Last year, we spent a great deal of time crafting our portrait of a graduate. The trend in public education over the last several years has been to identify the characteristics that we would like our graduates to leave with. These characteristics — we call them “core competencies” — usually transcend any specific content standards. Ours is called the Vision of a Minuteman. We want our students to create solutions, demonstrate a learner’s mindset, embody confidence and empathy, persevere and adapt to changing situations, engage with purpose, and communicate truth.
Almost every school has a list like this now. There are 4-6 competencies that they’ve lifted up as the most important characteristics for their graduates. If you look generally at these portraits across schools, you see a lot of trends. All schools want to create critical thinkers. All schools want their students to be resilient. Most schools want engaged, confident, innovative, collaborative alumni. While the process of crafting the portrait is specific to each school, they typically land in the same general area. We all say we want the same basic things for our students.
It’s worth noting that most of these things were called “21st Century Skills” before we became too embarrassingly deep into the 21st century to keep using that term. The ideas — for the most part — are not new.
But that was last year. It’s fun to be aspirational. It’s uplifting to have these conversations about what school can be beyond just preparing students to recall knowledge that someone once thought was important. It really helps schools to figure out how to still be relevant in an age of information abundance. It helps us find our “why”.
But this year, the challenge is how to actually implement it. How do we foster an environment where our students learn to work effectively in a climate of ambiguity and changing priorities? How do we teach our students to demonstrate awareness, sensitivity, and compassion for others’ experiences while persisting to overcome obstacles and create joint reasoning?
There aren’t any good worksheets for that. It’s not covered in chapter 8 in the textbook. It’s not as easy as giving a pre-assessment, measuring the knowledge gap, and providing targeted instruction to fill that gap. This stuff is difficult to define, and nearly impossible to measure in any practical way. If we just print up pretty graphics and post them in our school hallways, we’re not going to make a lot of progress. A keynote speaker at convocation or a two-hour professional development session isn’t going to be much better.
The best way to ensure that our students embrace the core competencies of the portrait of a graduate is to model them. Our students learn how to be adults from the adults around them. Before we can ask our students to exhibit and embrace these qualities, they have to see it in their teachers. And before we can ask our teachers to model these competencies, they need to see it in their leaders.
How do we, as adults working in schools, embrace the world and skillfully use critical thinking to bring creative solutions to problems? How do we stay curious? When have you demonstrated awareness, sensitivity, and compassion for others’ experiences? Can you share an example of how you have acted intentionally to benefit the broader community and greater good?
We’re probably already doing a lot of these things. But maybe it’s a worthwhile exercise to reflect on them. Dig out your portrait of a graduate. It’s on your school web site. It’s probably posted somewhere in every classroom. Pick one of the characteristics. Ask yourself how YOU have embraced that quality within the last week. Do that every week with a different characteristic. If you’re really bold about it, engage your colleagues in a brief conversation about it. Maybe ask staff members for examples where they’ve seen these characteristics in one another.
We must challenge ourselves to model the characteristics we want to see in our students. We must live them, struggle with them, become them. Only then we we be able to help our learners embrace them.