Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 54: Curiosity and hope: building foundations for the future workforce

Episode 54 guest speaker Superintendent Chris Reykdal

Curiosity and Hope: Foundations for the Future Workforce

with Superintendent Chris Reykdal

Washington State is leading the way in using new technologies to engage students and build digital skills. Host Olivia Neal talks to Superintendent Chris Reykdal to learn how they are doing it.

Episode summary

Washington State is leading the way in using new technologies to engage students and build digital skills. Host Olivia Neal talks to Superintendent Chris Reykdal to learn how they have adopted programs like ‘Coding in Minecraft’ to build interest and excitement, and to develop the foundations for students’ future success.

How to build foundational skills to support lifetime learning

Washington State is leading the way in using new technologies to engage students and build digital skills. Host Olivia Neal talks to Superintendent Chris Reykdal to learn how they have adopted programs like ‘Coding in Minecraft’ to build interest and excitement, and to develop the foundations for students’ future success.

What does a Superintendent of Public Instruction do?

Washington State’s Chris Reykdal explains, “Each state has a Chief Education Officer. In my state, it’s called the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In other places that might be an Education Secretary or an Education Commissioner. Twelve of the 50 states elect this role. In 38 states, it’s appointed by a governor or a state board of ed, but in our state and in 11 others, we elect this role. Eight of those are partisan, and in four states, it’s a nonpartisan race. And in our state, it’s one of those nonpartisan elected races. So, you’re the chief administrative officer for the state system.” 

“But that said, it’s really about getting resources, data accountability, and learning standards and some research out into the field. Each school district in our state is making those critical decisions at the local level about their curriculum choices, and their bell schedules and all of that. So, a lot of local control, but again, in this state, executive office is elected and oversees the money that gets to schools, the learning standards, the research, the data…”

Opportunities in education

Reykdal shared how through his career in education, demands from students have evolved. “Like everything in society, the productivity enhancement, the engagement value of technology, the ability to sort of make the world come to us and flatten us and kind of give us access to so much capability, that’s happened in education, as it has in just about every sector of the economy around the globe.”

“We didn’t create this with intentionality in public education for students. They mostly brought this to us. Students said, this is how we’re living our lives. We’re living in digital platforms all the time. We’re communicating differently. We’re researching differently. We’re acquiring knowledge differently.”

Reykdal added, “And it’s a beautiful pressure back on the system to respond to that by putting some formal learning in there, because there’s still a lot of structured learning that needs to occur with this ability to integrate with technology. And obviously, one of those is just really understanding, media literacy, what’s out there, how much information do you have access to, how do you know it’s high quality, how do you discern that?”

“It’s changing the practice of teaching. I think it’s a really powerful thing on balance that’s positive. But we certainly have to make sure we’re always putting those learning standards and those relationships first. Otherwise, it’s just a tool.”

The world of teaching is changing

“Most educators in this state, and I would say in the United States, have been integrating technology for a long time.” 

Reykdal continued, “The pandemic just put that in overdrive. And it was tough, and everyone scrambled from the hardware side all the way to the connectivity side, and then really the pedagogy. How do I teach? And how do I assess learning this way? It’s changed things. So, I will never substitute human relationships and the relationships that students build with each other and with their educator, and I’m glad we are back to that. But what has happened is students said, wow, I could do this, I can learn remotely at times. I don’t want to do it fully. That was not a good experience for most students. But I want it sometimes.” 

“And mostly what I think students are telling us is, I can get the content on my own time. I need a relationship with an educator to tell me I am on track, to coach and guide me, and to make sure that I’m really focusing on the right things for the learning. Teachers now and in the next 20 years, they’re going to continue to transition to be coaches and mentors, and guided pathway leaders for students, and a little less over time on the content delivery, because that’s everywhere. That really is.”

Reykdal added, “Now, we’re going to again have to filter through high quality content versus stuff that maybe isn’t so good, but the world of teaching is changing, the pandemic sped it up, and the student demand for that is really what’s driving it now.”

Students demand new skills

“I really think about it as an evolution. I’d say 15, 20 years ago, we were making sure students understood the power of computing. We were doing it to teach them that they’re going to enter a world of technology. It was pretty basic where we had students starting to develop their assessment materials online, or they would submit their papers online. And then maybe a decade ago, we really started to move into this idea that they need to be really functional, particularly in Office suite.”

“We began to build certifications and partnerships with Microsoft and others, but really led by the great work of Microsoft, to make sure students understood that this really powerful tool that they’re going to experience the rest of their lives from Outlook and Word to PowerPoint and Excel was a part of their learning. And the latest evolution is really coding. It’s this next step in saying, not only are you going to use these incredible applications and tools, but what happens when you build them yourself, you shape them, you transform them, you customize them for your interests?”

One example of that is the Minecraft program, which has been a successful way to teach students how to code or at least get them interested in coding.

Reykdal explained, “It’s in a platform that students have just really loved. They’re growing up with Minecraft. It’s evolving with them. So it’s a natural connection for them to say, wow, I love this platform, I love the functionality of it, and I now realize I can do this. So it builds huge confidence. We’ve been putting this together for a while. We’ve got school districts all across our state engaged in this as part of their approach to coding. Again with Minecraft, it’s just a really incredible way for young people to engage. And I think it’s exciting for educators because obviously, when you connect the learning to something kids really love, you hardly have to do anything. It pushes itself down the tracks, and you’re just guiding it, and you don’t have to do a lot of lifting in that regard.”

