old Chinese master at Go, considered the world’s most complicated board game.
“If you talk to the best Go players, even they can’t explain what they’re doing,” Mr. Ford said. “They’ll describe it as a ‘feeling.’ It’s moving into the realm of intuition. And yet a computer was able to prove that it can beat anyone in the world.”
In one, Albert Wenger, an influential tech investor, promoted the Basic Income Guarantee concept. Also known as Universal Basic Income, this sunny concept holds that a robot-driven economy may someday produce an unlimited bounty of cool stuff while simultaneously releasing us from the drudgery of old-fashioned labor, leaving our government-funded children to enjoy bountiful lives of leisure as interpretive dancers or practitioners of bee-sting therapy, as touted by Gwyneth Paltrow.
The idea is all the rage among Silicon Valley elites, who not only understand technology’s power, but who also love to believe that it will be used for good. In their vision of a post-A.I. world without traditional jobs, everyone will receive a minimum weekly or monthly stipend (welfare for all, basically).
Another talk by David Autor, an economist, argued that reports of the death of work are greatly exaggerated. Almost 50 years after the introduction of the A.T.M., for instance, more humans actually work as bank tellers than ever. The computers simply freed the humans from mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills to focus on more cognitively demanding tasks like “forging relationships with customers, solving problems and introducing them to new products like credit cards, loans and investments,” he said.
Computers, after all, are really good at some things and, for the moment, terrible at others. Even Anton intuits this. The other day I asked him if he thought robots were smarter or dumber than humans. “Sdumber,” he said after a long pause. Confused, I pushed him. “Smarter and dumber,” he explained with a cheeky smile.
He was joking. But he also happened to be right, according to Andrew McAfee, a management theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whom I interviewed a short while later.
Discussing another of Anton’s career aspirations — songwriter — Dr. McAfee said that computers were already smart enough to come up with a better melody than a lot of humans. “The things our ears find pleasant, we know the rules for that stuff,” he said. “However, I’m going to be really surprised when there is a digital lyricist out there, somebody who can put words to that music that will actually resonate with people and make them think something about the human condition.”
Not everyone, of course, is cut out to be a cyborg-Springsteen. I asked Dr. McAfee what other jobs may exist a decade from now.
“I think health coaches are going to be a big industry of the future,” he said. “Restaurants that have a very good hospitality staff are not about to go away, even though we have more options to order via tablet.
“People who are interested in working with their hands, they’re going to be fine,” he said. “The robot plumber is a long, long way away.”
HERE’S A DEPRESSING number for you: 12. Just 12 percent of engineers in the United States are women. In computing it’s a bit better, where women make up 26 percent of the workforce—but that number has actually fallen from 35 percent in 1990.
The United States has a serious problem with getting women into STEM jobs and keeping them there. Silicon Valley and other employers bear the most responsibility for that: Discrimination, both overt and subtle, works to keep women out of the workforce. But this society of ours also perpetuates gender stereotypes, which parents pass on to their kids. Like the one that says boys enjoy building things more than girls.
There’s no single solution to such a daunting problem, but here’s an unlikely one: robots. Not robots enforcing diversity in the workplace, not robots doing all the work and obviating the concept of gender entirely, but robots getting more girls interested in STEM. Specifically, robot kits for kids—simple yet powerful toys for teaching youngsters how to engineer and code.
Plenty of toys are targeted at getting kids interested in science and engineering, and many these days are gender specific. Roominate, for instance, is a building kit tailored for girls, while the Boolean Box teaches girls to code. “Sometimes there’s this idea that girls need special Legos, or it needs to be pink and purple for girls to get into it, and sometimes that rubs me the wrong way,” says Amanda Sullivan, who works in human development at Tufts University. “If the pink and purple colored tools is what’s going to engage that girl, then that’s great. But I think in general it would be great if there were more tools and books and things that were out there for all children.”
So Sullivan decided to test the effects of a specifically non-gendered robotics kit called Kibo. Kids program the rolling robot by stringing together blocks that denote specific commands. It isn’t marketed specifically to boys or girls using stereotypical markings of maleness or femaleness. It’s a blank slate.
Before playing with Kibo, boys were significantly more likelyto say they’d enjoy being an engineer than the girls did. But after, boys had about the same opinion, while girls were now equally as likely to express an engineering interest as the boys. (In a control group that did not play with Kibo, girls’ opinions did not significantly change.) “I think that robots in general are novel to young children, both boys and girls,” Sullivan says. “So aside from engaging girls specifically, I think robotics kits like Kibo bring an air of excitement and something new to the classroom that gets kids psyched and excited about learning.”
