Work-Based Learning Ecosystems: Improving Opportunity for All

Every year, 3.7 million students graduate from American high schools, and most head directly into the workforce, the military or a postsecondary learning experience. In June, 2021, 8.7 million Americans were unemployed while 10.1 million job openings were reported. While some of this mismatch may be due to geographic isolation or unemployment benefits, much of it has to do with an accelerating skills and experience gap due to a rapidly adapting workplace. Jobs exist; requisite skills and experience do not.

Too many young people are entering the workforce without the skills, knowledge and experiences required by employers and too few schools offer real-world work-based learning (WBL) experiences to their students. This deficit leads to significant numbers of families unable to earn a sustaining income. These numbers are even further amplified in families led by women, Black, Latino, Hispanic, and individuals without high school degrees.

A new white paper written by Getting Smart and powered by GPS Education Partners was published with a goal to advance the case for equitable WBL models for all through an ecosystem approach that is scalable and sustainable. It also shares that by partnering with intermediaries to build and integrate resilient and scalable work-based learning models, communities can imagine a future of WBL that works for all.

Work-based Learning Ecosystems: Improving Opportunity for All by Integrating School, Community and Workplace includes:

  • A short synthesis around the challenges, solutions and research surrounding WBL
  • Details about the core ecosystem that incorporates the three critical partners in scalable WBL models
  • An analysis of the different types of WBL relative to the ecosystem model
  • A set of recommendations and starting points to empower community groups to start the journey toward a robust WBL program

Work-based Learning Ecosystems helps make the case for WBL and the rich examples included provide a clear starting point for communities interested in developing an innovative, sustainable and scalable WBL program.

When WBL programs are successful, everyone benefits. Learners thrive, employers have access to a well-developed workforce, and communities as a whole become more resilient in this complex and uncertain world.

Education’s New and Necessary Narrative

By: Matt Piercy

While many in northern latitudes find themselves in frigid climates for the winter holiday, I stand amidst a humid forest. Though I do not pretend to fully comprehend the intricacies of science, I know how beneath my feet there is a complex underground web of communication. One pre-existing the world wide web, some in jocularity calling it the “wood wide web.” Ultimately it drowns my mind in mysticism by how it exactly functions. Roots, mycorrhizal fungi, and bacteria all “speaking” to each other, connect the life I look upon. “A tremendous amount can be learned from this,” I think to myself. How might this tether to learning and be of benefit to the future of education?”

Seemingly, our schools are affixed to economic and political systems fraught in everything but the natural world. Juggernauts of touted innovation, much distance remains from reaching any sort of tipping point. Yet, there appears to be some rising levels of consciousness, where practices and models are beginning to be implemented in answer to the question, “What does the world need most?” And as an educator myself, I remain hopeful that education as we have known it for the past 150 years will be transformed. Interdependence and connectedness are possibly as fundamental to this “revolution” as food, shelter, or any of our other physiological needs.

Human-Centered Education, The Path Forward

A peremptory search for “methodologies of education” results in 26 different approaches. Of keen interest are place-based, nature-based, and sustainability-based learning, all three aligning with what some might call human-centered education. Going beyond even this, might be ideals of biocentrism and holding all life in equal moral standing. Whatever the case, such methodologies aim to positively impact the quality of life for all. Not only is this a noble reason for education, but there is a fittingness for the times in which we are living. Author Jeremy Lent suggests how education could be re-envisioned so its “goal is to transform from preparing students for the corporate marketplace to cultivating in students the discernment and emotional maturity required to fulfill their life’s purpose as valued members of society.” Lent, a former internet company CEO, and award-winning author, is described by Guardian journalist George Monibiot as one of the greatest thinkers of our age. “Cultivating in students the discernment and emotional maturity required to fulfill their life’s purpose.” Could there be any more of a meaningful shift in the purpose of our schools? It is revolutionary but also plausible.

Phasing out the horse for urban transportation and rural labor took but 50 years. On a larger scale and protracted over many more years, is how societies transitioned from foraging to farming. In either case, the “impossible” became reality. Historians argue that pivotal changes such as these did not just randomly happen. They required foresight and were set into motion with great intention. So too, education can change its “operating system.” From industrial models confounded upon compliance to experiences much more human and rooted in the natural world. Models of empowerment, purpose, and contribution, where technology does not use us but where we use technology to move society forward. As tools to connect, not to distract or divide.

Interdependence and connectedness are possibly as fundamental to this “revolution” as food, shelter or any of our other physiological needs.

Matt Piercy

Intentionality Central in Paving Way for a New Paradigm

Before rushing headstrong into adopting technology, we are wise to always question: how might technology support the methodology we are using? Dr. Lisa Marie Blaschk, program lead for the online Home Hub at Learnlife in Barcelona, Spain considers this conversation a mainstay of how technology is intentionally used. “Tech should never be seen as the answer to educational needs, but always as a means for supporting learning.” Having worked for the last two decades as a researcher and teacher on distance education and online learning, Dr. Blaschk emphasizes how the use of tech is to support the learner’s pathway in providing some initial structure until s/he can begin to direct and determine learning. “Further, tech is utilized to support development of relationships with learners, for dialogue, for communication, and for providing learning structures/pathways.” A salient point remains, the use of technology is intentional.  

Another example juxtaposing the past with the future, is being set by the decentralized Amish, a religious group who immigrated to the US in the 1700s. Alex Mayyasi regards how the Amish make slow and deliberate decisions as a collective. “Rather than rushing optimistically or blindly into the future, they move forward cautiously.” Mayyasi cites Donald Kraybill, professor of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, in The Riddle of Amish Culture (1989),  “The Amish adopt technology selectively, hoping that the tools they use will build community rather than harm it.”

Nature’s Original AI

Not surprisingly, technology is not atop the list of top 10 job skills of tomorrow. According to The World Economic Forum, critical thinking and problem solving however are. Thinking about and solving problems like how to integrate technology is paramount. Surely, greater adoption of technology will remain important yet, “newly emerging this year are skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.” Nature definitely attests to these same skills, with wisdom that supersedes our imagination. One such example is the brilliance of single-cell slime molds. Stephanie Pappas published in LiveScience, “New research finds that slime molds, goopy and rather uncharismatic organisms that lack a nervous system, can adapt to a repulsive stimulus and then pass on that adaptation by fusing with one another.” Lent referred to such capabilities as being “beyond the most advanced supercomputer” and what he calls the original AI, Animate Intelligence.  

Before I step out of the forest, I take in one last deep breath. Trees like these are inaccurately reported to produce 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, yet through an exaggerated figure, I still feel an overwhelming sense of optimism. Beneath my feet exists an uncharted neural network working in harmony. Where but one teaspoon of soil contains many miles of fungal filaments. More microbes than there are people on this planet! The word “possibility” is of the utmost essence as I consider the panoply of positive directions educational systems can take. The current narrative is decaying, soon to be replaced by one much more in balance. Where compassion, interrelatedness, and systems thinking are integral. One where we no longer are separate, in search for the forest through the trees. Rather, we recognize our being interrelated with the natural world and build learning around this principle. We are the trees! The choice is ours.

Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter @mpiercy35.

How Real World Learning Is Equipping Solutionaries In Kansas City

“How can we create a just, healthy, and humane world? What is the path to developing sustainable energy, food, transportation, production, construction, and other systems? What’s the best strategy to end poverty and ensure that everyone has equal rights? How can we slow the rate of extinction and restore ecosystems? How can we learn to resolve conflicts without violence and treat other people and nonhuman animals with respect and compassion? The answer to all these questions lies with one underlying system―schooling. To create a more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful world, we must reimagine education and prepare a generation to be solutionaries―young people with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to create a better future.” —Zoe Weil

Spotting problems, taking initiative, developing solutions, delivering value for a community– these are the most important skills today. In her 2016 book, The World Becomes What We Teach, Zoe Weil argues that schooling should be about equipping solutionaries.

The largest regional example of empowering difference-making is the Real World Learning initiative in metro Kansas City where more than 75 high schools on both sides of the state line are encouraging community-connected projects and entrepreneurial experiences (including social impact as well as business opportunity).  

Innovation Academy

Heading west of Kansas City, Kansas, past the second beltway is the town of Basehor where high school students are taking on projects that matter to them and their community.

The Innovation Academy at Basehor-Linwood High was launched as a chance for juniors and seniors to launch self-directed projects and earn core (English, science, social studies) and career education credit. Guiding principles of the ala carte program include student choice, embrace the unknown, it’s ok to fail, and community partnerships.  

The first class students take is project management where they learn design thinking and skills critical to successful projects. Then students pick a topic of interest and work with a teacher to develop a plan and launch a project. Recent topics have includes peer mentoring for mental health, recycling, mobility for disabled youth, and the physics of movement. (See video.)

Supporting projects in such a wide variety of topics can be a challenge for teachers. Jared Jackson, Director of Innovative Programs for the district, notes the importance of industry and community experts to fill the gaps of project knowledge where teachers are not subject experts.

Spotting problems, taking initiative, developing solutions, delivering value for a community– these are the most important skills today.

Tom Vander ark

This year, Innovation Academy opened to freshmen and 45 students had the opportunity to design a park with the city (eight are pictured above). They engaged the community, considered names, pondered alternative uses, built budgets and developed 3D models. Through deep civic engagement and frequent communication, they earned an English and social studies credit–and they’ll never pass a park again without thinking about the experience they had.  

Sion’s Signature Programs

South of Kansas City is an independent Catholic high school for young women where they connect learners with their unique purpose. The goal at  Notre Dame de Sion to provide “the tools, support, and skills to explore and make a sustainable impact in our local community and beyond.”

With parents, business partners and universities, Sion identified a beautiful set of nine essential competencies:

  • Well-rounded individuals: informed critical thinker, growth-minded learner, confident practitioner
  • Faith-filled global citizens: mindful communicator, empathetic perspective taker, Inclusive Community Builder
  • Servant leaders: humble difference maker, solution-focused creator, collaborative team player

Nine Sion student leaders are writing a book with a chapter on each of the competencies.

Classroom studies are extended through experiential learning including hands-on community-connected problem-solving. Three-week-long deep dives each year provide immersive experiences including many opportunities to travel.

Leaning into the Sion mission of service, three signature impact programs include:

  • Engineering and Ingenuity: a dive into a community issue using engineering and design and problem solving skills.
  • Internal Impacts: semester course spent designing impact projects for the Sion community including a recent student-led mental health awareness program and launching a coffee shop.
  • Designing Real World Impacts: an upper division offsite English and Social Studies block supporting individual defined community impact projects including serving with refugee teens, restorative justice for prisoners, and addressing the issues of food insecurity.

As Sion learners engage in real world learning, they are encouraged to embrace ambiguity and assert their individuality.

The Innovation Academy at Basehor-Linwood High and Notre Dame de Sion are just two of the dozens of schools creating space and opportunities for students to lead and address problems important to them and their communities. These difference-making projects are engaging and develop the most important skills–for learners and for a better world.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

Trends Shaping Education in 2022

It’s hard to see trends in a crisis. And now layered crises–pandemic, climate, racial reckoning, economic inequity, geopolitical tension–is the new normal. We’re living through a jumble of unexpected events that thwart pattern recognition.

Most schools are starting 2022 in person but with a disappointing COVID surge and renewed questions about how to best safeguard students, teachers, and communities. After two years of pandemic education, fatigue is the overwhelming experience of many educators.

The return to in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year was largely a return to school as usual with a bit of tutoring added. Around the edges and behind the scenes three important shifts accelerated: new learning goals, team tools and staffing, and active learning.

New Learning Goals

For 20 years, school networks have been first movers in adopting new outcome frameworks. These have included grant-sponsored networks (like XQ), platform networks (like New Tech Network), and managed networks (like Summit Public Schools).

Starting 10 years ago, hundreds of school districts joined EdLeader21 (now part of Battelle for Kids) and launched community dialogs resulting in new goals expressed as a Portrait of a Graduate.

Despite pandemic conditions, and in some cases because of them, we saw communities globally adopting broader aims driven by the obvious need for social and emotional learning as well as attention to wellness and mental health and changes in the nature of work including the need for both independent initiative and collaborative data-driven problem-solving.

Communities express these broader goals in a variety of ways and bring them to life through culture, communication and learner experience. We were impressed with how Hopkins Public Schools implemented their graduate profile, shared values and design principles.

The emerging trend in learning goals is diversity, equity and inclusion. While critical race theory was weaponized by opponents in 2021, the trend toward inclusive environments and experiences is strong. Districts like Hopkins share a value of “vigilant equity.”

The next trend in learning goals is incorporating agency and purpose, citizenship and contributing to community. We think difference-making is the new superpower and we’re seeing more schools and programs incorporate it. One Stone (featured image) has a mission making “students better leaders and the world a better place” and includes passion and goal setting as competencies.

2022 Learning Trends


Mega Trends

Emerging Trends

Next Trends


New goals (what)

Equity & Inclusion (who)

Contribution (why)


Active learning


Immersive learning


Learning platforms

Learner experience

Family & out of school



Credentialing skills



Integrated services


Growth communities

Active Learning

While remote learning was often a throwback to asynchronous content and worksheets (just digital this time), there is a long trend toward active learning including project-based learning, design-based challenges, work-based learning and entrepreneurial experiences.

Over the last two years, the 75 high schools in metro Kansas City continued to push real world learning forward even during the months of remote learning. Some client-connected projects and internships shifted to virtual. North Kansas City Schools implemented career academies in all four high schools with embedded projects and work experience. Nearby Liberty Public Schools launched two micro high schools to showcase integrated project-based learning–much of it addressing Global Goals. The Innovation Academy at Basehor-Linwood High supports self-directed community-connected projects. Notre Dame de Sion developed three signature impact programs that empower student contributions.

While critical race theory was weaponized by opponents in 2021, the trend toward inclusive environments and experiences is strong.

