Preparing Students for an Uncertain Future

Wow. I blinked, and it's July. Apologies (especially to paid subscribers) for the unexpected hiatus.

With the end of June comes also the end of the school year in New York City's public schools. It's a bittersweet time for me as I remember the work I left behind and how many new experiences I've had in the past two school years.

Thankfully I still have close relationships with educators across the city. Central Park East Elementary 1, the last school where I was a teacher, invited me to attend the fifth-grade graduation ceremony last week. It was such an honor to be there! About half of the graduates were my third graders from a long and challenging, yet rewarding year of remote teaching. Now they're moving on to middle school! And they're doing okay!

The ceremony included speeches and musical performances from the fifth graders. Watching some of my former students perform "With a Little Help from My Friends" brought a huge smile to my face. The whole experience reminded me how special this school is. It is a progressive school which in education means that it is committed to a whole child and student-centered approach. Learning is hands-on and aligned with students' interests as much as possible. Arts and experiences are prioritized as much as possible.

Listening to the graduates speak and perform was a powerful demonstration of what this approach to teaching and learning can do. I think one graduate summed it up best when they said their experience was "​​not about turning in an essay, but about making friendships and building community." After 15 years working in public schools, I know that it is tragically rare for students to describe their schooling in this way.

Education - like practically every social system - faces a myriad of disruptions right now. COVID, technological change, and rising authoritarianism are three particular challenges. Educators and policymakers spend a lot of time thinking about how to remake schools to survive these forces. After attending CPE1's graduation, I felt confident that we already know how to design schools that teach students to thrive in the face of these challenges. It's only a question of whether we will embrace what works.

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

CPE1's educational philosophy prioritizes relationship-building, arts and creativity, and independent inquiry. These three pillars are exactly what students need to succeed in an uncertain future.

In the past two years, educators have raised serious concerns about the impact of COVID on our students. Students are fighting more. They are more anxious and isolated. Centering relationships in the classroom will help students develop the skills that went under-nurtured during remote learning. Giving them time to be creative will be therapeutic. And teaching them in a way that fosters independent inquiry will build their confidence.

Education and health professionals are also sounding the alarm right now about the negative effects of technology. Social media is destroying young people's mental health. And there is widespread concern about how AI/mass language models will reshape work. If schools prioritize relationship-building in classrooms, we do not need to feel as alarmed. In classrooms where students feel cared for by adults and have copious time to interact with and collaborate with peers, they thrive. In-person relationships cannot erase the impact of technology, but creating ample time for human connection would serve as a profound protective factor. Meanwhile, relationship-oriented skills are the ones that will endure whatever the AI revolution does to the workforce.

Encouraging students to be curious and critical thinkers is essential if we want them to navigate technological shifts successfully. Much of using an AI chatbot or scrolling a newsfeed effectively comes down to asking the right questions. Artistic and creative thinking could enable students to find new uses for technology. And just as likely, creativity will become in higher-demand as humans come to place a higher value on human-made art. Whether any of these skills are marketable or not, these are plainly the skills we all need to live full lives.

Lastly, when we consider the threat of authoritarianism, we can once again embrace the value of relationships, the arts, and inquiry. When we know and trust others, especially from diverse backgrounds, we are less susceptible to lies that manipulate us and tell us to hate others. When we are faced with injustice, the arts are a powerful tool. Art can bring us joy in times of darkness. Art can illuminate the harm caused by powerful people or ridicule and undermine those in power. Creativity overall allows us to imagine new possibilities in the face of harmful systems and policies.

It is impossible to predict what kind of world today's fifth graders will enter when they reach young adulthood. But educators and policymakers need not panic about redesigning schools. The model for preparing young people already exists in schools like CPE1. I am confident that relationships, creativity, and questioning will remain vital skills. These are the skills that make us human. These are the skills that will help us face whatever an uncertain future brings.


Popular Posts