There’s a problem, though. While Sullivan’s research shows that a gender-neutral robotics kit can get girls interested in engineering, that doesn’t mean it will sell. “If you look at sales data, it clearly shows that they’re not being used by girls,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, which makes a programmable doll on a self-balancing scooter. “Even the ones that are considered gender-neutral, if you look at the sales data it clearly shows a bias, and it’s towards boys. That’s the reality of the situation.” Gender sells—at least when it’s the parents doing the buying.
Regardless, companies are designing a new generation of toys in deliberate ways. Take Wonder Workshop and its non-gendered robots Dash and Cue. As they were prototyping, they’d test their designs with boys and girls. “One of the things we heard a lot from girls was this isn’t quite their toy,” says Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop. “This is probably what their brother would play with.”
Why? Because they thought it looked like a car or truck. So the team covered up the wheels. “And all of a sudden girls wanted to play with it,” Gupta says. “Our takeaway from that in a big way was that every child brings their preconceived notions to play. So when they see something they map it back to something they’ve already seen.” Though not always. “What we do find actually, funnily enough,” says Albrechtsen of the SmartGurlz scooter doll, “is that a lot of boys actually end up edging in and wanting to play. So we have a lot of brothers who are also playing with the product.”
Whatever gets a child interested, it’s on parents and educators to make sure the spark stays alive. And maybe it’s the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly awesome, and increasingly inexpensive robots that can begin to transform the way America gets girls into science and tech. Short of becoming self aware and taking over the world, the machines certainly couldn’t hurt.
A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.
These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.
Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.
The 650-student school offers grades 3 through 8 only and pairs grades together, following research that shows that mixing age groups accelerates learning. For more than a decade, Birmingham Covington’s students have ranked at or above the 95th percentile in overall performance for all Michigan elementary and middle schools.
By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.
“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”
Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.
In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.
“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.
Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.
“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.
Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.
The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.
“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”
Increasing Independence for Older Learners
George Lucas Educational Foundation
As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.
In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?
In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.
This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.
“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”
If no one has ever encouraged, pushed, or insisted that you build more higher-order thinking into your students’ learning, it’s possible you’ve been teaching in a cave.
Higher-level thinking has been a core value of educators for decades. We learned about it in college. We hear about it in PD. We’re even evaluated on whether we’re cultivating it in our classrooms: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, a widely used instrument to measure teacher effectiveness, describes a distinguished teacher as one whose “lesson activities require high-level student thinking” (Domain 3, Component 3c).
All that aside, most teachers would say they want their students to be thinking on higher levels, that if our teaching kept students at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy—simply recalling information—we wouldn’t be doing a very good job as teachers.
And yet, when it’s time to plan the learning experiences that would have our students operating on higher levels, some of us come up short. We may not have a huge arsenal of ready-to-use, high-level tasks to give our students. Instead, we often default to having students identify and define terms, label things, or answer basic recall questions. It’s what we know. And we have so much content to cover, many of us might feel that there really isn’t time for the higher-level stuff anyway.
If this sounds anything like you, I have a suggestion: Try a curation assignment.
WHAT IS CURATION?
When a museum director curates, she collects artifacts, organizes them into groups, sifts out everything but the most interesting or highest-quality items, and shares those collections with the world. When an editor curates poems for an anthology, he does the same thing.
The process can be applied to all kinds of content: A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme. When we are presented with a list of the “Top 10” anything or the “Best of” something else, what we’re looking at is a curated list. Those playlists we find on Spotify and Pandora? Curation. “Recommended for You” videos on Netflix? Curation. The news? Yep, it’s curated. In an age where information is ubiquitous and impossible to consume all at once, we rely on the curation skills of others to help us process it all.
In an educational setting, curation has a ton of potential as an academic task. Sure, we’re used to assigning research projects, where students have to gather resources, pull out information, and synthesize that information into a cohesive piece of informational or argumentative writing. This kind of work is challenging and important, and it should remain as a core assignment throughout school, but how often do we make the collection of resources itself a stand-alone assignment?
That’s what I’m proposing we do. Curation projects have the potential to put our students to work at three different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:
Understand, where we exemplify and classify information
Analyze, where we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information and organize it in a way that makes sense
Evaluate, where we judge the quality of an item based on a set of criteria
If we go beyond Bloom’s and consider the Framework for 21st Century Learning put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, we’ll see that critical thinking is one of the 4C’s listed as an essential skill for students in the modern age (along with communication, creativity, and collaboration) and a well-designed curation project requires a ton of critical thinking.
So what would a curation project look like?
A SAMPLE CURATION TASK
Suppose you’re teaching U.S. history, and you want students to understand that our constitution is designed to be interpreted by the courts, and that many people interpret it differently. So you create a curation assignment that focuses on the first amendment.
The task: Students must choose ONE of the rights given to us by the first amendment. To illustrate the different ways people interpret that right, students must curate a collection of online articles, images, or videos that represent a range of beliefs about how far that right extends. For each example they include, they must summarize the point of view being presented and include a direct quote where the author or speaker’s biases or beliefs can be inferred.
Here is what one submission might look like, created on a platform called eLink (click here to view the whole thing).
Because they are finding examples of a given concept and doing some summarizing, students in this task are working at the Understand level of Bloom’s. But they are also identifying where the author or speaker is showing bias or purpose, which is on the Analyze level.
MORE PROJECT IDEAS
Ranked Collection: Students collect a set of articles, images, videos, or even whole websites based on a set of criteria (the most “literary” song lyrics of the year, or the world’s weirdest animal adaptations) and rank them in some kind of order, justifying their rankings with a written explanation or even a student-created scoring system. Each student could be tasked with creating their own collection or the whole class could be given a pre-selected collection to rank. This would be followed by a discussion where students could compare and justify their rankings with those of other students. (Bloom’s Level: Evaluate)
Shared Trait Collection: This would house items that have one thing in common. This kind of task would work in so many different subject areas. Students could collect articles where our government’s system of checks and balances are illustrated, images of paintings in the impressionist style, videos that play songs whose titles use metaphors. It could even be used as part of a lesson using the concept attainment strategy, where students develop an understanding of a complex idea by studying “yes” and “no” examples of it. By curating their own examples after studying the concept, they will further developing their understanding of it. (Bloom’s Level: Understand).
Literature Review: As the first step of a research project, students could collect relevant resources and provide a brief summary of each one, explaining how it contributes to the current understanding of their topic. As high school students prepare for college, having a basic understanding of what a literature review is and the purpose it serves—even if they are only doing it with articles written outside of academia—will help them take on the real thing with confidence when that time comes. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for the summarization, Analyze for the sorting and selecting of relevant material)
Video Playlist: YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos, but how much of it is actually good? Have students take chunks of your content and curate the best videos out there to help other students understand those concepts. In the item’s description, have students explain why they chose it and what other students will get out of it. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for summarization, Evaluate for judging the quality of the videos)
Museum Exhibit: Task students with curating a digital “exhibit” around a given theme. The more complex the theme, the more challenging the task. For example, they might be asked to assume the role of a museum owner who hates bees, and wants to create a museum exhibit that teaches visitors all about the dangers of bees. This kind of work would help students understand that even institutions that might not own up to any particular bias, like museums, news agencies, or tv stations, will still be influenced by their own biases in how they curate their material. (Bloom’s Level: Understand if it’s just a collection of representative elements, Create if they are truly creating a new “whole” with their collection, such as representing a particular point of view with their choices)
Real World Examples: Take any content you’re teaching (geometry principles, grammar errors, science or social studies concepts) and have students find images or articles that illustrate that concept in the real world. (Bloom’s level: Understand).
Favorites: Have students pull together a personal collection of favorite articles, videos, or other resources for a Genius Hour, advisory, or other more personalized project: A collection of items to cheer you up, stuff to boost your confidence, etc. Although this could easily slide outside the realm of academic work, it would make a nice activity to help students get to know each other at the start of a school year or give them practice with the process of curation before applying it to more content-related topics.
FOR BEST RESULTS, ADD WRITING
Most of the above activities would not be very academically challenging if students merely had to assemble the collection. Adding a thoughtfully designed written component is what will make students do their best thinking in a curation assignment.
The simplest way to do this is to require a written commentary with each item in the collection. Think about those little signs that accompany every item at a museum: Usually when you walk into an exhibit, you find a sign or display that explains the exhibit as a whole, then smaller individual placards that help visitors understand the significance of each piece in the collection. When students put their own collections together, they should do the same thing.
Be specific about what you’d like to see in these short writing pieces, and include those requirements in your rubric. Then go a step further and create a model of your own, so students have a very clear picture of how the final product should look. Because this is a genre they have probably not done any work in before, they will do much better with this kind of scaffolding. Doing the assignment yourself first—a practice I like to call dogfooding—will also help you identify flaws in the assignment that can be tweaked before you hand it over to students.
