By ETHAN HARTLEY
When you imagine what a high school classroom of the future would look like, what do you see? Do you see a technological paradise with virtual reality and standing desks with ports for high-powered tablets built in, or do you imagine a more philosophically modern classroom where teachers spend less time lecturing and more time facilitating student-led discussions and educational activities?
No matter what you believe the future holds for our students, or should hold, the Rhode Island Department of Education wants to hear your ideas.
Earlier in February, the governor’s office and RIDE announced plans for XQ+RI. It is an unprecedented collaborative partnership between Rhode Island and XQ, an organization that strives to find ways to modernize American education. The partnership will seek to unlock the secrets of how to engage a new generation of high school students and better prepare them for the rapidly changing world.
Every high school in the state is invited to provide input and will get the chance to do so this spring during workshops dubbed “design days,” where high school educators, parents and other stakeholders – organized into “community teams” – will get together to brainstorm the best ways to better engage students who may not be getting adequately reached through a traditional educational lens.
“The idea is that our system of schools was designed for a century, a world and an economy that no longer exists,” said RIDE Commissioner Ken Wagner. “You put students in a grade and then they sit in their seats for a certain period of time, take on a certain amount of knowledge, go on to the next grade and do it again, rinse repeat … Even if you do that model really well, even if you do it perfectly, you’re still missing too many kids. Because it’s a poor fit for so many kids.”
Wagner believes that this ill fit leads to various types of “disengagement” and can happen as early as the first few grades, when students realize that the passive, sit-listen-and-learn type of educational model doesn’t interest, engage or adequately challenge them. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make some bold adjustments, he said.
“If we really, really want to get dramatically different results, we can’t just do the current system really well, we have to reimagine what the current system should look like,” he said.
According to Wagner, a key element to achieve this goal will be to reposition the emphasis of importance on students assuming a more active role in achieving competence goals in order to advance, rather than simply being party to a passive, time-driven and repetitious process that looks to simply fill in sometimes arbitrary deficits. The goal, he said, should be to actively help students search for their interests, assets and strengths through the natural course of their educational path.
This doesn’t mean that every student will need to be on a rigid pathway toward a career from the time they start kindergarten, but that the new educational model should provide the opportunity for students to explore and find out what truly interests them.
“Maybe redesign leads to more pathways, but maybe it doesn’t,” Wagner said. “Maybe it leads to something else that we can’t even imagine right now.”
Incentives for forward thinkers
Educators in school districts across the state should be excited to hear about the XQ+RI initiative, and not only because it could mean a better outcome for the students they serve. Up to 20 schools from the planning process will be eligible to receive planning grants worth a maximum of $25,000 – and five of those schools will have their designs chosen to explore and develop, which comes with a hefty grant of up to $500,000 for each design.
All told, the partnership will provide grant opportunities of up to $2.5 million. However, Wagner cautions that money should not be the primary motivation, and that submitted designs should be cognizant that this pool of money will not be around forever.
“If someone comes up with something, for example, that can only be done while they have a massive infusion of dollars, then that’s a waste of time and a failure,” he said. “But that’s very different from something that needs an infusion of dollars to get off the ground but then can run on the more predictable funding stream. We have to make sure not only is it bold and important and prepares students, but that it’s also achievable.”
“Bold” is another key word when it comes to the initiative. Wagner said that looking at a system redesign should challenge fundamentally held ideals, and that good ideas can come from anywhere, including from a population that has been traditionally ignored despite being direct stakeholders to that system – students themselves.
“Powerful things happen when you just ask students their opinions about the things that are happening to them. Not always, but they often have great ideas,” he said. “Education is educating the student, so doesn’t it just make sense to involve students in the design of their own education – whether that be selection of pathways or more activity and less passivity, whatever it may be.”
Wagner said that curriculums don’t currently fit all students, especially students of color and those in less fortunate financial situations. He said new designs should explore and incorporate curriculum that considers a wide range of students’ situation so that these underserved populations can more readily relate to it via their own lived experiences.
Still, the students can’t be the ones running the schools, he emphasized.
“Balance between having a voice and preparedness is a really important balance,” he said. “And you can’t go all the way to one side and just say preparedness is the focus and so it doesn’t matter what students want – and then they’re prepared but they’re not engaged. And you can’t go to the other extreme and say ‘to hell with preparedness, it’s all about what students want’ – and then they’re totally engaged but unprepared. You need to find that sweet spot in the middle.”
When asked what would need to happen in order for Wagner to consider this initiative a success, he said that, ideally, a re-design should take things from the current system that work well and do away with traditional aspects that are becoming less and less effective.
“I personally like the word improvement,” he said. “I think we all have to stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us. I think what good leaders do is they build on what works and they tweak what didn’t work and they improve things. I think if you put an improvement strategy with a design strategy, you can get some really exciting things to happen.”
XQ is led by co-founder and CEO Russlynn Ali, who was the assistant secretary of education for civil rights under President Barack Obama. The design days, which are open to all 55 high schools in the state, will begin this March, on the following dates and locations:
Wednesday, March 13, 4-7:30 p.m.
Rhode Island College, Student Union Ballroom: 600 Mount Pleasant Ave, Providence
Wednesday, March 20, 4-7:30 p.m.
St. Joseph’s Veterans Association, 99 Louise St, Woonsocket
Saturday, March 23, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Holiday Inn South Kingstown, 3009 Tower Hill Road, Saunderstown
Wednesday, March 27, 4-7:30 p.m.
Mainstay Conference Center, 151 Admiral Kalbfus Road, Newport