Tom Vander Ark

Also spurred by Kansas City innovation, the CAPS Network is a growing association of 123 school districts where “Students fast forward into their future and are fully immersed in a professional culture, solving real world problems, using industry-standard tools and are mentored by actual employers, all while receiving high school and college credit.”

Team Tools and Staffing

After a hundred years of teaching as an individual practice, personalized and competency-based learning has been creating the need to work in teams. Next Education Workforce at ASU Fulton Teachers College has been advancing team-based preparation and staffing in Arizona schools for the last four years. In dozens of districts across the country, Opportunity Culture has been promoting team-based staffing leveraging the multi-classroom leadership of great teachers.  

The rapid shift to remote learning during the pandemic pushed school districts to adopt common learning platforms and versions of team staffing (including full time, part-time, pre-service, substitutes and community resources). The adoption of common enterprise tools and team staffing means less autonomy for individual teachers but stronger support and potentially more autonomy for teams within an aligned system.  

Learning legend Karen Pittman points to the next trend in teaming: parents, teachers, and out-of-school providers working together to facilitate their shared and unique learning outcomes (see diagram below and discussion here). These collaborations are currently facilitated by texting platforms like Remind. In the near future, they will be aided by personal portable digital records with permission (sometimes partial) read/write access.

Measures and Credentials

There is a global shift from seat time to demonstrated competence as a measure of learning and capability signaling. Given the widely varying learning experiences during the pandemic (both formal and informal), we anticipated a step function increase in competency practices in schools. We haven’t seen much evidence of structural changes to accommodate individual pacing through frequent regrouping by subject (age cohorts reign supreme) but with extra resources, many schools are providing some extra tutoring to address gaps.  

Microcredentials continue to grow as frameworks for teacher professional learning. These short units of study allow teachers choice in what to learn and how to demonstrate their new capabilities. Nonprofit digiLEARN is leading a consortium of states expanding access to quality microcredentials.

The shift to competency accelerated in the corporate sector over the last two years with skills-based hiring. Seeing declining information value in degrees, many companies got smarter about identifying job-specific success skills and updated their hiring process to attract and retain people possessing them.  

Over the last few years, big tech launched or updated free job skill pathways often incorporating

digital credentials. Leaders include IBM, Google, AmazonMicrosoft, Salesforce.

Skills credentialing will expand in high schools in the next few years in support of recently adopted learning goals and as part of career-focused pathways.

Skill credentials will increasingly be communicated in mastery transcripts and digital learner records. More than 400 schools have joined the Mastery Transcript Consortium to move from a list of courses to a richer description of capabilities. Greenlight Credentials is a blockchain record unlocking opportunity for Texas learners and beyond.

The next trend in measurement is wellbeing (mental and emotional health) and wellness (positive habits and behaviors). The pandemic stressed the importance of wellbeing and the important role school can play on collecting data and sharing resources. One example is the Wellbeing index from Turnaround for Children which can be taken daily or weekly by an entire class in 60 seconds. The 12 items cover feeling and functioning. It helps learners reflect on how they’re doing and gives teachers a quick sense of how to best support learners. From screen-time monitoring to wearables that track physical activity, we have more opportunities to put data into the hands of students to inform their own learning.

Integrated Supports

Many schools strengthened their support systems during the pandemic. A  Tiered System of Supports provides “a framework for an adaptive, responsive continuum of integrated supports for all students, that vary in level of intensity,” according to Turnaround for Children. It can help promote more equitable outcomes for students by increasing academic, social, and emotional supports where most needed.

Before and during the pandemic, the number of in and out of school and postsecondary learning opportunities exploded–the great unbundling of education. The new challenge is helping students make good choices on their learning journey. Rebundling and postsecondary planning is increasingly a role of a secondary school advisory system. In Cajon Valley USD, a partnership with the local workforce board provides personalized and localized guidance. In Kansas City, guidance increasingly incorporates entrepreneurial experiences as part of the Real World Learning initiative.  

And, finally, in and out of school we’re seeing more growth communities–small groups of learners committed to shared growth. In schools, We Are Crew from EL Education is a beautiful collection of resources for creating advisory groups of mutual support. Out of school, Seth Godin, through altMBA and Akimbo workshops, pioneered the productive use of small synthetic cohorts learning together–a productive combination of peer support and collective accountability., an ASU spinout, supports growth groups in schools, juvenile detention, and faith communities. These examples illustrate that most learners are inspired by relationships and grow in community.

Broader goals, more active learning, team tools, stronger supports, and learners equipped to tell their story–these are the big trends of 2022. Our best to each of you in the new year.

Expert Perspectives: How Virtual Reality Can Aid in Career Technical Education

By: Bharani Rajakumar

What are some of the challenges in Career Technical Education today and how can AR/VR help to address them?

At its core, immersive learning is about giving students the opportunity to experience—in the truest sense of the word—what it’s like to perform certain tasks, whether that’s operating a multi-ton crane hoisting an 800,000-pound piece of equipment or learning on-the-job fundamentals of working at an industrial construction site. This level of immersion can be accomplished through virtual reality headsets, which provide trainees with a 360-degree view in all directions, and advanced simulations that enable learners to feel as though they are in a physical environment.

Immersive technology helps students gain exposure to well-paying, in-demand jobs. Simulations enable students to feel as though they are embedded in a factory, shop floor, or another workplace. With the headsets strapped on, they simulate tasks just as though they are performing real work with their hands, such as operating heavy machinery or using tools. They are seeing with their eyes the same environment they would see in a seven-story manufacturing facility or shop floor, for example, and practicing the same type of visual, physical, and decision-making skills they would be expected to use on the job. In this way, immersive technologies help solve one of the biggest challenges in Career Technical Education: providing learners with real insights into what tasks on the job look like, and understanding whether specific careers could be the right fit for them.  

What are some of the major trends you’ve seen in Career Technical Education?

The truth is we are still largely using the same paper processes to help students explore careers just as we did before the internet. It’s an archaic and limiting approach. When you ask a student what it’s like to be in manufacturing, they may picture big machines or heavy cranes; they may not make the connection that the operating crane isn’t so different from the video games they love to play. Moving Career Technical Education into this century requires bringing different careers alive for students, so we can help them see new possibilities for themselves.

Make career exploration as interactive as possible. Let your students’ curiosity be their guide. That is where the best learning happens–when it’s driven by students.

Bharani Rajakumar

How early should students begin career exploration processes?

Through our partnership with Coastal Bend College in Texas, we are bringing career exploration to students as young as 7th grade. If you ask any 7th grader what they want to be when they grow up, they will reference careers they have seen: firefighters, engineers, doctors, lawyers. The careers they dream about lead to which advanced classes they take in high school and influence their majors in college—and if they decide to pursue post-secondary education at all. It is crucial that we help students expand their understanding of what careers they can pursue and get their start early in career exploration.

What are some of the barriers students face to finding the right career?

You can’t be what you can’t see. Students don’t know the kinds of jobs that are out there–and that some of those jobs are closer to home than they think. Exposure and awareness is one barrier. Another is fighting the stigma around skilled trades–we need to help students understand that skilled trades are vital to our economy.