DIGITAL CURATION TOOLS
It’s certainly possible for students to collect resources through non-digital means, by reading books in the library or curating physical artifacts or objects, but doing a curation project digitally allows for media-rich collections that can be found and assembled in a fraction of the time. And if you have students curating in groups, using digital tools will allow them to collaborate from home without having to meet in person.
Here are a few curation tools that would work beautifully for this kind of project:
Elink is the tool featured in the sample project above. Of all the tools suggested here, this one is the simplest. You collect your links, write descriptions, and end up with a single unique web page that you can share with anyone.
Pinterestis probably the most popular curation tool out there. If your students are already using Pinterest, or you’re willing to get them started, you could have them create a Pinterest board as a curation assignment.
Symbalooallows users to create “webmixes,” boards of icons that each lead to different URLs. Although it would be possible to create a curated collection with Symbaloo, it doesn’t allow for the same amount of writing that some other tools do, so you would need to have students do their writing on a separate document.
Diigois a good choice for a more text-driven project, like a literature review or a general collection of resources at the beginning stages of a research project, where images aren’t necessarily required. Diigo offers lots of space to take notes about every item in a collection, but it doesn’t have user-friendly supports for images or other media.
SHARE YOUR CURATION IDEAS
I’m so excited about all the different ways we can use curation in the classroom, and I would love to hear your ideas as well. Please share them in the comments below. If you have links to student samples, share those, too! ♦
WANT TO LEARN DIGITAL CURATION?
Curation is just one of the modules in JumpStart, my new online technology course created especially for educators. I thought carefully about what specific skills teachers need to make the most of classroom tech, chose 9 of them, and designed hands-on projects that will show you exactly how to use them.
If you’re ready to take your tech skills from so-so to rock solid, this course will change everything for you.
Hello 🙂 I’m Bella, and I love a lot of things; programming, dancing, singing, drawing, learning, teaching, sports, reading, and writing about all of the above.
Read the title. Now notice that I said school, NOT education. Yes, there is a difference.
This fall I’m going to be a Sophomore in high school, and although I’ve only had one year of high school so far, I kind of hate it. It’s cliche really; the high school student who hates school, texts all day, goes to parties, etc. Well, really only 1 out of 3 of those things applies to me but let’s rewind for a second to when I didn’t completely hate school: kindergarten-5th grade.
Hate is a strong word, I don’t hate school. I’m only comparing my feelings now for the ecstasy of my elementary days. Back then I loved school. It was my favorite place, simply because I’ve always had a love for learning. I had a great childhood (well I mean, I’m technically still in my childhood, but let’s ignore that); I grew up reading every day, going on Zoo adventures to learn about animals, hiking up to the observatory to star gaze, visiting every museum possible, and etc. A seed of curiosity was planted in my mind at an early age, and continues to grow today. There is something about having a question and finding the answer that satisfies me, but what really excites me to the core is being able to do something with that answer. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
Now imagine little kindergarten me, sitting in a room (on a rainbow rug that only added to the excitement of it all!) where all (well, most) of my questions could be answered. I was able to learn how to read, write and count. I was able to understand things about different animals, plants, and the world. I was able to learn about my ancestors and the history of everything. Not only that, but everything was fun! Why just read about the different parts of the plant when you could label the construction paper parts and glue them together like a puzzle? Better yet, watch your very own plant grow! To me, school was some sort of paradise.
So how did my love for school change? Simple: school stopped being about learning. As I entered high school, and even middle school, everyone around me, teachers and students alike, had the mindset of “cram cram cram, A’s, A’s A’s”. They’ll shove useless information into your head as fast as possible, “it’s okay if you don’t understand it, just memorize it and get an A on your exam!” The exam? An hour in a room of no talking, just bubbling in multiple choice answers while bubbles of anxiety grew in your stomach. School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.
Why can’t school be a place where teachers taught slowly, treating their students as equals and engaging with them in meaningful conversations. I once had an algebra teacher yell at anyone who asked a question because “we are in algebra, we are supposed to be smart enough to know these things”. Why can’t school be a place that welcomes questions of all kinds, and actually allows time to ask them? I’m so tired of cramming for exams only to forget everything the next morning. In real life, we have unlimited resources. The internet, the library, our peers. Instead of sitting in a room for an hour bubbling in a Scantron, why don’t we get together with our classmates and use our resources to work through a complex critical thinking question that relates to the real world as well as the subject. That is how you grow minds fit to solve world hunger, and etc. That is how you engage students, and cause them to be enthusiastic about a certain subject. I’m not saying schools should take away testing and homework, I’m saying they should make it more about the learning experience, and more like real life. Testing should use a combination of critical thinking and prior knowledge; it shouldn’t isolate the part of the brain that memorizes facts, because half of the time students don’t understand them!
