The 4 "Rs" of Education

We're all familiar with the 3 "Rs" of education: reading, writing, and arithmetic.  These "Rs" represent foundational skills that students need to develop and master to be personally and professionally effective individuals.  Though this phrase has been politicized in recent years due to the "No Child Left Behind" program that tested and financially incentivized schools to focus on English, math, and science to the detriment of arts, music, physical education, world languages and social studies, it's an adage that's worth thinking about as we consider the future of education.  

I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Brown, Intel's Futurist, about futurism and the future of learning.  We talked about my recent presentation on "The Future of Learning for a Freelance World" at Design Week Portland.  Steve posed a question that is existential for me as a former Advanced Placement US History teacher and classroom teacher at an independent school that gives me the freedom to design a curriculum that matters -- which is, "what is essential for students to learn in school?"  My response to this question has changed dramatically over the course of my career and in response to rapid advances in technology.  I have become much more skills focused now that we have these external brains in the palms of our hands.  With the a few "pushes" and "swipes" on our smartphones, we can access the world's knowledge.  It's not about "what" students need to know - it's about their why's, and who's and how's.  

First, why skills?  We live in an information based economy that has not yet figured out how to price information.  Sure, the NY Times and Netflix have figured out the monetization of the web through their monthly subscriptions, but, for the most part, the internet and information on the web is free.  The information revolution has made information much more accessible, but not financially lucrative in and of itself.  With the all of this content at our fingertips, students need to learn how to make sense of the volume of information available to us - how to find the best information, synthesize information, parse information, use information, and communicate information effectively.  Those vocational, technical, creative, and physical skills that have long been relegated to alternative schools and "alternative" students need to become mainstream again as making, designing, and building skills are more scarce and more valued (ironically) in our information based economy.  

Second, education has to be about the "who's."  I believe that everything I teach is about identity and that students need to start their journey towards answering and revising their answers to three big questions, "who am I, who are we, and what is good?"  Answering these questions is the work of a meaningful, authentic lifetime and this process needs to start in school.

Finally, there's the question of how --  and a return to the "Rs" of education.  The 3 Rs stand the test of time because they are skills that students need to master in order to be successful personally and professionally.  The 3 Rs enable students to communicate clearly and make financial decisions that are sound for themselves, their businesses and their families.  The 3 Rs are essential skills that need to be part of what we teach and learn.  

The final R is for rubrics.  I will say that we need to teach and learn from rubrics that matter because they create a system of expectations and rewards.  The use of innovative rubrics in the classroom has the potential to powerfully realign what happens in the classroom with what happens outside of the classroom.  To often, rubrics have been used in a narrow sense to make grading easier for teacher - after all, checking boxes is a lot easier than making substantive, personalized comments on student work.  Not only have rubrics been misused as a one-size fits all method for teachers to assess student work, they have also traditionally focused on product (is your paper polished and error free, did you use x-number of facts in your presentation, does your poster have a certain number of visuals, etc.)  Instead, rubrics have the power to incense and reward process -- skills --- that are needed in our information based economy.  My final response to Steve, and myself, about what I absolutely need to teach and what students absolutely need to learn, looks like  this.  Curiosity, initiative, independence, transfer, and reflection appear on the AACU's Rubric for Lifelong Learning.  Let's continue to teach the 3 Rs because they matter.  Let's also recognize that the 4th R, rubrics, have the power to elevate process, risk, and reflection - skills not included in the original Rs, but skills that matter more than ever.