A Department of Education study showed that Black and Hispanic students benefit less often from classes connected to higher-paying careers and college degrees than their white peers. How can we help address this racial divide in career technical education?

Students of color across the country struggle to access Career Technical Education that sets them on paths toward higher-paying careers. Immersive learning technologies like TRANSFR help level the playing field. Low-cost but high-value, the tech is particularly helpful to students in under-resourced schools envision rewarding careers.

Why are you passionate about helping students explore careers?

Growing up, my family didn’t have money, social status, or connections, just lots of hopes and dreams—-like a lot of families across the country. I grew up in an era where people would say if you don’t have a plan for college then you will end up on the street. My first job was at Wendy’s-and it was an important stepping stone to entering the workforce and thinking about my future.

When I was 16 years old, I read a book about Warren Buffet and learned that his first job was delivering newspapers. Everyone has to get their start somewhere. What I want for students embarking on career exploration across the country is to get that first job–and also have an opportunity to see what is really possible for them.

What advice would you give to educators that want to help K-12 students with career exploration?

Make career exploration as interactive as possible. Let your students’ curiosity be their guide. That is where the best learning happens–when it’s driven by students.

Bharani Rajakumar is the CEO of TRANSFR Inc.

The Future of Learning is Wellness: Turnaround for Children and Thrively

By: Christina Theokas and Joe Erpelding

All students have unique strengths and needs that vary over time and are expressed differently. This year, the world has experienced extraordinary unforeseen challenges with the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial discord. This collective trauma is contributing to heightened levels of stress and uncertainty. Schools are working to identify how best to support students in navigating these experiences, engaging with their learning, and making progress toward their goals. Assessing perceptions of wellbeing is one way to do this.

Student well-being is commonly valued but not commonly measured in schools, leaving teachers to rely on what they see (e.g., overt acting out behaviors) and believe is important to address. Given that students respond differently and not all responses may be directly noticeable to the classroom teacher, many students and needs could be overlooked. Further, many existing resources to understand student functioning take a deficit-based approach – asking what is wrong with students and trying to “fix” them (e.g., Youth Risk Behavior Survey). The current system has led to overidentification of students who have historically been marginalized by the system, reinforcing implicit bias, rather than supporting reflection on structured inequalities. Now, more than ever, it is important that schools take an assets-based approach – one that values subjective experience and creates space for students to directly voice how they are feeling and functioning, and invites them into the problem-solving solutions. Interventions grounded in a strengths-based approach are less stigmatizing and more equitable than those grounded in a deficit-based approach.

Thrively Well-Being Pulse Check-in

Well-Being Pulse Check-in: 60 Seconds with Thrively 

The Well-Being Index (WBI), created by Turnaround for Children and Thrively, is a tool meant to help educators hear directly, quickly, and systematically from all their students. It is designed to capture a holistic view of each student’s sense of their own physical, emotional, and social health and specifically how they are both feeling and functioning.  

Thrively portal

The Well-Being Index can be taken daily or weekly by an entire class in 60 seconds. Students and staff have instant data feedback. Thrively enables students to embark on a strengths-based journey that develops the whole child. The learner-centered platform offers personalized learning through an interdisciplinary approach that starts with an industry-first Strengths Assessment (developed by leading pediatric neuropsychologists). The Thrively Strength Assessment measures 23 strength areas to allow learners to focus on what is strong versus what is wrong.

Through Thrively, students are able to be self-aware and teachers are quickly able to identify what’s strong with kids vs. what’s wrong with kids. “Thrively allows kids to be heard. Every day we take attendance but how do we know that kids are ready to attend? Thrively helps to move the needle and changes how we look at wellness data,” Joe Erpelding, Senior Vice-President of Education at Thrively.

Personalized Wellness

Schools are saying that wellness matters. By accessing the Well-Being Index, teachers have strong conversation starters and students feel comfortable expressing their feelings. Students often feel like they don’t have a trusted adult, but through emoji and written reflections, they are able to chart their feeling to function and get real-time responses from their teachers. “I don’t have to share my feelings in person. I can tell Thrively how I am feeling. The teacher gets a notification,” Connor, Thrively student user.

The Well-Being Index helps kids to see what high-level functioning looks like through their theme-based playlist. With selections based around strengths and brain-based research, students and teachers are able to personalize the playlist based on their needs. Students are also able to understand mindset work, their passions and curate their personal interests through Sparks.

Benefits of the Well-Being Index 

With the needs of both students and educators in mind, the Well-Being Index:  

  • Takes an asset-based lens to well-being that encourages educators to understand and learn more about their students, rather than look for what is wrong with them  
  • Includes two developmentally-appropriate versions – a shorter version for grades 3-5 and a more robust one for grades 6-12  
  • Can be administered as frequently as desired to capture the dynamic picture of a student’s wellbeing

Using this tool prompts educators to support students in understanding and protecting their own wellbeing, rather than leaving educators to make assumptions about students based solely on observable behaviors or life circumstances. This tool can encourage my peers to reflect on their well-being without much pressure. “We have a Thrively Thursday where we check our emotions and we can do the well-being any day we need it because I like to know how I am feeling each day,” Max, Thrively student user.

Now, more than ever, it is important that schools take an assets-based approach – one that values subjective experience and creates space for students to directly voice how they are feeling and functioning, and invites them into the problem solving solutions.

Christina Theokas And Joe Erpelding


The Well-Being Index consists of 12 items that measure physical, psychological, emotional, and social elements of well-being. There are multiple items covering each element including, for example, energy level, sleep, hopefulness, mood, engagement, sense of connectedness, and the feeling of being valued and accepted.

The 12 items group into two domains to add additional meaning and direction for next steps:

  • Feeling refers to a perceived state of mind, commonly reflected in mood or satisfaction. 
  • Functioning refers to how a student is getting along with daily activities and experiences.  

When completing the self-assessment, students choose a value that best describes their experience of each statement using a 10-point Likert scale (represented as kid-friendly emojis) – ranging from No to Yes – with a higher score indicating a higher level of well-being. Teachers will see a profile of scores for each student and summary scores for their classroom. An administration guide with a set of reflection questions helps teachers understand the data and how to use it to strengthen relationships, environments, and experiences for students.  

“Sometimes you don’t even know you are having a low day,” Veyda, Thrively student user. Talking through experience creates common humanity for students. By creating space for students to express themselves and talk to others, they discover their place in the world and find their purpose. The Well-Being Index removes the complexity of whole-child learning and makes learning more holistic. The Well-Being Index provides an access point for teachers to look at real data about what really matters, how students show up and feel throughout the day.

Christina Theokas, Ph.D. is the Chief Applied Science Officer at Turnaround for Children.

Joe Erpelding is the Sr. VP, Education at Thrively.

