I entered Parrish Junior High in 1981 wearing a red helmet, cleats, and a look of determination. I was going to be the center on the football team, and could almost hear the cheers of “Go Pioneers!” as I prepared for the first day of classes. Before the first game I broke my arm in two places and was out for the season. Budget cuts took football out of the middle schools the next year. I was beginning to experience something that is a vital part of life in education: the unexpected.
I found a photo of the determined twelve year old I was when I was visiting my parents this weekend, and as I plucked it from the pile of memories I was struck by how different the world is today than it was when I was starting 7th grade. As a principal of a middle school it’s important that I consider these changes and do my best to understand that the experiences my students here at Diegueño Middle School need are dramatically different than my own.
We are not preparing our students for the 1980s, when the Soviet Union and United States squared off, eagles and bears scowling at each other across two oceans. Diegueño was built when Reagan’s jellybeans were still fresh, and the world looked a lot different than it does today.
Nor are we preparing our students for 2015, a year that sounds so modern in our adult ears, but will be, for our current students, a memory as far away as my red Parrish Pioneers helmet by the time they’re comfortably coming into their own, doing jobs that don’t yet exist in a world we can only dimly imagine.
Some of the skills that our students need are adaptability and critical thinking. The academic concerns we bring to their education -a new way of approaching math or a renewed emphasis on reading non-fiction- will seem quaint to them when they reach the age we are now. What won’t feel out of date is the passion for learning we can ignite and curiosity we can foster.
Now, after twenty or so years of being an educator, I’ve come to believe that the important skills, those truly vital for our kids to leave school with, aren’t the litany of facts I had to memorize as a student, nor some of the specific skills I pushed my students to learn when I was a teacher. What I want my current students to learn, and my own kids too, is how to solve problems, communicate clearly, strive to know more, be kind, creative, resilient, and to make a difference.
Trends in education come and go, and very often they move the important work of education in the right direction, but each way of doing school is just a step in a longer journey.
Abraham Lincoln’s school consisted of Latin grammar and memorizing long passages to learn rhetoric. Stephen Hawking’s school had wooden terraced benches where formally dressed students listened as instructors lectured. Toni Morrison’s school danced around political realities while emphasizing reading, writing, and arithmetic. These schools are not ours, though our schools hold the next Lincolns and Hawkings and Morrisons.
Technology changes too; for Lincoln it was a slate, for Hawking a slide rule. And while it’s smart to use the technology we have, to shackle ourselves to any single device is foolish. Edtech in 1981 meant getting the good typewriter.
Versatility is the hallmark of a strong learner, and if we do our job right our students will learn throughout their lives using technology that hasn’t yet been invented.
As we work with students, using the pedagogy, psychology, and technology we honestly believe is best, we do well to recognize that we, and our approach, will be a footnote to our children’s children.
The buildings that are Diegueño were constructed in 1985; our approach to education is as different now as are our times. Thirty years from now the world, and how we prepare students for it will change again, and again, and again. It must.
The work we do with students today will inform those changes, and while future generations won’t look back and want to mimic what we did (as we wouldn’t mimic Latin grammar), if we’ve been successful they will be confident to make decisions about what will be right for them, and they’ll want to emulate our passion, inspiration, and kindness.
We are preparing students to explore ideas and a world beyond what we already know. We are preparing them to write a future they can be proud of, and to map a reality that doesn’t yet exist.
And as we ready them for this great unknown, one things from my own middle school years feels relevant, that whisper of a cheer, now directed at our kids: “Go Pioneers!”