This post was written by Terrance Sullivan, former KnowledgeWorks director of state policy.
Imagine an educational experience so personal that you are able to collect and create a portfolio of learning along the way and can clearly articulate what you have learned and why. That’s what students in Louisville, Kentucky, are able to do with a personalized learning initiative.
The Backpack of Success Skills initiative in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville provides a digital platform that allows students to submit and collect work products that they call ‘artifacts’ into an online backpack. The artifacts students select are collected throughout the student’s scholastic journey, turning their virtual backpack into a portfolio of evidence of learning. At transition years – fifth, eight and twelfth grade – students have an opportunity to defend their growth and readiness for transition, much like a graduate student might defend a thesis, by outlining how the artifacts in their backpack show growth and ability in the following Success Skills areas:
- Emerging innovator
- Productive collaborator
- Effective communicator
- Globally and competent citizen
- Prepared and resilient learner
Students present these defenses by using their artifacts as evidence of growth and abilities in each of the areas to a panel that then determines if they have passed or have more work to do. For students who have more work to do, there are opportunities for further learning and then to present before a panel again.
Watch JCPS students at their Backpack Defenses:
The Backpack of Success Skills initiative
JCPS Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said test scores are just one piece of the puzzle to determine student success. So much more goes into making kids truly prepared for the next level and this is a way to expand the definition for success. In fact, it was the act of defining success, specifically the value of a diploma, that led to the creation of Backpack of Success Skills.
“I was convinced this was where schools and districts had to begin – by deciding what skills and knowledge were most essential to students’ success, and then working to create the day-to-day experiences in the classrooms that would lead to those outcomes,” said Coleman. “This is where we started in Jefferson County.”
Defining the competencies and skills that are the foundation of the Backpack of Success, and which also align with standards and essential skills legislation, was an undertaking involving the whole learning community, including district leaders, school staff and community and business leaders.
“We would ask, ‘If that child came to school with a backpack that he would carry long after graduation, what would you want us to be sure we put inside?’” explained Coleman. “Each group created a very similar list – empathy, communication, work ethic, critical thinking, collaboration and perseverance were especially common. We collected the lists and literally counted the words to determine which seemed most important to our district and the larger community. This was the start of what would become our five key Success Skills.”
By including members of the community in the early work of defining skills and competencies, JCPS graduates are leaving school with skills that prepare them for the next chapter of education, but also for careers that exist within the community. And because the students are the ones creating and adding to their Backpack of Success Skills, there are opportunities for them to personalize their learning to both their community but also their unique, individual interests.
“Students choose which artifacts best represent themselves for each of the Success Skills,” said Coleman. “The Backpack allows students to show and celebrate who they are and what they can do. As one elementary student told me, ‘The Backpack focuses on what we can do. Many times at school, we focus on what we can’t.’ This is helping us to know our students like never before and allowing us to think much bigger about what it means to be successful.”
In April, I was part of fifth grade backpack defense panel. Some fifth graders explained how they created a podcast to discuss the different cultures in 70 different Louisville neighborhoods as part of becoming a culturally competent citizen. Others shared how developing and implementing a business plan for their lemonade stands taught them to be innovators and collaborate with a team. My favorite experience, though, was hearing the fifth graders discuss the projects and assignments that did not work, and how some even took multiple attempts to master, but why they felt more resilient and prepared because of learning from their failures.
Tests can sometimes serve as a good measurement of what a student has learned but listening to kids discuss not just how they learned but how they think and how they grew in their learning is a deeper level of engagement. We should hope all students are able to communicate what they have learned and why they’re ready to move on and learn more.