This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Creating A Collective In Your Classroom: Soulquarians as a Case Study

“In late 90s, as the world transitioned into a new millennium, a collective of musicians known as the Soulquarians was formed. […]

What made the Soulquarians so special was their ability to synthesize different sounds, genres, and themes together in a way that no one had before. After discovering a shared passion for offbeat rhythms and experimental chords, fused with their mutual love of Motown and classic soul, both a common language and beautiful chemistry were established. Each artist brought their own expertise into the mix […] hours of passionate research mixed with joyful experimentation pushed forward the evolution of each song, with each artist adding their own flavor, completing the “cypher” and giving birth to an end product even more powerful than the sum of its parts.”

– Bad Meccouri. An artist, educator, songwriter, and music producer based in Los Angeles. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets including Billboard, BBC 1xtra, Complex, The Fader, & Soulection.

I remember vividly what it was like listening to D’Angelo’s Voodoo album in its entirety for the first time. I remember the dank UMASS Amherst dorm room as if it was yesterday. These were sounds, rhythms, and musicianship I had never heard before. This was unity personified in notes and melodies. This was a spiritual experience for me. I was listening to a collective of human beings acting on a shared vision and creating a seminal artifact of brilliance. These musicians were learners embarking on a shared journey. So how do we root our educational programs and classrooms in the same purpose and joyfulness that yielded such beautiful and important music? We use the framework of “the collective” as our model. We take a lesson from the Soulquarians.

Building Culture and A Shared Journey

What makes athletic teams and musical productions so impactful in schools and universities is that skill building and collaboration are so vital and relevant to a good performance. They are almost visible. The team understands that each member has a role, a unique skill, that when combined with others yields success. A collective of individuals coming together requires a shared set of livable values and agreements amongst teammates. This creates culture and a shared language. It’s the same for a music collective like the Soulquarians.

Where I have had the most success as an educator is when my classrooms and programs became unified around a shared outcome or purpose. For example in my Digital Journalism course our class became a media studio, combining our skills into storytelling products. Now, students were transformed into members of a collective building something together and sharing it out with the world. This collective formed a shared culture and purpose, leading to a shared journey amongst my students.

The brilliant educator and strategist J Ross Peters, writes, “When a group of people has a shared space to come together and they have permission to uncover and reveal their gifts, the artifacts they leave behind are often astounding. Additionally, what can happen in those communities when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, is electric.” The revealing of a learner’s gifts within a collective who understands and celebrates them is transformative for a learner. It builds a sense of confidence and belonging, as well as a realization that they are worthy of partnership and being on a team.

A Diversity of Technical Skill Sets

In the case of the Soulquarians, a collective of musicians came together to co-create each other’s albums. The musical skills of drums, guitar, vocals, songwriting, bass, horns, piano, and production combined to create potent album after potent album. The unique technical skills and capacities of each member yielded a product/artifact. The same can occur in a classroom. Imagine a team composed of a writer, coder, graphic designer, and videographer. By having these students partner together around their diverse technical skills they can accomplish more and gain the real world insights of a high functioning team. Through this they also are shown the importance of their own technical skills. So many times in schools learners dread group work. The motivated student ends up doing all of the work, and students don’t understand the importance of collaboration. However when students partner with others who have a key technical skill they themselves do not, collaboration now has relevance and purpose. They are able to tackle larger problems, make a bigger impact, create something that reaches more people. This is the power of the collective.

The Technical Skills of Working with Other Human Beings

In journalism, convergence is the act of combining multiple forms of media to tell a more effective story. For photography, videography, writing, and audio to live on the same page, amplifying the story and reaching a wider audience. Convergence for the Soulqarians was a like minded group of music historians and innovators combining their skill sets into a tapestry of funk and soul. From ideation to research, from project management to song development, the skills of working with other human beings were honed. This can be the same outcome in the classroom when learners are in a collective, creating a project together. The skills of compromise, communication, empathy, and actually listening when someone else is speaking now have greater importance as they determine the success of a project or venture that has meaning to the learners. The ability to have difficult conversations and to grapple with disagreements and a difference of opinion leads to growth and an understanding of how effective teams work in the world outside of school. Students learn how to thrive even when things fall apart, and can get through the discomfort. So take a lesson from the Soulquarians. Turn your classroom into a collective.

“Creating a space of shared passion, trust, and ultimately joy empowered each individual to not only give their best but also surpass their limitations. That is the power of the collective, regardless of the task, if a group of people can incorporate these principles, great results will be achieved.” – Badi Meccouri. 

How Design Thinking Transforms Communities, One Project at a Time

By: Kyle Wagner and Maggie Favretti


What if every course began with a single Essential Question?

What if people were rewarded for having ideas and not ownership of them?

What if every student experienced success in solving a community problem?

What if school buildings were leveraged as community centers?

What if success in school was measured based on contribution to your community, rather than rote knowledge?

What if every learner could co-author their learning journey?

These were questions that rose to the surface from educators around the world when given a blank canvas to re-imagine school.

For many, entrenched in an outdated system, they are the stuff of science fiction. Too many structures hold this kind of innovation back- from standardized tests, to grades, to unwavering curriculum.

But for a bold and courageous few, these ‘what ifs’ are a manifesto for immediate action.

Meet Maggie Favretti, founder of ‘DesignEd4Resilience,’ (DE4R) an organization that uses design thinking to facilitate collaborative community responses to climate change and other complex issues.

Maggie has empowered young people to transform these ‘what ifs,’ into ‘what happens when?’

“What happens when young people find a meaningful, healing purpose, and connect with nature and other people to create a more equitable and sustainable world?”

This powerful and provocative question has propelled young people in DesignEd4Resilience to: Develop community disaster plans and co-create logistical centers to respond to devastating hurricanes. Create toolkits and resources for emotional and mental well-being during proliferating pandemics. Build community gardens and shared farming plots to protect from food shortages.

It’s a way to connect us to each other with openness and empathy.

Kyle Wagner and Maggie Favretti

These young people’s canvas is not limited by the four walls that shape traditional schools.

Their canvas is their community.

And the brush they are using to fill it in is design thinking.

Design Ed 4 Resilience version of Community Design Thinking is based on Stanford D-school’s 5-step process and also on the National Equity Project’s Liberatory Design processes. The DE4R 6-step process provides a clear, repeatable framework for addressing challenges and drawing on innate creativity and collaborative courage, from innovation through implementation. Young people and their communities worldwide are using models like this to address problems as existential as climate change, to issues as localized as clean fresh water and food security.

But it’s more than a framework to address community challenges.

It’s a way to build coherence in learning and the capacity to understand issues more complex than our traditional textbooks and fragmented, watered-down curriculum provide.

It’s a way to connect us to each other with openness and empathy. The Design Ed 4 Resilience version of design thinking is set up to co-empower. It begins with belonging and safety and challenges us to notice and address our preconceptions. It calls on us to reflect critically on relationships of power within the process and our communities, to be sure that the authentic power of design (from challenge and opportunity-seeking through problem-solving through decision-making and implementation) is inclusive of youth and more specifically, those voices typically unheard.

You can use the same process in your community.

This article will unpack each step of the design thinking process in the context of real community projects, and provide ideas for how you might use the process in your own classroom and community.

