Expert challenges educators to rethink goals for classroom learning 

Nationally known educator and author Jay McTighe told southwestern Pennsylvania educators and business representatives in April that schools need to clarify their missions and better align curricula and assessment with what students need to “be able to do.”

McTighe was the keynote speaker at a conference the Consortium organized to help businesses and schools explore partnership ideas. His talk focused on the need for classroom learning to equip kids with the skills and knowledge they’ll eventually need in the workplace and in their daily lives. Often, teaching instead focuses more on “covering content,” much of which can be readily found online and some of which students may never need. As a result, testing also misses the mark, he said. It tends to focus on regurgitation of facts rather than competencies.

McTighe argued that the focus of education should be on “long-term transfer skills” which he defines as competencies students will need to apply outside the classroom in entirely new situations, whether to fulfill job requirements, serve communities, function as citizens or engage in activities of daily life. Similarly, assessment should be performance based, requiring students to demonstrate these competencies, he said. Learning of these skills should begin in the early grades and continue through graduation, with the applications taking on increasing levels of difficulty until students have reached the “long term transfer goals” to which curricula should be tied, McTighe said.

As an example, McTighe said that history should help students understand developments that can bring perspective on current events. In math, he noted, it’s not enough to be able to solve equations on exams—students must be able to create equations to solve real world problems involving math. Similarly, they need to be able to write in multiple genres to achieve multiple purposes for different audiences. For example, students should master expository writing so that they’re able to explain something or put forth an argument.

Nor are academic and technical competencies all students need to prepare for their futures. Pointing to a recent survey, McTighe said soft skills—like leadership, team work and communications—rank highest among those employers are seeking as they recruit.

His ideas resonated with educators and employers alike and set the tone for discussions about possible partnerships.

Without exposure to businesses and organizations outside of the classroom, both students and educators are at a disadvantage, said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak.

Teachers can’t adequately convey information about careers and the workplace without exposure to real world work settings, she said. For students, workplace exposure can be motivating–it often helps answer the question “Why do I need to learn this,” Babyak added.

Greensburg Salem School District’s Secondary Education Director Ken Bissell likened educators and students to the prisoners shackled in Plato’s cave. Constrained by their lack of knowledge in the allegory, the prisoners see only shadows on a wall, not the realities that create the shadows. Similarly constrained, teachers and students currently get only second-hand understandings of activities, expectations and challenges in the workplace, Bissell said. Partnerships between businesses and schools would be change that, he added.

Babyak challenged businesses and schools to move toward partnerships that are impactful, sustainable, scalable and regional. That’s not to say smaller partnerships can’t be beneficial. There’s a risk, however, of working in ways that are “one off” and too short-lived to have impact, she concluded.

Following are a few scenes from the conference: