September 2008

Check out Thomas Friedman in the Times today; the primary focus of education in the 21st century, says the author of The World is Flat, should be innovation.    He also recommends a new book, Closing the Innovation Gap, which I am ordering promptly.   Let’s add that to the focus: what are we doing in good high schools to teach students to innovate? 

Read yesterday a book suggested by my friend Kent Grelling, Ph.D., (school psychologist at Bentley school): Robert Burton’s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right even When You’re Not  A quick read, and bit too weighted at times with what seems a personal agenda, but a really good book.    Simply put, the feeling of certainty is a feeling, a mental impulse, entirely separate in the brain from actually being certain.   We cannot be certain of anything, and that we might feel it sometimes isn’t evidence at all.   I like Burton’s criticisms of Gladwell’s Blink: I like Gladwell, but I think this book has some very profound errors about whether and how we can “trust our gut.”     And I really like Burton’s expression of concern that by our emphasis on standardized, multiple choice testing (a much heavier emphasis than that of any other country, according to Wagner), we are instilling in kids a notion that there is a single correct answer to any question.   Let’s teach via open-ended questioning, let’s teach students there is never a single, certainly correct answer; let us help students learn that our work of understanding is the work of questioning, arguing, and evidence providing.  

I was glad to see Wagner emphasize classroom visiting as the key way to evaluate educational excellence.   “The important question is ‘What’s going on in classrooms?'”    Wagner’s approach is a bit different from my own in this year’s project; whereas I intend to spend days shadowing students, Wagner uses what he calls “learning walks:” several hours visiting 8-10 classes for ten minutes each, and then having reasonable confidence that you will have a representative picture of the school and the learning therein.   In doing so, he seeks to “assess what students are being asked to do: the specific skills and knowledge that students are expected to master and the level of intellectual challenge in the lesson.”  As noted previously, he is especially interested in questions asked of students and student explanations.  

He doesn’t find much he likes– 19 out of 20 classrooms disappoint him.    Too much teaching to the test, too many disconnected lessons, too frequently disengaged students.    Worksheets, memorization, repetitive attention to basic skills, monotony, and note-taking abound.   Sometimes students just aren’t working at all.   
What he rarely finds is what he is seeking: “teachers who use academic content as a means of teaching students how to communicate, reason, and solve problems.”  
What does that look like, to Wagner?  
Here is one example, from an Algebra 2 class:   The teacher posts a problem on the board, and students are grouped and told that they haven’t seen this type of problem before.  They are to solve it, using both algebraic and geometric concepts, in at least 2 different ways, and then, at random, one member of each group will explain the group’s answer.  The teacher then circulates, facilitating, never answering a question with an answer but only with another question.   Problemsolving, collaboration, initiative, imagination, communication skills are all on display here. 
A history assignment or question: Identify and explain the first ten amendments of the Constitution and then write an opinion essay on which one of the Bill of Rights is the most important, using evidence from both history and current events. 
An English assignment: Students research an issue of concern to them, summarize the arguments pro and con, write a letter to the editor, and mail it. 
Another math class: students work in pairs on two worksheets (sic) which contain twenty examples of four ways to represent mathematical relationships, but out of order.  Students puzzle out the relationships, grouping them accordingly.  
It is helpful, in a sense, to see that the goodness of good schools is not radically or extremely different from the badness of not-so-good schools.   In his model schools, students still do some worksheets, or take notes from a video.   At moments, in reading of the exemplary schools, I pause: what is so much better here?     But even where a lesson element parallels that of a disappointing lesson, we can recognize differences: there is more difficult problem solving of original challenges; more authentic tasks with real-world relevance; more coherent theme based overarching the individual lessons. 
Much of what he likes is familiar from Sizer and Meier– students as workers, teachers as coaches, students demonstrating learning via exhibitions, classrooms and schools marked by strong community and teacher-student relationships.     
And much of it is happening already, with some consistency, in good independent high schools, I would like to suggest.   An underlying tension in the book is the public-private question.   I would say Wagner can’t quite decided what to do with this dynamic of the two school types.   The book is focused on public schools, and his disappointing “learning walks” are all at what are, by standardized test scores, the “best” schools in their state.   Similarly, all three of his examples of effective schools, which are teaching his called for skills, are at public schools too– but never a conventional mainstream one, all of them alternative charter and experimental ones.  
At times, he goes out of his way to point out that he can and does find these same disappointments at independent (private) schools, even very good ones.  But, at the same time, it is hard not to see parallels between the charter schools he admires and good independent high schools: small size, strong relationships, and a focus on student learning and “product.”
So what do we take from the subtitle that even the “best schools don’t teach the new survival skills”?  My interpretation is that that statement is not inclusive of, not even really intended to be inclusive of, the “best” private schools.  I think they do teach them, and I think he thinks they do.  As do, he thinks,  the “best” alternative and charter public schools.   The “best” here he is referring to are, as explained above, large, conventional, popular, mainstream high schools which are high achieving, even the highest achieving, on standardized testing.  But it is no political or polite to make too much of this difference, and certainly he doesn’t want independent schools to be too self-satisfied, which they have no reason to be. 
Does that mean there are no lessons here for good independent high schools? Of course not.   Most of them are not new: go back to your Sizer and emphasize its lessons once again.   Be clear about what your school thinks are required 21st century skills, and seriously audit yourself on how well you are teaching them.   Provide more time for teacher collaboration and planning, and promote classroom “transparency”– classrooms ought to be much more open to other teachers, administrators, and visitors.    Review again and again how class time is used, and how relevant lessons are, and how assessment is happening.   Evaluate student motivation, and be serious about your responsibility to engender motivation.   Seriously seek to understand how differently today’s digital native students think and process, and respond to it. 
More in a future post about Wagner’s thoughts on rigor, testing and evaluation.