Step 1: Gathering Knowledge; Cultivating the Power of People

Maggie Favretti is a firm believer in ‘zero-based thinking.’ Zero-based thinking asks us to rid ourselves of all preconceived notions, biases and assumptions, and literally start from zero. Assuming we know nothing, what questions might we ask? Only in this way can we build on our empathy and remain open to new ideas and ways of thinking and being.

Maggie prepared young people to embody this empathy-based process when seeking to address the resilience to flooding of a nearby town in Puerto Rico, into which Hurricane Maria had poured her fury.

Using the three mental frameworks of ‘People, Place, and Purpose,’ young people uncovered the nearby town’s greatest concerns and strengths by interviewing community partners:

What does the community value? Where was there visible evidence of these values?

Where was there evidence of community resilience? How did the community develop this resilience?

What impact did disaster and climate change have on mental and emotional health?

What else contributed to this trauma and sense of unease?

What are their biggest fears/ areas of concern, and what do they identify as strengths?

Through countless interviews, phone calls and observations, young people uncovered four major areas of concern: flood and earthquake-proof housing, better evacuation planning, climate recovery and mental health, and overall community resilience.  

Building Deep Listening and Relationships In Your Community:

How might you uncover issues and needs in your community? Who are prominent members that you might partner with to discover these needs and connect to key stakeholders? Who usually gets left out of those conversations, and how might you partner with them also?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Observe, Ask, and Listen, listen, listen. Engage youth and community in recording their own stories and images, using tools like Photovoice. Think of this from the beginning as a shared process, where ‘the designers’ are facilitating community (or student) design.
  2. Build a shared community map to identify potential needs and assets.
  3. Attend City Council Meetings and jot down issues being discussed during the open forums, or host community fun events where you are also cultivating participation.
  4. Look for relevant community organized events via MeetUp.
  5. Attend local NGO fairs and Outreach events (make sure to cross-reference the NGOs)
  6. Learn as much as you can, noticing your own assumptions and biases, about the environmental, historical and political context of the community.
  7. Run a short ‘design challenge’ or mini-project as a warm-up for larger scale prototyping (this can also be done in the first stage of the design process to sustain momentum and increase trust in the process).

Step 2: Defining Perspectives, Challenges, and Opportunities

After uncovering areas of need, to better frame the problem, Maggie worked with her young learners to envision what success might look like for the community had the challenges been addressed. How would life be different with earthquake and flood-proof housing? What changes would they see with a clear and coherent evacuation plan?

Imagining these ‘best case scenarios’ helped students to frame specific problems they hoped to design around. They captured these opportunity statements as ‘how might we’ questions to help guide the design of their solutions.

Identifying Challenges and Opportunities In Your Community:

How might you identify the most pressing community needs? How will you ensure that you have gathered all relevant stakeholder input?  How can you make visible the abstract inferences and learnings from your community partners?  How can you create a challenge/opportunity statement that will generate rich ideation?

Here are some examples from the Puerto Rico D-Lab:

How might we cultivate community resilience, well-being, and empowerment in our community center?

How might we speed evacuation and ease anxiety around potential flooding and earthquakes?

How might we support mental health recovery without labeling/othering people as mentally ill?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Make thinking visible, using image-making such as the one above. Create a public event held at a visible community center to share findings and gather more stakeholder input to surface key concerns.  Challenge/Opportunity statements can be created and ideated together.
  2. Connect with global partners who have addressed similar problems.
  3. Create an advisory board that connects students with their community partners to ensure the fidelity of solutions.

Step 3: Ideating Solutions and ‘Unleashing Creativity’

Our young people are never short of ideas once we remove the shackles that often bind them. During this phase of the design process, we want young people to think divergently. This way of thinking values the quantity of ideas, not the quality. That’s for a later stage. Using the ‘25 ideas in 10 minutes’ challenge, Maggie got some teams to create over 100 ideas around developing flood and earthquake-proof housing.

Other good frameworks for ideation include the ‘Yes, and’ strategy, where one team develops a series of solutions and then passes the sheet to another group to affirm the idea (‘yes’), and add (‘and’) 3 to 5 more of their own. This cross-collaboration between teams helps young people see challenges from fresh perspectives. Maggie also stresses the importance of including community partners in this process:

“Involving community stakeholders in ideation yields trust in the process and helps creative consensus to emerge about what’s possible.”

After spending time ideating, it’s time to categorize and connect. Like ideas can be grouped together and be measured against the design constraints and their potential to fulfill the opportunity emerging from key aspects of concern.  New questions arise, such as, ‘is this possible? And how will we do this?” The picture below captures this process:

Ideating Solutions to Needs in Your Community

How might you help unleash creativity in your students? How might you group them to generate a number of ideas? How might you facilitate groups to include community partners, and materials for ideation? (post-its, white boards, manipulatives, shapes, gifts, food, etc.)   

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Do warm-up games (like easy improv) before ideation, or do your ideation while running on a treadmill, or on a walk through nature. Research proves it works!  In a classroom, provide opportunities to stand, lean, and move around.
  2. Have lots of manipulatives to hold, touch, feel and play around with. This helps distract the mind and allows ideas to flow.  Many people find art materials, colors, and music inspiring.
  3. Break into smaller teams, and invite community members to co-ideate to generate more ideas and deepen trust.
  4. Develop a design brief around the specific problem that captures research, insights, timelines and key deliverables.  

Step 4: ‘Rapid Prototyping’ Bold Ideas

There’s a prevailing thought in the education world, that we shouldn’t try something until it’s been researched, analyzed, tested, and weighed in on by experts. The problem with this way of thinking is that by the time all of this takes place, the idea is outdated. Innovation relies on a concept called ‘rapid prototyping.’

In this phase of the design process, young people in Puerto Rico constructed models of their solutions using whatever materials were available. Cardboard, legos, scrap paper, and recycled materials– ‘clean garbage.’ The goal here is not perfection, but simply a prototype that can easily demonstrate the idea in action.

As young people constructed their prototypes, Maggie asked students to “brainstorm what kind of expertise their ideas would require to fully build,” as well as “community partners who might share knowledge.”

Below are students seeking more expert input about emergency evacuation based on their prototypes:

Building Prototypes:

What materials do you have readily available for prototyping, and how might you demonstrate how to use it? Cardboard, old newspaper, magazines, etc. What expertise do your parents and other community members have that might assist in measuring the feasibility of ideas? How might you share prototypes students build?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Gather/upcycle scrap materials for prototyping. Do a cardboard collection!
  2. Invite parents or community partners with relevant expertise to assist students in their designs.

Unfortunately, this is the stage where most projects end. Students dress up nicely and share their prototypes in a public exhibition, and then the prototypes go promptly to the place most projects wind up; the dumpster.  

Not in Maggie’s Design4Resilience Program.  She understands that the impact on youth self-efficacy and confidence of this repeated message that ‘your ideas don’t actually matter’ is strongly felt and ripples back through the community. DE4R Design Thinking also has an Enact step, which is where collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship, and civic agency takes root.

“At this point, we invite back our community partners and potential funders and present to them.”

Unlike a science fair where ribbons are awarded, prototypes are actually advanced into the ‘development phase’ to be enacted in the real world.

The student projects opened the door to a mobile mental health clinic that was actually a makerspace and funspace, an ongoing relationship between a UPR architecture class and the community, a new evacuation map and an agreement with the PRDE to unlock the school located on the highest ground in anticipation of flooding, an evacuation/emergency plan for their school, and plans for resilient community hubs such as the one being shown below.  The programming framework for it created by the students got published and is being used throughout the Puerto Rican archipelago and beyond.

Developing and Enacting Ideas:

What potential funding might exist for student ideas? Are there incubators in your community that hold ‘startup’ competitions for new ideas? How might you connect with them? Are there high-tech design labs that exist in the community to build prototypes? Are there engineering students or university partners who can offer expertise in the development phase? What ‘low-tech’ maker partners can help create scale model working prototypes? Who can build it and maintain it?  What community allies do you need to advocate with in order to enact the project?

Some Strategies/Ideas:

  1. Use Feedback Protocols to help stakeholders provide feedback on each proposed prototype.  
  2. Partner with a university, a Fabrication or Design Lab in the community to help build out prototypes and develop ideas.
  3. Hold ‘Pitch Events’ for students to pitch ideas to potential funders or investors (with any profit generated going back into the community).


Critics of design thinking might assume that this process is generally reserved for rich kids, in elite private school settings. But that’s the magic of the framework.  Looking at it with a critical lens helps to make it work for young people of all backgrounds, socio-economic classes, and cultures.

Maggie’s students, many of whom come from less privileged backgrounds in Puerto Rico, were transformed by the experience. Using Likert Scales, students reported an increased sense of self-efficacy, deeper knowledge of climate change, and positive feelings towards schools as a result of the experience. Most importantly, they felt a renewed sense of optimism for the future. One student said, “After the storms, all I could do was draw.  I just drew and drew.  Design Lab gave me my voice back. Now I know I have ideas that can help.”

Turning OUR ‘What Ifs’ into ‘What Happens When’

What’s holding you back from innovating on your campus? Yes, it would be nice to re-make the master timetable, rigid curriculum standards, and mandated state testing; but those are things many of us have little control over. Most of us do however have control over how we organize learning experiences. Rather than start from a textbook, try starting your next learning experience from a community need.

In this way, you will no longer have ‘what ifs’ but rather, ‘what happens when?!’

Want to dip your toes into the design process? Joining the Design Thinking Hackathon Wednesday, October 27th where we will hack the process of effective project design by designing creative solutions around teacher well-being!

Maggie Favretti, a Yale-and Middlebury-educated cultural historian, has spent 35 years happily helping her students to ask, “why not now?”  Maggie has won scholarship and teaching awards from three professional historical organizations (WHA, AHA, OAH), a national organization of bankers (Sallie Mae Foundation Teacher of the Year), and a national organization of student leaders (21st-century Teacher of the Year).

Leading Together Toward Healthy Learning

By: Mark David Milliron, Suzanne Elise Walsh, and Richard Rhodes

Whether it’s preschool, grade school, high school, or higher education, there is not a privileged parent on the planet that is not careful about ensuring that their child is entering a healthy learning environment. Moreover, they are often willing to pay a lot of money to ensure it. And healthy does not mean easy. It does, however, mean a situation where a student can rise and thrive; a place where their academic, physical, psychological, and social selves can be better formed and effectively developed.  

It is painful to note that for far too many low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and returning students entering institutions committed to access, their experience feels far from healthy. It’s often Darwinian. By Darwinian, we do not mean in an academic survival of the fittest sense. What access institution leaders and student-success champions have learned over the last decade or more is that students are more often weeded out because of basic needs and life-happening challenges, such as housing insecurity, food insecurity, textbook costs, transportation costs, family dynamics, work responsibilities, sense of belonging, and mindset challenges. While academic issues do play a key part, they are so tightly tied together with these other elements, it’s hard to argue that Maslow does not trump Bloom.

Committed educators, policymakers, and leading student voices have called for change as a result. Exciting work has been undertaken and policies championed by the Hunt Institute, the Hope Center for College, Community, and JusticeAchieving the Dream, the University Innovation Alliance, and a host of other foundations, associations, and community organizations. We wholeheartedly support their work and offer here a focused extension and integration concept that we think has the potential to drive important conversations and shape needed change as well: Healthy Learning.

It is our contention that access institutions across K-12 and higher education need to commit to braiding related initiatives together to make our learning environments healthier. Moreover, this braiding process and the healthy-learning frame itself can help start vital dialogues and shape strategic policy and practice around curricula, learning models, institutional finance, facilities, educational ecosystem partnerships, and more.

Through our catalytic conversations and concentrated work, we aspire to move K-12 and higher education in the United States toward a less “Darwinian” feel, to something more equitable, particularly for low-income, diverse, and first-generation students in institutions committed to access and success.

Mark David Milliron, Suzanne Walsh, and Richard Rhodes

Recognizing the importance of building robust communities of practice that provide the greatest positive impact through deep and sustained work across the education spectrum, Western Governors University’s (WGU) Teachers College is catalyzing this work by supporting the creation of a virtual Center for Healthy Learning. The goal is to create a center of gravity for pulling energy and expertise together around the needs of students and educators as it relates to five primary critical healthy-learning focus areas that are key drivers of student academic, professional, and personal success. While we fully realize this list may expand, we are beginning our work with this set. We believe these five pillars are essential for supporting successful, equitable, and thriving environments of healthy learning. While each of these is a powerful concept alone, it is through the collective strength of these pillars that we will see the most stabilizing, supportive, and positive impact on healthy learning environments.

  • Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
  • Character education
  • Mental health
  • Basic needs

To begin this work, we will bring together Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), community colleges, access-focused universities, and public-school districts committed to this work. The founding partners in this work will have demonstrated success in at least one of the five pillars that comprise the Center, and each has strong leadership dedicated to advancing this work. Going forward, The Center for Healthy Learning and its member institutions will strive to catalyze research, reflection, policy, and practice in these five areas to help ensure that more students in access institutions can flourish in their education and as a result, in their lives. (Figure 1.1 below).

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With the support of the Trellis Foundation, the founding group will hold an initial convening In February 2022 to share programmatic strategy, enabling policy frameworks, key learnings, and questions for further exploration and research in each of the five focus areas. We will produce a synthesis document based on the convening and follow-on discovery. This synthesis document will include recommendations for next steps in the work. From this foundation, we will map out a crawl, walk, run plan to scale the center, build assets, catalyze continued learning, and invite more institutions into this dynamic coalition.

We believe that as this work progresses, the Center will provide institutional leaders, policymakers, and front-line educators with the tools, techniques, policies, and practices that they need to effectively inform and better integrate their healthy-learning-related innovations and help ensure their students can flourish on their educational journeys. At the core of these efforts is our theory of change: by bringing together and better braiding related initiatives, healthy learning environments can be intentionally designed, cultivated, and championed in a way that can help (1) access learning environments be more attractive to and inspiring for increasingly diverse students; (2) improve student success outcomes; and (3) help close attainment gaps.

