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Growing little thinkers

Matt Terrell
photo illustration by Amanda Swanson
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My father, age 51, has had a grand total of two careers in his lifetime.

One as a natural gas technician. Another as a machine operator in a large plastics factory. Both jobs required good math skills, lots of mechanical know-how and the ability to lift 50 pounds. And for those purposes, the schools of the 1960s and 1970s served him well.

I think of my father and his careers as I visit today’s schools in Eagle County. I watch kids record podcasts, edit movies shot with digital cameras, build Power-Point presentations, talk face-to-face with NASA scientists via webcam and watch streaming videos on the Internet about Rome, Teddy Roosevelt and mitochondria.

This isn’t what my father learned to do in the chalkboard filled classrooms of the 1960s. I’m told these kids are preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet, jobs that they’ll be fighting for on a global scale against other bright young professionals in places like India and China.

But not too long ago, these same kids were in basically those same chalkboard-filled classrooms that prepared kids like my father, and even myself, a child of the 1990s, by the millions for a life of production and industry.

Schools have been slow to recognize that the classroom we grew up in won’t work for the high-tech children of today.

Instead, they need classrooms where ideas, creativity and innovation mix seamlessly with reading, writing, math and science. Taking advantage of technology is the first big step toward that goal, leaders say.

But now that we have this technology in Eagle County, what’s next?

Maybe it’s just American ego, but it’s a bit unsettling to think of us as falling behind.

We expected routine factory work to go overseas. If some bright person can figure out an equation or algorithm for a job, chances are it will be automated. If building a refrigerator is cheaper in another country, well, that’s where it will be built. It’s been like this for years.

But the real scary thing for the United States, a country used to at least thinking of itself as the best and brightest, is seeing jobs that thrive on analytical thinking, problem solving and creativity being given to people in other countries who can do it better.

As more and more of our work ends up on a computer ” from X-rays, to architectural drawings, to movies, to technical research papers ” it can be sent instantly over the Internet to someone on the other side of the world.

If that someone on the other side of the world is smarter, or more importantly, has better ideas than you, then they’ll win the job. This pits American workers at every skill level against other workers in every little corner of the globe.

So that’s the problem. If the United States wants to compete in a world that is putting more and more value on innovation, it not only has to make its kids smarter, but it also has to get its kids thinking outside the box, said John Kuglin, director of technology for the Eagle County School District.

“We still have to teach reading, writing and math, but when students leave, they have to problem solve, use and analyze data and think for themselves,” said John Pacheco, interim superintendent for the Eagle County School District.

Figuring out the “how,” though, is tough. Some education experts are warning that to truly improve American education so kids can better compete in the global workforce, there will need to be some fundamental changes in our education philosophy.

Fixing education, they say, will soon be a test of how far out of our comfort zone we’re willing to step.

What would you say to increasing teacher pay to ” let’s be wild ” $110,000 a year? Would that kind of pay attract top-tier professionals, and would they better educate kids?

What would you say to a complete restructuring of our education system? What would you say to a system that puts kids into college at the age of 16? What would you say to a system of national board examinations that kids must take and pass to graduate?

These are real ideas being recommended by the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a group assigned with the tough task of deciding how to fix education to meet our future needs. But big changes, like some of the more thought-provoking ideas listed above, are honestly a unrealistic now, Pacheco said.

“We’ve become a society that’s so uneasy with taking risks,” Pacheco said. “Everyone recognizes the need to change, but the hard question is how to go about doing that.”

Outside a gigantic and sweeping education reform, we do know that the school district’s technology upgrade will help. Kids today spend more time on the Internet than watching television, and they keep blogs and create podcasts outside the classroom, Kuglin said. Technology is their language.

Reaching these students and preparing them for the future means embracing this technology, and teachers who speak that language will be able to pull out their creativity, Kuglin said.

The district has reorganized its administration to hopefully give teachers more time with technology experts, people who can suggest ways to use the new gear in classrooms. Leaders hope teachers will discuss technology in their weekly planning meetings, which is an integral part of the Teacher Advancement Program.

Still, it could just be a while for every school uses this technology to its full potential. It will be up to smart principals and teachers with bright ideas to change the ways kids learn, Pacheco said.

Let’s take a pretty routine activity ” looking up colleges on the Internet ” and look at how Eagle Valley Middle School turned it into the kind of project you’d see in a modern-day advertising firm.

Eighth-graders were asked to think of three possible careers they’re interested in, pick their favorite, look up three colleges that would be good for that career, research things like tuition, scholarships and financial aid opportunities, and even do one-on-one interviews with people who have made careers in that field.

All this would be plugged into a big Power Point slide show, as if they were pitching an ad campaign to the CEO of Nike. Lots of colors. Lots of ideas. Snappy five- to 10-minute presentations.