Feeling like I have been lagging a bit– this book will now (and forever?) be the first book to suggest to anyone looking for a guiding text on 21st century learning.   I still love Dan Pink, and think his Whole New Mind is a lot of fun to read and open your eyes on the topic, but Wagner really tightly ties Friedman/Pink thinking about how the world is changing, and how are proficiencies need to be different, to what actually is and should be happening in schools best. 

So my thanks to my friend Joe Rice at Mid-Pacific Institute for his recommendation. 
I read the whole thing in a day– I couldn’t put it down.   And I was humbled in places, chagrined.  How many of us, we “educational leaders,” will read Wagner’s own painful memoir of his years as an underprepared teacher and principal and not experience red-faced resonance? What modeling and mentoring, really, did most of us receive in “instructional leadership?”How often were we consumed like Wagner was by the management responsibilities and let instruction get away from us, now and again?  Wagner came into schools without any precedence or policy for instructional leadership, and didn’t get training in it, and didn’t know how to do it– and then was painfully rebuffed when he tried.  
Reading the book made me also profoundly grateful for this sabbatical year I am enjoying, and deeply committing to a personal renaissance of myself as an educational leader and instructional leader.   I am going to build on my growing confidence, and my learning of this year, in my next administrative role to be a real instructional leader, and very much in the model of Wagner’s call.  I will be in and out of classrooms all the time, and I will be seriously engaging my colleagues in the work of advancing 21st century teaching and learning. 
The book:  The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even the Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need– and What We Can Do About it.  2008. 
If any one message pops out, and it does again and again, to Wagner’s credit– it is the value of good questioning.   “first and foremost,” one CEO says, “I look for someone who asks good questions.”  Another successful exec says “I ask questions for a living.”   “the ability to ask good questions (and engage others) are the critical competencies for work today.”      Here is Wagner speaking for himself: “I have consistently found that the kinds of questions students are asked and the extent to which a teacher challenges students to explain their thinking or expand on their answers are reliable indicators of the level of intellectual rigor in a class.” 
As the subtitle promises, Wagner offers a list of seven success strategies, and I provide them elsewhere in the blog (21st. century aptitudes).  In reading the book, though, I don’t really think his heart in in them that much– he is much more energized by speaking more about what schools are doing, and what they are not doing, to prepare and motivate students in a very new and different era. 
More coming on this very valuable book….. 

Aptitudes may not be the best catch-all term; each writer labels them a little differently, but we now have a growing group of writers posing what they believe is required for success in the new century, in this new age.   Pink calls them senses, Gardener minds, Wagner survival skills.   

Here they are, in no particular order of their publication: 
Pink, 2005, Six Senses
“In the Conceptual Age, we will need to complement our L-Directed reasoning by mastering six essential R-Directed aptitudes.  Together, these six high concept-high touch senses can help develop the whole new mind this new era demands.”
1. Not just function but also Design.  
We must be able to create things beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging. 
2. Not just argument, but also Story.   The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative. 
3. Not just focus, but also Symphony.  What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis– seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole. 
4. Not just logic, but also Empathy.  What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow man or woman tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others. 
5. Not just seriousness but also Play. Too much sobriety can be bad for your career; in the Conceptual Age, in work and life, we ll need to play. 
6.  Not just accumulation, but also Meaning.  With material plenty, we have been liberated to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment. 
Gardner, 2006, Five Minds
1.  The Disciplinary mind:  Individuals without one or more disciplines will not be able to succeed at any demanding workplace and will be restricted to menial tasks. 
2.  The Synthesizing mind: Individuals without synthesizing capabilities will be overwhelmed by information and unable to make judicious decisions about personal or professional matters. 
3.  The Creating mind.  Individuals without creating capacities will be replaced by computers and will drive away those who do have the creative spark. 
4. The Respectful mind: Individuals without respect will not be worthy of respect by others and will poision the workplace and the common 
5. The Ethical mind: Individuals without ethics will yield a world devoid of decent workers and responsible citizens: none of us will want to live on that desolate planet. 
Partnership for 21st century Skills, 2006, Student Outcomes
21st century Themes:
1. Global Awareness
2.  Financial, Economic, Business, and Entrepreneurial Literacy
3.  Civil Literacy
4. Health Literacy
Learning and Innovation Skills
5. Creativity and Innovation
6. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
7. Communication and Collaboration

