Every Friday, a group of students from Deering High School in Portland, Maine volunteers through their local Habitat for Humanity affiliate for credit toward graduation. While helping to build houses for people in need, these students are learning important math and geometry skills. They are also learning valuable skills outside of the traditional classroom setting, like how to be professional on a job-site and work collaboratively with adults. Furthermore, should any student take more than a passing interest in this work, they can explore what opportunities are available to them beyond high school to pursue a career in a related field.
This robust learning experience is one of many examples of how students can benefit from a multi-dimensional approach to education called student-centered approaches to learning that not only arms them with basic knowledge, but better equips them for college, work, and life.
Much has changed in the last 100 years, but not the way we look at K-12 education. Our system is outdated and the “one-size-fits-all” approach is no longer working and in need of remodeling. Global competition has really elevated the standards for schooling, and if we expect to continue to meet the economic and civic demands of the new 21st century economy, we need more learners achieving at higher levels. As Tom Friedman notes in his book That Used to Be Us, we are no longer competing with other states or cities in the U.S.; we are competing with China and India and Brazil. A fundamental rethinking of our educational system is in order to ensure that all learners achieve the skills and knowledge necessary for our nation and region to prosper.
The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch — we can strengthen what’s working and fix what’s not. One solution is to focus more on high-quality, student-centered approaches to learning that acknowledge all the ways young people acquire skills and digest information, and incorporate them into educational opportunities that benefit all students — especially those in underserved communities. This model puts students at the center of the educational design, where the act of learning becomes the constant; and the where, when and how learning is delivered become the variables (rather than students conforming to one specific time, location and method). Of course, a critical component to this approach is to assess the level of impact it has on a student’s ability to learn the right skills, and use that information to continually improve and be more creative in terms of how our goals are accomplished.