Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Living in Beta-Part 1

I have the great fortune of working with some amazing colleagues whose rich lives allow me to stay connected to the world beyond public education.  One of my colleagues is working on a start up company in her time outside of school and has generously shared with me kernels of learning and insight she has gained through this process.  Another colleague often connects me to podcasts or other media she knows I will find stimulating and inspiring.  She recently hooked me on Alex Blumberg’s new podcast “StartUp” which chronicles his start-up journey in creating and launching the podcast.   The learning and perspective I have gained through these experiences has led me to an even greater sense of confidence in what we are doing at Clark Street.  
Since the beginning of the school four years ago, I have talked to students about learning to stay longer in the “I don’t know yet, but I will” space.  As we were planning the school, I was also finishing my graduate school course work and beginning to think about my dissertation.  As a traditionally very successful student (read: strategically compliant), my grad school experience alongside our planning and implementation of Clark Street, forced me to confront my discomfort with staying in that space.  I found myself desperately wanting someone to help me find my burning question and teach me the steps to write a high quality dissertation.  The discomfort I felt in entertaining the idea that I might have something of value to offer to the field was only surpassed by my fear of “doing it wrong.”  At the same time, I was working to design a school that asked students to engage deeply in their learning.  This, of course, meant challenging them to get comfortable with the very things with which I was struggling.  The “I don’t know yet, but I will” space helped me articulate this idea to students.  I talked about how schools have often trained us to feel compelled to get the “right” answer quickly and as a result, many of us have learned to either cut corners in response to the time pressure at the expense of learning or to quit before we even start, because we assume we won’t figure it out anyway.  
While opening Clark Street, I have also served as the principal of our online school and have gotten very comfortable with the very rapid pace at which digital tools are introduced, evolve, are surpassed by new technologies,  and become obsolete.  As a leader, I have been forced to spend a lot of time  in the “I don’t know yet, and I may never know, and that is ok because I have a team” space that often exists in this rapidly changing world.  Those of us who spend a lot of time working in the digital learning world sometimes talk about the fact that we feel as if we are perpetually existing in Beta….a reference to products that are introduced before all of the bugs have been worked out so that the early users can help improve the product. While being on the front end of adopting an idea can often provide you with a unique opportunity to influence future iterations of a product, it also often means unpredictable changes and results.    Existing in beta has meant getting increasingly comfortable with relinquishing control in order to get the best results.  
I recently found myself in a conversation with a group of parents of future high school students and I was talking about my belief that a student who graduates from Clark Street is better prepared for whatever post-secondary path they choose than they would have been if they completed a traditional high school program.  It was in this conversation that these pieces of my exposure to the world of start -ups outside of school, my experience starting a very progressive school, my personal response to being asked to do quality research, and my experience in the rapidly changing digital world all came together.  I realized, that we are training our students to live in a world that may exist mainly in beta for them.  

Robin Chase, in her book, Peer Inc. has predicted that as many as 70% of the workforce will be employed in freelance capacities in the not so distance future.  Most of us have heard the statistics that our young people will likely hold as many as 7 different jobs in their career and most of us have accepted that we are preparing students for jobs that may not even exist at this time, but if this prediction is accurate, the shift in what successful employment will look like for our current students as adults is even more dramatic than we could have imagined.  For me, this creates an image of a career that looks like a regular and repeating pattern of workers who are employed for short periods of time based on a specific talent set that they bring to a team.  These teams are asked to work on solving a problem or creating something that fills a need, and when that solution is developed or that need met, this team is disbanded and goes their separate ways.  While this may strike fear and anxiety in the hearts of those of us who have come to expect a much higher level of predictability in our careers, there is also potential for significant excitement and possibility for workers who bring the right skill set.  For those who know themselves well, both their strengths and their limitations; who know how to clearly articulate what they bring to a team; who can work well with a diverse group of problem solvers; and see themselves as capable learners and problem solvers the potential to build an entire career based on your needs, passions and interests even if they change significantly with time may be a reality.  Whether we love this idea or fear it, as educators, we cannot simply ignore the strong likelihood that this is the world our students will need to be prepared to function in.   

The skill set students are developing at CSCS is well aligned with this potential future.  Beginning with the establishment of a personalized learning plan rooted in a deep understanding of self and driven by a vision of who they want to become, students get to know themselves well and can talk comfortably about who they are and who they want to be.  Our commitment to place and democratic education through the completion of projects, allows students to learn and practice the skills they will need to collaborate effectively with diverse teams, dig deeply to understand problems and learning opportunities, accept feedback in the interest of improving their work, present their ideas clearly and manage their time effectively.   These skills will serve them well in the entrepreneurial economy they are likely to face in their adult lives.


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