(Warning: Elitist, preachy, liberal, rantish stuff ahead.)

Lately, I can’t seem to get out from under the feeling that a) this country has pretty much lost its way and that b) at the end of the day, our education system carries much of the blame. No question, my parenting lens is coloring some of this; I’ve been reading Umair Haque and Climate Progress and the occasional Thomas Friedman essay, and I’m simply getting depressed at the picture of the future that’s being painted. And, I’m even more distressed at not being able to know how well my kids will be able to deal with the boatload of crap that is coming their way. Let’s just say things feel pretty dire right now, and to me at least, it seems like our society is offering up one part denial, one part lack of interest and one part ignorance in response. The first is a choice, but those second two? I blame our all consuming love affair with the test.

Not kidding.

It’s bad enough that we’re bleeding kids to the tune of 7,000 a day from the system, 2,500,000 1,200,000 a year. (See note below.) That’s not all due to the test, certainly, but much of it is due to being subjected to a curriculum that is driven by the one size fits all outcomes that we’ve set up for them. Read Seymour Papert’s list of 8 Big Ideas for Constructionist Learning and ask yourself seriously how much of that goes on in your school. My guess is not much, and the primary reason is we don’t value that stuff more than we value making sure kids pass the test. We don’t give kids time to go deep, we don’t honor failure, and we’re not about “learning to learn” as much as we are about “learning to know.” So many of our kids are disengaged or simply not interested in learning because they see no benefits past the exam. Are we really surprised that so many adults in our society aren’t learners? So many teachers, in fact? That’s not our emphasis in schools.

Similarly, is anyone surprised that a huge swath of our population can’t speak intelligently about the larger issues that face us? No doubt, the financial mess we’re in and climate change and the Middle East and the rest are complex, fast changing issues that can be difficult for anyone to keep up with. (I’m no exception.) But again, have our schools really been cultivating the learning dispositions needed to grapple with those topics as they evolve? We give a lot of lip service to problem solving and critical thinking and the like, but I’m not convinced that those and other really important skills and literacies are showing up meaningfully in more than 10% of classrooms in this country because in large measure, they’re not on the test. It’s about content and knowledge, not learning.

Here’s the deal: Right now, the test is forcing us to spend too much time on stuff that we don’t really need to be spending time on any more. I used to joke about open phone tests, but I’m not joking as much any more. I keep looking at my kids’ tests, especially Tucker’s state NJ ASK stuff and see way too much stuff on there that he could answer with his phone. Not getting it.

And it’s not getting better. I just spent a couple of days out in Seattle working with a group of pretty amazing educators helping to write problem based curriculum that aligns with the Common Core. Their main motivation is to engage kids in learning, and I got a chance to observe one of their modules being implemented in a local high school classroom. It was good stuff. But in general, what bothers me about the Common Core is what bothers me about the traditional curriculum as well, namely that there is still way too much emphasis on things that I just don’t see as all that important in the information and knowledge filled world in which we live. I totally get that there is not one part of most K-12 curricula that isn’t relevant to some kids in the system, but the idea that every child has to get every part of the standard curriculum is silly. And even more, there is still a decided lack of emphasis on the types of skills and dispositions and real world knowledge and thinking that my children are going to need to best exist in a world filled with what more and more appears to be some pretty dire problems.

So I’ve been building a list of my UnCommon Core, the things I think we can expect every child to understand regardless of interest and passion. I know some will read a liberal bias into this, but I find these hard to argue against, to be honest, regardless the political viewpoint you bring to them. So here’s a baker’s dozen:

1. Living softly on the Earth (Our global impacts.)

2. Gender equality equity (Note #2) (With a particular emphasis on the objectification and sexualization of young girls and women.)

3. Developing expertise (Understanding what it means to go deep intellectually)

4. Public participation (Both online and off)

5. Managing, analyzing, synthesizing and sharing multiple streams of simultaneous information (Thank you NCTE)

6. Physical fitness and health (Real fitness. Real health.)

7. Consumerism and finance (Understanding the systems of money)

8. Networked online learning (And all that goes with that)

9. Reputation management/becoming a trusted source/online safety

10. Participating in a democracy (Online and off)

11. Embracing and learning through change (Too much of schools is about stagnation.) (Added after original posting.)

12. Embracing diversity (Our changing cultural influences)

13. Problem solving and programming solutions

I’m sure there are others…feel free to extend the list.

And here’s the thing…we can teach math and science and even Shakespeare in those contexts, not as discrete, never the twain shall meet disciplines or units that are mostly aimed at checking the test prep box. If you don’t believe that, have you seen the vision for school that MaryAnn Reilly is working on?

Students do not take traditional courses tied to seat time or discrete disciplines and are encouraged to work virtually, as well as in person. Utilizing Option 2 (N.J.A.C. 6A:8-5.1(a)1ii), personalized learning plans are developed with students and their parents/guardians that fulfill the Morris School District graduation requirements while emphasizing students’ interests, emerging as well as established. These experiences can result in: project-based courses, virtual offerings, community-based internships, college courses, and capstone projects.

Like MaryAnn and her cohorts are doing, I think it’s time to start thinking uncommonly about education, for the sake of our kids and our futures. What do you think?

(Note: I miscalculated the number of dropouts in the initial version as 7,000 per day, not 7,000 per each school day. Apologies.)

(Note #2: As per the suggestion of Alec Couros.)