I too have fallen prey to this harsh reality. I’ll stay up late to study, knowing that I’m only going to forget everything after I test. I’ll get the A, I’ll push myself, but at what cost? I’ve fallen into a hole, developed anxiety and OCD, and if I don’t stop soon I can add depression to that list. School is encouraging me to continue to push myself, but how long is it until I reach my breaking point? These days the only things I do are homework and studying. I stressed out so much my freshman year, I not only landed in the hospital, but I didn’t read a single outside reading book all year, and to me, that’s even more tragic. I am only in 10th grade, and I feel like I’m barely clinging on.
So yes, school sucks. But that doesn’t mean that learning has to. I’ve made myself a promise that from this day forward, no matter what college I go to, no matter what job I end up doing, I will always love learning, and always strive to know more. And despite all I have said in this article, I still enjoy going to school, and I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I have always been the type of person to read a book about ‘Ancient Greek Mythology’ or ‘A-Z animal facts’, simply because I want to learn, and I hope to continue being that person.
Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.
“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”
Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.
For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.
Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.
More than 40 schools in New York City — home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students — have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.
New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.
This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.
Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.
Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.
Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.
Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.
Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.
“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”
Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)
Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.
Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.
“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.
In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.
Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.
But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.
“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.
In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.
At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.
The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.
At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.
This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.
To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.
In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.
Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.
Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.
“We were not reaching all of these kids,” Ms. Genduso said.
In late 2012, educators at the school were trying to think big. Housed on the second floor of a sprawling brick building on Hoyt Street, M.S. 442 was 14 years old and struggling with low test scores and declining enrollment. It had done a poor job of attracting families from the neighboring brownstones, and many of the teachers were dispirited. The school shed its name, New Horizons Middle School, and introduced computers. Some teachers began using computers for in-class lessons. Another group thought it would complement the student advising system. The changes led to conversations about what had been happening inside classrooms and whether a new approach was needed.
Eventually, the school decided to switch to mastery-based education. Still, the move was slow. First, the school offered more hands-on group activities. For a seventh-grade math unit on ratios and proportion, for example, the class opened a pretend catering company. Students practiced their math skills as they figured out pricing and discounts for their menus.
The next year, the school transformed its mentoring program. Students set behavioral goals and logged online. They could determine to be on time more often, do their homework more regularly or talk less in science class. Their mentors noted their goals and the progress made. The platform was a hit with students and with teachers, who believed it empowered children to think about their growth in new ways.
In the 2013-14 school year, educators at the school came up with a list of desired academic outcomes. If students could be motivated by an online log to stop talking in class, perhaps a log would motivate them to learn to write an introductory paragraph or add fractions.
Engaged by the project, Jared Sutton, a 27-year-old algebra teacher, helped develop a software program for grading called the Hive. It’s the program that Moheeb uses, via his iPhone or a classroom computer, when he wants to check his progress, which he does multiple times a day.
Parents, however, remained skeptical. While students received end-of-year report cards with their mastery points translated into percentage grades (necessary when applying to high school), many parents were confused by the frequent progress reports detailing dozens of outcomes for each subject. Some simply wanted to know whether their children were passing.
“There can be a real concern that they don’t understand,” said Noreen Mills, principal of M.S. 442. “But once they understand, they get on board.”
On a sunny morning last spring, the new approach was visible in a sixth-grade math class. Signs around the room reinforced the school’s philosophy: “Failing proves that you are trying,” one read; another, “Being wrong is the key to being successful.”
Students in T-shirts and hoodies organized into four groups. At one table, they worked on a conversion problem, trying to determine when a dog owner would need to buy more dog food. The dog owner had 45 pounds of kibbles, and the dog ate 10 ounces a day. The problem tested a math skill they would need to master by the end of sixth grade: “I can convert from one unit of measurement to another.”
“He’s confused,” one boy said of his seatmate, who had circled the correct answer but was puzzled by the procedure. “But at least he got the right answer.”
“I don’t think we should leave it at that,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, their teacher, who leaned over their desks as she pointed to the problem. Both boys looked up at her, then down again at the page. They were listening intently.