The rhetoric surrounding the purpose of K-12 education once centered on getting students “college ready.” It’s now more widely recognized that college isn’t the goal for all, and so the phrase “college and career ready” has entered common usage. But whatever language we’ve used throughout the era of standardization and testing, we’ve learned one thing for certain: getting students ready for life after school isn’t all about producing people who can perform well on tests. So, what do we really want to see from our graduates?
Recently, a positive trend has emerged of defining what skills students will have achieved by the time they graduate from high school. Schools often refer to their overviews as a “profile of a graduate,” and some states are adopting profile standards or guidelines statewide. When developing these profiles, schools might interview local community colleges and four-year universities to capture a picture of what they expect of incoming students, interview parents and community members, or talk to employers in the area about the skills they are looking for in new hires, each group providing valuable input about what skills and capabilities are common to well-rounded graduates.
Ironically, most of what they identify is unrelated to what schools can often most readily demonstrate—e.g., students’ GPAs, AP performance, or test scores. Instead, they focus on areas such as communication, interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and empathy, skills grouped under an array of labels such as social-emotional learning (SEL), character learning, soft skills, life skills, foundational skills, heart skills, and so on. In turn, schools’ graduate profiles are increasingly inclusive of these types of learning outcomes. But including them in the profile without actively assessing them seems disingenuous. In order to truly work toward a more meaningful and holistic graduate profile, schools need proven ways to gauge students’ social-emotional learning and development.
This is one of the areas in which The Learner First can provide support. With our SEL measures and assessment tools, schools can assess the skills in their graduate profiles and reliably demonstrate students’ progress in developing them. We also support teachers to teach these skills in a blended fashion in everyday learning. For example, rather than teaching collaboration and teamwork skills as a ten-minute topic once a week, these skills can be taught within any group project or alongside any curricular content. The same can be said for key elements of students’ self-understanding, like their sense of identity and purpose, and for other key competencies like communication and creativity. As evidenced in graduate profiles, these are outcomes that students, parents, educators, employers, and other community members want to see. They want these skills to be intentionally taught and prioritized, because they want students to be ready for whatever comes their way—in a world where “what’s coming” looks increasingly disruptive.
The world of artificial intelligence (AI) is evolving faster and faster and becoming more and more ubiquitous, thanks in large part to the capability of AI systems like ChatGPT and DALL-E, and has led to questions about what AI portends for the future of business, education, and every aspect of life. We’re already seeing that AI can pass tests, which only shows that those tests don’t capture the full picture. A lot of the skills and other elements included in graduate profiles aren’t needed to pass even graduate-level exams. These are the skills humans possess that AI doesn’t have, skills that augment intelligence—your own or AI’s—and so help you contribute in your own, human way.
I would argue that contribution is the purpose of learning—we learn so that we know how to contribute to the world. Contributive Learning™ is about discovering who you are, connecting with others, and developing relevant knowledge and competencies. It’s what students need in the world of AI, because it’s about using the tools that you have—technological and human—to make a positive impact, to add meaning and value.
While the technological tools at our disposal will change, the central importance of contribution will remain. It gives our lives meaning and a sense of fulfillment, things that—whatever our graduates do after school—they will always, as humans, unquestionably need.