Through this work, we hope to bring together an array of deeply committed and well-informed teachers, leaders, administrators that can model and teach these pillars together, advocating for healthy learning at their institutions and beyond. Most important, through our catalytic conversations and concentrated work, we aspire to move K-12 and higher education in the United States toward a less “Darwinian” feel, to something more equitable, particularly for low-income, diverse, and first-generation students in institutions committed to access and success. Indeed, if we have the privilege of serving these striving students, they should have the power of choosing healthier learning environments. They too should have access to an educational environment where they can rise and thrive, a place where their academic, physical, psychological, and social selves can be better formed and effectively developed. It seems not only healthy but also fair.  

Mark David Milliron, Ph.D. (Twitter: @markmilliron), is Senior Vice President of Western Governors University and Executive Dean of the Teachers College. Suzanne Walsh, J.D. (Twitter: @BennettPres_SEW) is President of Bennett College. Richard Rhodes, Ph.D. is Chancellor of Austin Community College (Twitter: @accdistrict).


AI in the World: How can we prepare our students?

Artificial intelligence in the world is growing at a rapid rate. We are interacting with AI every single day without even realizing it, which is the nature of how AI works. A few years ago, I decided to learn about artificial intelligence because I wanted to teach about it in my eighth-grade STEAM course. At the time, I didn’t realize how much I was using AI every day, nor was I able to provide a definition of what it was. My perception of AI was that it involved robots, similar to what I had seen in the movie I Robot.

Inspired by one of Getting Smart’s January 2018 themes, I began my research on AI and challenged myself to write about a topic that was new to me. Since then, artificial intelligence has been an area of high interest and it is a topic that I enjoy teaching not only in my STEAM class but also in my Spanish courses. I also speak regularly at conferences or on podcasts and enjoy teaching educators about AI and continuing to learn too.

Because there is so much growth in the use of artificial intelligence in the world leading to the increasing demand for skills in AI, I believe that it is important for all educators to bring these emerging trends and technologies into our classrooms. To best prepare our students for whatever their future brings in terms of college and career, we need to help them to learn about changes in the world of work due to AI and develop skills that will enable them to adapt to these changes. One of the biggest concerns has been whether AI will replace humans in different areas of work. However, what I have learned is that while AI and automation may replace some jobs, it will lead to the creation of new or different types of work. New opportunities will be created and to pursue them, we have to continue to learn and adapt and develop new skills.

Students should have an understanding of what AI is, the impact that it has on our lives now, and that it may have in our lives in the future. Students need opportunities to explore AI and see if they have interests in these areas or might want to pursue a career in AI or a related field. In my prior blog posts for Getting Smart, I shared ideas of what we need to know about AI and education, and resources for getting started.

Impact of AI in the world

​So what is leading to the rise in the need for skills in AI? What about AI in areas such as cybersecurity? Since March of 2020, due to remote work and remote learning, these shifts in our use and the location of technology led to a 20% increase in cyber attacks. We also need to account for the increasing number of devices that are being used on the Internet of Things (IoT). It is predicted by 2025 there will be 75 billion IoT devices on the web. Because of potential threats to security, we need people that have the skills to understand how security breaches happen and how to protect companies, schools and other organizations against such tech attacks in the future.

While humans can complete these tasks, AI can analyze all of this information and detect threats, set up a security patch and act on these threats faster than humans. With mass analysis of the data, humans can then study trends or look for patterns to improve cybersecurity possible and protect technology users.

It i​s predicted that artificial intelligence will automate production of 30% of all the content available on the ​Internet by the year 2022. Artificial intelligence already has the capability to generate content​ like​ ​art, music and poems on its own. It can take ​work written by a specific author or artist, and generate its own rendition of a text that the author might create based on its analysis of the author’s style and prior work. Using GPT-3, a language prediction model, it can take language, content, or other input and transform it into something else. There are sites to test if you can tell whether a poem or work of art was created by a human or AI.

I recently came across the “Learn to Code” website and found their list of 18 tech skills that are in demand now. Artificial intelligence was number one followed by machine learning, data science, data analytics and data visualization rounding out the top five. The remaining skills in that top 18 included areas like cybersecurity, blockchain and quantum computing. The average salary of someone who works with artificial intelligence is ​$​124,000.

Students should have an understanding of what AI is, the impact that it has on our lives now and that it may have in our lives in the future.

Rachelle Dené Poth

A recent Forbes article named the seven biggest trends in AI for 2022. The trends included the uses of voice and facial recognition, cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles, language modeling and creative AI for generating content. In these areas alone, we will all be impacted in some way because of the technology we rely on for work and our daily lives. So what can we do as educators to prepare students and ourselves? We create ways to help students build their skills or at least an interest in understanding how the world is changing because of AI.

Artificial intelligence offers many possibilities for differentiation and provides more personalized learning for students. Teachers can access data and provide more timely feedback and adjust lessons in real-time to adapt to student-specific needs. In an era where we are seeing increased technology usage in our schools and in the workplace, we need to know how to protect ourselves and how to sort and process all of the information we receive.

How can we get started in our classrooms? Here are five options:

  1. AI4K12: Sparking curiosity in AI is made easier by exploring the many resources available through the AI4K12 website. AI4K12 is an initiative that has the goal of developing guidelines for AI curriculum in grades K through 12, led by Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). Help students to learn about the Five Big Ideas of AI
  2. Everyday uses of AI: One of my favorite activities to do is look at the top 10 ways that we interact with AI in our everyday lives. I had a list from a blog on Forbes, which included banking and fraud, using Netflix, smart home devices, Amazon shopping, email filters, social media networks, travel, just to name a few of the top 10. I ask students to count how many of the top 10 they use regularly and this always makes for a great discussion. Understanding that AI is involved and how it works are two different things. As an educator, I believe it is important that we include opportunities for our students to experience creating and interacting with AI.
  3. Google Searches: Another activity I like to do with my students is have them conduct a simple Google search. We select three different words or concepts and then compare how many millions or billions of results come back to us in less than 1 second. Typically we look up the Dewey Decimal system, artificial intelligence and students choose one other term. In doing this, it helps them to understand how artificial intelligence is working to bring us the results and then we discuss the  benefits and drawbacks of instant access to so much information. It also gives us the opportunity to develop skill sets to understand the information that we are receiving, how to process it and how to know whether or not it is relevant and valid and reliable.
  4. Google AI Experiments: Have students check out some of the experiments created with artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) based on their own interests. Engage students in discussions about what they explored, how it enhanced their understanding of AI and ML and to share any questions they may have.
  5. Microsoft AI for Good: There are resources for educators or anyone with an interest to look at how artificial intelligence is being used and to also better prepare teachers to create learning activities in the classroom..

While AI is a complex area to study, it is easy to find activities and resources for our students to help us to get started.  Our students need time to learn about these emerging technologies on a consistent basis so that they will be better prepared for the future.