Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

I’m still amazed that it’s been 50 years since man landed on the moon. I love watching old footage of Apollo 11’s mission, and reading about the innovations that have come as a result of that mission.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the role women played, not only this mission, but in a lot of NASA’s successes. And yet, I never saw women in any of the official NASA photos, nor were they featured in documentaries.

Today, there is a growing movement to increase the amount of girls interested in STEM. Most of the movements center around how to get girls to feel more connected to science, math, engineering, etc. If you look on Twitter, there are hashtags created to highlight empowering girls in STEM. In those hashtags, conversations seem to revolve around things like:

They just need more exposure to women role models.

Or …

They need more LEGO and Barbie figurines that promote STEM as cool.

Or …

We need to make sure girls develop the skills needed to succeed in that environment.

What’s not mentioned?

The role of men in keeping women out of these fields. If we truly believe women have a seat at the table, how can we encourage men to offer the seat instead of requiring women to break down a hundred extra barriers to try to get access?

The problem with the hashtag movement is that it comes from a deficit viewpoint… if only girls just did this, or had this, then they’d be better. What it fails to tackle is the systemic oppression that downplays women in these fields.

Things like:

So how do we inspire boys to share the STEM playground with the girls? What are you doing in your classroom, your school, to create an empowering STEM environment for both girls and boys so that they can support and elevate each other one day as STEM professionals?

According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs 2018 report, by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling. To deal with the lack of skills of current employers, companies have three options:

  1. Retrain current staff
  2. Automate more tasks to reduce staff needed
  3. Hire new staff that already has the required skills

The report goes on to state that the likelihood of hiring new permanent staff with relevant skills is high, since nearly a quarter of companies surveyed are unlikely to attempt a retraining of existing employees.

This upskilling is not just for those in industry. Educators also need upskilling. If education is to prepare students for college and career, then educators will need to be informed as to what those careers look like, and what skills are needed to thrive in them. They’ll then need to develop the skills themselves so as to model, and teach, those skills to students. Skills like emotional intelligence; leadership and social influence; and persuasion and negotiation will become critical skills for educators as they become critical skills for industry careers.

How are educators getting these skills? Are schools and districts investing in professional development that goes beyond curriculum and content knowledge?

Or, like industry, will there be a push to hire new teachers that already have these skills?

Regardless of the methodology, schools cannot continue to afford to ignore the importance of preparing students and staff for the 2022 skills outlook.

It’s All About the Soft Skills

Read an article today called, “Teens Rate Soft Skills More Vital Than Hard Skills.” The author, Dian Schaffhauser, opened by discussing how teens incorrectly rate the soft skills of self-confidence, communication, leadership and teamwork as more critical than hard skills:

Could we be over-promoting the importance of soft skills to young people at the expense of helping them understand the relevance of other, “harder” skills? According to a recent survey, just over half of teens (52 percent) said they believe have a good understanding of the skills they need to be successful after high school. Yet, what they ranked at the top of the list were all soft skills: self-confidence, communication, leadership and teamwork. The skills that ranked least important were computer expertise, writing, typing and math. 

By Dian Schaffhauser . 01/07/19

I find it interesting the author assumes the teens are wrong in weighing ‘soft’ skills over ‘hard’ skills.

Soft Skills Matter

One of the soft skills at the top of the teen list is communication. By its nature, communication requires solid understanding of rhetoric, language, etc. which is much more robust than the five paragraph essay we teach in schools. Likewise, without self-confidence, leadership, or teamwork, what use are your math skills unless someone hires you to sit in a closet and solve equations all day?

Quite honestly, I’m baffled that typing is called out as a hard skill at all, given the influx of touch screens, Siri/Alexa, and mobile devices which require dexterous thumbs over home key placement. Likewise, I’m sure many teens don’t see computer expertise as something “else” for them because technology is ubiquitous in their lives. And let’s be real, when they are in classrooms that relegate technology to internet searches, or a PowerPoint presentation, why would we expect them to see “computer expertise” as a needed hard skill?

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner isn’t looking for computer expertise, but he is looking for digital fluency, which requires proficiency in designing presentations, manipulating spreadsheets and navigating social media. At a conference in April, he urged schools to focus on four core skills: critical reasoning, creative problem solving, collaboration and basic digital fluency (Article: “Forget coding. It’s the soft skills, stupid. And that’s what schools should be teaching.”)

Schaffhauser’s article goes on to share other data points from the survey about access to STEM learning, but it’s non-congruent with both the article title and its opening declaration so I’m not sure what purpose those data points provide. 64% of students said they didn’t believe they were involved in any STEM programs. So are we to be surprised when only 33% of students express interest in STEM fields? And honestly, how are they supposed to know what career options are out there, and what hard and soft skills are required, if less than half of the teens are getting any instruction in career path opportunities?

Seth Godin quote on soft skills being real skills.

The Real Skills

Is the author implying that hard skills are the path to STEM, and that teens valuing soft skills are going to prevent them from success in those fields? Seth Godin, American author and former dot com business executive would argue, against that. He believes that soft skills, which he’d rather call real skills, are what matters most. In fact, he calls them real because even if you’ve got the hard skills, “you’re no help to us without these human skills, the things that we can’t write down, or program a computer to do.” Seth knows that real skills can’t replace the hard skills, but what they do is amplify it, give it meaning and value, and add to the success of an organization.

In Gallup’s 21st Century Skills and the Workplace Survey (2013), a majority of respondents agreed that most of the skills they’ve used in their current job were developed outside of school. So maybe instead of dismissing these teens as being incorrect in their assumptions that soft skills matter more than hard skills, we should take some notes.

My Boyfriend Is Smarter Than Me…

I have five degrees. Five! An Associate degree, a Bachelor’s degree with a double major, a Master of Arts degree, a Master of Science degree, and a Doctorate in Education.  I love school.

And yet, even with all those fancy certificates, my boyfriend is smarter than me. He’s a welder. No fancy college degrees. But he can build and create and fix and imagine in ways my brain can’t comprehend.

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John fabricating seat mounts for our ’68 Jeep I nicknamed Wabi Sabi.

Case in point: We bought a Jeep. A ’68 Jeep that hadn’t been loved in a very long time. It had been parked in a field for 15 years, stripped of its elements and left abandoned to nature. No seats. No pedals. No steering assembly. All wiring stripped and sitting in a pile in the cab. Rusty nuts and bolts that belong somewhere filled a coffee can.

And yet he is rebuilding it. There’s no manual for this. No YouTube video series that connects all the dots. He has to figure it out. He IS figuring it out. Sometimes with parts that are there. Sometimes with new parts he is purchasing. And sometimes with parts he fabs up on his own. Watching him work mesmerizes me. His ability to see in three dimensions, and to understand the interdependency of systems and how they contribute to the overall form and function, is a form of genius I don’t possess.

I share all this with you not just because I am insanely proud of his skills (although I am!), but because I think it’s important to remember that there is not one best way to learn. As much as I love school and books and conversations about school and books, John would shrivel up in that environment.

Our experiences often have a greater impact on us than degrees ever will!
— Jonathan Spike (@Mr_JSpike)


When I started play teaching my dolls and neighborhood friends at age six, I knew everything and dispensed my knowledge to them through worksheets I drew, and books I read, and homework I made them complete (my poor friends!). When I started actual teaching twenty years later, not much had changed. I still made worksheets for my students, and read books with (and to) them, and assigned homework. Over the years, I learned and adapted to a 1:1 environment, and brought in Genius Hour and Project Based Learning. But sadly, and I am not proud to admit this, I controlled much of the learning structure in my room.

But our role as teachers is changing. We need to be cognizant of the needs of our learners. All our learners. Not just the ones that are compliant. Not just the ones that are college bound. Not just the ones that look like and sound like we do.

And part of that change is the realization that the best way to support a learner may simply be to get out of his/her way and let the learning figure itself out, like it does for John.


If you like Jeeps, or just watching things come to life, feel free to follow along via Instagram @wabisabi68jeep as we get this thing desert ready!

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Naturally, Adults Are Trying to Stop Them

This news article published yesterday:

Teenagers are running for governor in Kansas. Adults are trying to stop them

In a state where the youth voting rate is even worse than the dismal national average, more than half a dozen Kansas teens are running for statewide office in 2018 — a sort of viral movement against apathy that could, in theory, make a high school student governor.

Naturally, adults are trying to stop it.

Naturally. Because that’s what adults do. Squash the ideas of our youth that do not fall in line with the status quo.

George Couros,  in a presentation to parents, asked if any of their children want to be YouTubers when they grow up. As was expected, a few people made an audible scoff at the idea. And yet, people are doing it. In 2017, the average salary of the top 10 YouTubers was over $10 million a year. Entrepreneurial people who saw an avenue to create content that expresses their creativity have turned an outlet in to a source of income.

And now, teenagers in Kansas, after finding a loophole in the Kansas state laws, are running for Governor. Not because they want to make a mockery of the state, but because they know they have a voice worth hearing. Jack Bergeson, a 17 year old Junior,  explained his reasons for running in written testimony to the state legislature: “Allow me to clear up a misconception: I am not running for governor as a stunt, or a gag. I am running for governor because of the minimum wage worker that has to work three jobs just to get by. I am running because our education system has been lagging behind other states. I am running to get money out of politics. But most importantly, I am running to get as many people involved in politics as possible.”

Jack, and others like him, are looking for ways to make their voice heard. To fight against apathy. To make a difference. They are tired of living within the confines we have placed upon them by our systems, structures, and beliefs. They are ready to start building their own. And as educators, it is our moral duty to equip them with the skills they need to do so. What is the point of teaching facts, history, math, science, etc if they are not also taught how to create new knowledge, new experiences, new ideas and amplify those to the world?

desire-path-usability-600x600I agree with George when he says that we should be helping students find their path. There should be nothing “natural” about blocking their way. Especially not in education.