“What we’re trying to do is align the way kids work in the classroom with the way adults work in the office,” Kuglin said.

This style of learning is where education is headed in Eagle County. Students are still drilled on basic skills, and they must learn the basics well, but then they’re left to put the rest together themselves. They are given direction, a little time, and asked to come up with a product that shows how well they understand something. And with the district’s technology upgrades, creating these kinds of projects is much more simple and quick than it used to be.

If employers are indeed looking for bright people who can work independently, solve problems and think for themselves, schools will have to incorporate more project-based lessons into classrooms, Pacheco said.

Because really, it’s coming to the point where it’s not just what you know, but how creatively you’re able to express it.

“They need to know the basic skills, but the places they apply them is in the arts,” said Berneil Bannon, an art teacher at Battle Mountain High School. “I want math teachers and English teachers all of the other teachers to understand that what they’re teaching is also the foundation for what I teach.”

Earlier this year, I saw a classroom full of kids absolutely fascinated by Irish people.

This was at Minturn Middle School. The teachers had asked three women from the community, who were either born in Ireland or had Irish families, to speak to the kids about living in Ireland.

The kids asked all sorts of interesting and strange questions, like how an Irish person would survive if he were allergic to potatoes and how you get used to driving on the left side of the road.

But this Q and A was just one small part of a much larger project about immigration. The kids weren’t just learning about Irish people, but about all the different reasons why people come to America.

With Ireland, they’re examining how the potato famine sent many people looking for a better life in America. They were asked to write journals and letters from the perspective of an Irish immigrant, which got them to empathize, put themselves in someone else’s shoes and get a little creative.

Later, they studied how millions of people in Africa were forced from their homes to move here for slavery. And, relating it to today’s political climate, they’re studying why people from Mexico are moving here into our valley, and why people take such strong sides in the immigration debate.

“It’s building background knowledge and historical perspective and carrying it to something that’s relevant to their lives today,” said Principal Toni Boush.

Minturn Middle School’s entire curriculum is based on these kinds of sweeping projects based around intriguing topics ” they call it “Expeditionary Learning.” The school really takes that idea of hands-on, analytical learning to the extreme.

Last year, for instance, eighth-graders did a project on Camp Hale and 10th Mountain Division soldiers. The students went on hut trips, heard real-life stories from Camp Hale veterans and wrote children’s books based on what they learned. Those books are now in the Vail Ski and Snowboard Museum.

“That was about craftsmanship, and we teach kids that when you’re putting out a product to be seen by the public, you can’t just do something sloppy, you have to pay attention to detail and do quality work,” Boush said.

But aside from that whole concept of craftsmanship and creating quality products, these projects require students, above anything else, to see the big picture and understand a variety of perspectives, which Boush sees as imperative to a child’s success in the future.

Expeditionary learning incorporates a lot of group work into class activities ” and kids will have to, as they will in future workplaces, deal with different cultures, different viewpoints and still come up with solutions to problems, Boush said.

It takes all kinds of thinking to change the world, Bannon said.

Behind all this talk of higher level thinking and creativity is the basic, primal drive every teacher has to teach kids the basics.

Here, you’ll hear the phrase “individualized curriculums” a lot, meaning teachers are putting more effort than ever to give every child in a classroom a slightly different lesson, depending on what they’re good at and where they’re struggling.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all anymore,” said Red Hill Elementary principal Anthony Barela. “My big thing is educating every kid, and I don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks.”

Closely watching test scores is one way of going about it. Student progress on monthly writing assessments, for instance, is tracked on large grids with color-coded sticky notes at Red Hill. As a student improves, his sticky note is moved up a notch, and teachers examine these in weekly meetings.

Teachers take it very seriously ” they’re thrilled when they see former students doing better than ever, and disappointed, and a little worried, when they see one falling behind. In their weekly meetings, they brainstorm with other teachers about different, creative ways to reach out to each kid.

Barela said teachers across the district are getting better at customizing lessons. When every student is taught at their level, and taught in the way that works best for them, that’s when you’ll see that higher level thinking start to shine through, he said.

The difficult thing now is that our education system perhaps places too large an emphasis on standardized testing, and the testing does little to measure higher-level thinking.

You’ve heard the saying, what you measure is what you teach. Schools here are faced with a lot of pressure to bring up scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program, known as CSAP, so you see a lot of teaching to the test.

While keeping high standards in reading and math is important, it seems that many of the things that define how well a person does in life, things like problem solving, independence, organization and analysis are hard to test, Pacheco said. Teamwork is hard to test. You don’t see any exit exams asking students to describe global conflicts and the differences between two cultures.

“The best thing is to have a child show you what they can do,” Pacheco said. “Using that idea is going to change some of the assessments we are currently doing.”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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