Still Reaching Higher…One Step at a Time
It’s been exactly one year since the Hats & Ladders team, as one of five finalists in the Reach Higher Career App Challenge, got to present our vision for how mobile technology could bring much needed innovation to career education. From the start, the challenge spoke to us professionally as game designers who spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage young people in learning, and personally as people whose own career pathways have been less than straight.
Winning the challenge last August was a happy ending to an 8 week design sprint, and the beginning of ongoing development, testing, and iteration to turn our vision of Hats & Ladders into real outcomes for students, counselors, and other career educators. We are thrilled to have reached a major milestone this summer by completing an alpha pilot with over 700 middle schoolers in 12 schools across 5 different states.
We’re still crunching the numbers, but here are four key takeaways.
- Middle schoolers are ready to explore themselves and the world of work. Testing in middle school confirmed what other research has shown: middle school is an ideal time to take a deep dive into self-discovery and career exploration. Students at this age are able, with a fair degree of accuracy to self-assess their interests and abilities, and are eager to think about what careers might fit. At the same time, they want to keep options open and can be put off by unfamiliar job titles (User Support Technician, anyone?) that don’t conform to their existing notions. We’re planning career “story starters” that gradually introduce career fields and connected activities as a way of widening their imagination about how they might fit into the world of work.
- Career readiness (CR) competencies demand targeted instruction, routine practice, and assessment. Most middle school students recognize the importance of CR skills to their future careers, at least in principle. Our “Can I See It?” Ladder activity gave them the chance to learn about CR qualities ranging from compassion to advanced math within the context of a career they were interested in, and then self-report on whether or not they could imagine themselves demonstrating this skill. Our plan is to develop more in-app activities and hands-on projects that allow students to practice these skills in a range of contexts. Digital badges can help with assessment, but only if they include specific criteria and evidence that can be validated by both the Hats & Ladders system and educators. Students, not surprisingly, can spot a “stinking badge” a mile away.
- Simple game mechanics provide huge “hooks” for learning. Simply put, swiping is more fun than answering multiple choice questions. Interesting visuals and age-appropriate content go a long way as well. Hats & Ladders presents research-validated inventories that measure students’ “RIASEC” scores in a way that is fun and accessible for students. What’s next is to integrate more profile questions, categories, and feedback to help develop their self-awareness and metacognitive understanding of how experiences and choices they have and make today are connected to their future selves. The next iteration of Hats & Ladders will also expand our avatar system, helping students “try on” different Hats and imagine themselves in a range of careers.
- Mobile technology might be the future of EdTech, but Chromebooks are the present. We’re designing Hats & Ladders to be “mobile first,” with a swipe-to-choose core mechanic, minimalistic visual design, social media toolset, and embedded assessment that uses smartphones’ built in camera and locative technology. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 92% of teens go on line daily, aided in large part by the ubiquity of smartphones. Mobile solutions also enable us to better connect formal and informal learning experiences, so that students who complete hands-on projects in afterschool programs or field expeditions over the weekend can use their smartphones to create and share artifacts of learning. Schools, though, aren’t quite there yet. While policies are loosening around student’s personal use of smartphones on school campus, very few middle schools see smartphones as an in-class learning tool. Hats & Ladders is already cross-platform and usable on any mobile browser, but our next iteration will include new designs optimized for Chromebooks and desktops.
A huge thanks to all of the alpha test schools who devoted four or more instructional periods to using Hats & Ladders in their classrooms. Both educators and students provided invaluable feedback about what’s working and what we need to work on next!
- Archbold Middle School (Ohio)
- Cold Spring Harbor High School (New York)
- Cortland Junior Senior High School (New York)
- Elwood Middle School (New York)
- Harbor Springs High School (New York)
- Hoopeston Area Middle School (Illinois)
- Imagine Charter Middle School at West Gilbert (Arizona)
- Imagine Charter Middle School at Bell Canyon (Arizona)
- Little Falls Middle School (New York)
- Port Jefferson Middle School (New York)
- Sailorway Middle School (Ohio)
- Washington Middle School (California)
In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more results from the pilot, along with other thoughts and questions we’ve formed along the way. In the meantime, we’d love to know how these key takeaways square with your own experiences and insights.
Leah, Scott, & Ben,
The Hats & Ladders Pilot Team
Photo: Early paper prototyping for H&L, which helped inform some of the digital elements we produced for the alpha pilot.