Building the foundations for curiosity

“There’s foundational pieces, and at the root of all of it, whether it’s in math sequences or science or English language arts or anything, it’s really, you’re inspiring some curiosity of students, you’re giving them foundational skills, so that they can begin to turn from listening and acquiring knowledge to starting to seek it themselves.”

Reykdal added, “And I think with this sort of approach that’s going on here with Minecraft and coding, students are getting enough basic understanding of how systems work and how logic sequences work and how quantitative reasoning works, that then they take it on their own, their own time, extra time during their school day, and they’re going way beyond the framework of a classroom, which is what you dream about in education, an inspiration of young people, where they say, I got it from here, and now I’m going to go explore and test and push and challenge. And then it’s integrated into their own curiosity, and it isn’t an assignment. It isn’t an hourlong class period. It’s a part of what they want to do. That’s what’s so awesome about this.”

Superintendent Reykdal has been eager to make sure every student has access to this program and believes that inclusion in digital skills is important for everyone.

“Our state has a pretty unique place in the United States. We’re one of the only states that’s litigated basic education in our own court system. So our own legislature was essentially brought to the court. And I only give you that background because I think what we’ve been able to do is establish an expectation that something like Minecraft and coding, all the way to traditional mathematics and science, is going to come with a level of investment in equity in rural communities.”

Reykdal continued, “And that means you’re not paying out of pocket for this. You don’t need to pass a local levy where wealthier communities can do it, and maybe property poor communities struggle. Our goal with this, and our objective in the state of Washington is it’s part of the basic education. Every school district, every building, every classroom, who wants to be a part of this gets access to this and doesn’t pay a big cost or zero cost out of pocket. Obviously, there’s time involved. That’s the kind of equity that we focus on. And of course, there’s specific tools, too. We want our students with disabilities to access this. And those are protocols we build into any platform we work with, regardless of the age group that we’re working with.”

Advice for others working on skilling in education

“Number one, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. It’s out there. And the best educators are good copycats, they go find out where it’s working.  For us, it was always about making sure that our learning standards were the thing we were leading with. This wasn’t a bolt-on; this was a way to deliver those standards. And we have those frameworks. People can see those as well. Other states do, but we’ve certainly integrated computer sciences and coding throughout our learning standards.” 

“The second thing is get a great industry partner. For us, it’s Microsoft. We have others, though, in our state as well. We’re a technology leader in the world, and we love those companies, and we love what they’re doing in the world and with our students. But have a good industry partner, these are folks who really can guide what’s coming. Don’t grab a platform or a gaming framework or a software that’s on its way out. Grab something that they know and they’re investing lots of money into, and they expect it to be around for a long time.”

Planning for career success in the future

“What we focus on are what are those things that are going to make young people successful. And interestingly, the technologies do come and go. So we don’t particularly attach ourselves to today’s innovation, but rather, what are the foundational things that allow students to seek out and attach themselves to the next thing? Because they’re going to spend a lot more of their lives outside of public school than they do in it. So when we say critical thinking, it is, can they think critically through complex problems? And that can be in literature. It can be in the social sciences, and obviously, in the sciences and computer sciences.”

Reykdal explained, “When we say quantitative reasoning, we mean, do they have a number sense, and are they thinking in logical sequences? And can they take complex problems and break them down? Do they see visual information, pictorial information, and assess it and break it down as quickly as they might if they read text.”

“The cool part about all of this, whether they’re working in Minecraft, or something else, is the thing that brings an educator to the space of teaching, the love for children and the want for them to be critical thinkers and successful, it’s so embedded in this. It’s still what you do, whether you are teaching a five-year-old, or you are teaching a 17-year-old. We are still about the business of skilling them and empowering them and letting them take on the world. We just happen to be doing it in tools today and platforms today and examples today that I think a lot more relevant to the way young people think today. But never get away from those foundational skills, because the tools are going to change and the names are going to change and the apps are going to change, but those things are critical.”

Creating hopefulness in students

“I get to look at a lot of research. And then I get to listen to a lot of educators and a lot of industry leaders, who are trying to see the future, mostly in the space of student learning, student mental health, student wellbeing, but also some pretty cool stuff about the technology itself. So I would definitely say I’m an educator first, and I spend a lot of my time in the research on student learning, student development, particularly in the contemporary American context with so much struggle in terms of student mental health. But the technology is fun, and I get enough publication and enough access to that, that I see the hope in that.”

Reykdal continued, “One of the big priorities we have is not just those foundational skills, but also giving students hope. When you embrace a technology, it ought to be because it can do something positive in the world, because we know any tool can be used for good or used for negative ways. We want our students to be hopeful about that. That’s when they embrace it, and then they see a reason to be a part of it their whole lives, and it isn’t just an assignment that day. That hopefulness is everything.”

To find out more:

Listen to this episode on any of these podcast platforms:

About the Center of Expertise

Microsoft’s Public Sector Center of Expertise brings together thought leadership and research relating to digital transformation in the public sector. The Center of Expertise highlights the efforts and success stories of public servants around the globe, while fostering a community of decision makers with a variety of resources from podcasts and webinars to white papers and new research. Join us as we discover and share the learnings and achievements of public sector communities.

Questions or suggestions?

Follow Microsoft