One day, I hope articles like this one will read: Naturally, adults are trying to help them pave the way.

Bringing Industry to the Classroom

“Our two most precious commodities are our children and water.”
Ronald Fay, Retired Hydrologist and Industry Expert honoree


Michael DiTullo, Industrial Designer

Last night, our school board recognized the contributions of the industry experts who have given their time and expertise to inspire our students to change the world. Each of the individuals honored has made a tangible difference in the educational experience of our students. We often talk about making school relevant, engaging, and meaningful, but when you’re studying the human body and two medical students from UCSD are providing you with information and then giving feedback on your human body system adaptation prototype, relevant is the name of the game. When students are using design thinking to develop a better student chair and an industrial designer talks with the class about his own designs, and the importance of being human-centered, engagement is at an all-time high. And when 3rd graders studying the local lagoon to solve environmental problems it faces have an opportunity to participate in hands-on learning with a USGS Hydrologist to determine salinity levels, they are able to make meaningful connections to the science they study and the local problems in their community.

18 industry experts were honored last night. 18 individuals who see that the future


Chris Delehanty, Tech Director, Ronald Fay, Retired USGS Hydrologist, & me

success of our community, our country, resides in the students we teach today. 18 experts who listened to the ideas of children, and honored those ideas, and inspired them to keep ideating. 18 experts who showed students that their voices are heard, and their ideas are meaningful, and their learning is important. To each of them, and all the others that will be joining this list, I thank you.

To learn about all the experts honored, please read our presentation.
(This blog post was also posted on our district Design Thinking website)
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On Wednesday, I had the privilege of attending the OC Career Pathways Showcase at the Marconi Automotive Museum. Who can turn down an opportunity to see vintage vehicles, talk to brilliant students, and listen to top executives from SpaceX and Virgin Orbit? Not me!

I have to admit – the programs these students had access to, both in high school and community college (and a couple junior highs) was amazing. I kept thinking, “What would my adult life had looked like if I had been exposed to these hands-on STEM programs when I was 14 years old?” Students displayed projects completed in the areas of engineering; computer science; biotechnology; fabrication; robotics; and more. One student told me he had almost completed his private pilot’s license. Another discussed designing a robotic, prosthetic arm for a peer. Community College partners displayed their pathways to degrees and technical certificates within those fields, and their internship opportunities for the students present.

During this showcase, Gwynne Shotwell, COO and President of SpaceX, along with Tim Buzza, Vice President of Launch for Virgin Orbit, discussed their career pathways. Gwynne stressed the importance of project-based learning so that students “apply what they learn” and Tim shared the moment he switched from being concerned more about his grades in college to focusing on mastering the content being taught. When a student asked them both about how they deal with failure, Gwynne pointed out that people tend to learn more from failure than success, because it requires adaptation and another attempt. Tim expanded on that, reminding students that “failure means you put yourself out there more than most people would” and should not be a sign of defeat.

In this entire conversation, however, I realized that one voice was missing, and that was the voice of the elementary student. If we are to truly prepare students for the opportunities these students are accessing, we need to start from day one in kindergarten. Here’s why:

Linda Gottfredson (2002) describes how career choice in young people develops through a process of circumscription and compromise. During circumscription, which begins at ages 3-5, students rule out unacceptable options based on their perceived fit with the child’s self-concept. Between ages 3-5, children understand that adults have roles in the world, and that they, too, will one day have a role. By age 8, children start to assign job roles to particular sexes. If a job doesn’t align with their gender, it becomes unacceptable. By age 13, children have seen more job types and start to categorize them by income, education level, lifestyle, etc. in addition to sex type. They may exclude jobs that require a lot of education because they don’t have college role models in their family, or they may portray a job as being too much manual labor. Starting at age 14, children begin the conscious process of choosing jobs that align with their interests and perceived abilities.

After excluding so many options during the circumscription stage, children then being compromising, which involves “sacrificing roles they see as more compatible with their self-concept in favour of those that are perceived to be more easily accessible” (Winter, nd). Their lack of knowledge about the job, their abilities, and the future of the field begins to compromise their career choices.

Crazy to think this huge life decision… picking a career … starts to flesh itself out before a child even enters school. And for most, the decision is molded with no active modeling or involvement by adults until high school, if the child is lucky enough to have a pathway option, or upon graduation, when facing the daunting prospect of self reliance.

So what can we do to open those doors that students may be subconsciously closing at such an early age? How do we bring elementary education to the table with secondary and post-secondary education so that these amazing experiences aren’t limited to only some students? In our district, we’re bridging that divide through design thinking challenges that include industry experts; field trips that focus on the world of work community; and time for students to explore passion projects and Genius Hour. I’m hopeful that we’ll soon incorporate Gallop strengths-finder tools and local mentorships as well, both with community industry leaders and high school pathways programs. What are you doing?

Article References:

Circumscription and Compromise by The Careers Group

Gottfredson, L.S. (2002). Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription, compromise, and self creation. In D. Brown (Ed.), Career Choice and
Development (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 85–148.