From the Region One Superintendent’s Desk: Preparation for life, at school

Many changes that happen in education come under scrutiny, largely due to the fact that it is a departure from what we all have been accustomed to in our own past. We expect that changes should happen in the business world, but changes in education have lagged behind the world for which we are preparing our students.

Ted Dintersmith, whose recent book, “What School Could Be,” began his career in venture capitalism. It was through this lens that he recognized that often people are afraid of taking chances and being innovative. He thought about how this connects to schools and decided to spend a year visiting schools in all 50 states, observing what was actually taking place. What he saw in many schools were innovative classrooms where children were gaining purpose, agency, essential skillsets and mindsets and real knowledge. 

Unfortunately, relevant and engaging instruction is not happening everywhere. In a number of schools, we still have classrooms where learning is not relevant or innovative. Says Dintersmith, “Kids are trusting us to give them experiences to open life’s doors. They need to be trusted to manage their own learning and not memorizing and simply following instructions from the teacher.” 

When he asked students, “Why are you doing this?” and the students responded, “Because the teacher told me to,” he realized that students were not seeing the meaning of what they were asked do do. He described a class of high school juniors in one school who were given a weekly class period to explore anything they would be interested in learning. He noticed that about half of the students went online to Google to search the topic “what should I be interested in?” Said Dintersmith, “What are we doing to our kids if they feel they only need to do things to prepare for something such as the SATs?”

He supports the fact that systems do not change easily. But when systems come together to make schools great and collaborate to make a difference in the lives of students, we can show our students examples of what can be done when people work together to affect positive change and give kids a real chance in life.

Dintersmith says, “We have turned our schools into test prep factories and we are still mediocre and our kids are still bored. Do we encourage kids to think outside of the box - to question things? We need this in our school environment.”

Helping students to question and get engaged is what we need to be doing. We need to bring out the joy of learning in every child. Schools should be opening up life and career paths for students, which is far better preparation for life and should be the heart and soul of the school. 

According to scholars like Ted Dintersmith, Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson and a host of other educators with vast experience in the field of education, we need a sea change in education, with more hands on, minds on and project-based learning. We should not keep testing kids on formulas, but let them do incredible work by engaging them in what they love to do and make certain that learning stays interesting. 

As we move to more Personalized Learning in all of our schools, it is essential that our students and parents understand that this is a shift for teachers and for students. Students embrace Personalized Learning, as they have voice and choice and select their projects and forms of being assessed. Sitting quietly in straight rows and doing a project or test that has no relevancy and little or no interest to the students causes them to disengage from the real learning that needs to take place. 

With Personalized Learning, we still connect to standards, but with a focused number of standards, so that students and teachers can feel a sense of freedom. We will still expect students to develop good work habits, but the difference will be that students will be given many more opportunities to try, try, try again - and at last, they will succeed!  

With a changed grading system, it frees students and teachers to look at learning in a very different way. Students now can learn what an “A, B or C” means, because there is a clear description between what a student has to achieve any one of these levels. And if a student does not show the basic level of proficiency demonstrated to prove learning, the student has a retake opportunity to strive to do better.

“Maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. To prepare them for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer. Given decades of damage from our testing and accountability strategy, maybe it’s time to place our bets on a strategy that puts its weight behind engaging and inspiring our kids and teachers. Imagine what our country is capable of, if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life.” (Dintersmith, 2018)


Dr. Pam Vogel is the Region One superintendent, and her office is in Falls Village at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. She lives in Sharon.