Kids, Curiosity, and Credentials (the fifth C?)–Part I: The Challenge


One of the challenges of 21st-century education is that educators have failed to put together a set of standardized assessments that assess all of the kinds of things that we believe are essential to success as a learner in our time. The “Four C’s”—creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration—just aren’t that easy to “test” in the mass ways that states prefer as a way to appease or unhinge their citizens and that colleges like because a handful of numbers can easily be filtered by overworked admission offices.

We do have instruments like the College & Work Readiness Assessment and the High School Survey of Student Engagement, which measure aspects of these Four C’s in their way. But on the whole we’re stuck for the moment with an alphabet soup of state assessments, SATs, AP exams, and the ACT. The argument could be made that the IB—International Baccalaureate—might come closest to the current ideal, including as it does a broad array of assessments beyond the prescribed examinations, but it still falls short as a perfect solution–and it comes with a pretty tightly prescribed program.

In my day job I work with kids and families on the challenges of searching for, applying to, and choosing colleges, which I think we can all agree is largely constrained by the standard ingredient list of the U.S. application process: recommendations, testing, transcript, application, essays. Within each category there tend to be further constraints, or at least a need to ensure that the pieces are intelligible to the admission officers reading the files. On the student (and parent) side, there is the eternal compulsion to polish and pad that can turn the process into something as warped and distasteful as those pre-teen beauty pageants.

I imagine that most of us have tried to imagine a better way to organize the admission process for colleges and next schools, at least in reaction to the news media’s glee at every opportunity to “expose” the extreme levels of competition that characterize the struggle for access the Ivy League and the independent pre-schools of New York City. Sick and sad, we think, although it’s all too easy to get sucked into the game ourselves.

In the end, of course, we are told that it’s all about credentials: credentials for admission, credentials for employment, credentials to validate time and energy expended. It is the society we live in, I guess; it even makes me wish that someone like Bill Bryson would apply some wit and wisdom to a study of how this all came to be. Credentials, alas, persist as the fifth “C” of 21st-century education.

In an earlier day—when competition was neither so fierce nor such a source of anxiety and anguish—the credentialing industry was less developed. Kids could play in the woods rather than spend two nights a week playing town soccer, and they could curl up in a corner of the public library and read rather than spend weekends and evening cramming for the SAT.

Credential culture has put intellectually curious and creatively inclined kids in a strange position. Many such children are fortunate to have interests that align with the goal of amassing little badges and certificates—just the thing for selective admissions!—while at the same time having most of what they do satisfy not some external expectation but an inner itch. Thus, it tends to work out for most of them.

But not for all. The world—even our world—is still blessedly full of kids who are labeled as “other-directed”: focused on things not of school nor of conventional sports nor of “the arts.” These are the collectors, the experts on esoteric subjects, the players of obscure (or online, which offer no “credentials” at anything less than the world championship level, or at least no credential that most kids would venture to share in a world where gaming is so easily blamed for all the ills of childhood and adolescence) games.

How many of these kids lurk in the obscure recesses of your school, unrecognized except by a few friends and the occasional teacher as other than “underachievers” who “don’t seem to pay enough attention to their schoolwork”? These are the kids who are quietly un-schooling themselves even as they spend six or eight or ten hours a day in school—kids who are truly not letting school interfere with their educations. They may even be demonstrably and frustratingly among your “brightest” students, but what you are offering is of little interest to them.

The question is, What can schools do to engage the students who aren’t in it for the credentials but who are in it for the knowledge, the skills, the sheer excitement of doing or learning something that fuels their true internal fires?

I will propose an answer in my next post here in a day or two.

  1. Just for fun I added “curiosity” to the list–a more worthy C than “credentials,” I might have thought, although it seems to have had a 200-year fall from grace prior to a recent flattening. Who’d have thunk it?

    I have to burrow in my OED to see whether “creativity” is really such a new word as it appears to be. And it’s nice to see “thinking” on the rebound from the 70s.

    Thanks for that–interesting!

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