Information, Media, and Technology
8. Information Literacy
9. Media Literacy
10. ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology Literacy). 

Life and Career Skills
11. Flexibility and Adapatability
12 Initiative and Self Direction
13. Social and Cross Cultural Skills
14. Productivity and Accountability
15. Leadership and Responsibility

Sternberg, 2006, The New Three R’s
1. Reasoning:  Planning, Flexibility, Resourcefulness, Critical Thinking. 
2. Resilience
3. Responsibility.
Conley, 2007, Key Cognitive Strategies and Overarching Academic Skills
1. Intellectual Openness
2. Inquisitiveness
3. Analysis
4. Reasoning, argumentation, proof
5. Interpretation
6. Precision and Accuracy
7.  Problemsolving
8. Writing
9. Research

Wagner, 2008, Seven Survival Skills
1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
3. Agility and Adaptability 
4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
5. Effective Oral and Written Communications
6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
7. Curiosity and Imagination. 
Council for Aid to Education Collegiate Learning Assessment
1. Critical Thinking
2. Analytic Reasoning
3. Written Communication
4.  Problem-solving
Judy Estrin, Closing Innovation Gap, Five Core Values of Innovation
1. Questioning
2. Risk-Taking
3. Openness
4. Patience
5. Trust
Bransford, et. al: How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School.  (1999)
From the 20th c. literacy skills of simple reading, writing, and calculating, we now need higher order literacy: 
1. thinking and reading critically; 
2. expressing oneself clearly and persuasively; 
3. solving complex problems. 
Know of other lists of 21st century requirements?   Have some suggestions of your own?  Think the lists above are off base in some way.   Use the comment box, add to the conversation! 

It was 1996, and some education school professors were given the opportunity to put their ideas into practice–to start their own magnet school within Chicago public schools– which they gave the clunky name of Best Practice High School.

This is their story– Rethinking High School: Best Practices in Teaching, Learning and Leadership. The value of the book is limited– it is not at all an original work, and the authors themselves are quick to acknowledge their deep indebtedness to Sizer and Meier: their school is essentially an Essential school, and they write about all they borrowed from Central Park West, (and Meier herself wrote the foreword). Nor is their discussion here of what best practices are especially sophisticated or research supported, but that is not their intent.

The value comes from offering another, good, primer on and outline of best practices– and more importantly, a travelogue of the experience of implementing them– in practice. I know some teachers will prefer to approach it this way, warts and all, with full acknowledgement of the headaches of practicing what we preach. One of the best examples is of their school schedule– which they decided needing changing at the end of day 1, and which they report changing over thirty times before Thanksgiving, before they got it, not right, but best compromised. The discussion of assessment is refreshingly honest and humane too– simply put, despite knowing that their are best practices for assessment, they simply paid no attention to them for the first three years, not able to get to them.

The book is organized into their prescriptions, with a research summary and an implementation report for each. Here’s the list– a good list, one most of us could have written:

1. Size: the school is small, or feels small.

2. Climate: every student is known, appreciated, and included in a diverse, collaborative community.

3. Voice and leadership: both students and teachers exercise choice and make decisions in all elements of student life.

4. Teaching: Teachers collaborate with students to explore and employ a growing repertoire of instructional strategies. (A little bland, a little brief, for such a central issue).

5. Curriculum: With their teachers, young people are engaged in challenging inquiry into topics that matter.

6. Community Experiences: Young people are engaged in the life of the community and the world of work.

7. Scheduling: The school day and calendar provide flexible and variable blocks of learning time.

8. Technology and materials. Contemporary technology and rich materials support students as thinkers, researchers and authors.

9. Assessment: Teachers help students to monitor, evaluate, and guide their own thinking.

10. Professional development: Teachers are students of instruction, with many opportunities to learn and grow.

11. Relationships: The school works closely with parents, community organizations, and educational institutions.

A school could profit from using the list for a self-audit– I think it’d be fun almost to ask a faculty working group to write our own book: what is the key list we have of best practices, what are they rooted in (research evidence, school history), what are exemplary stories of them in action, and what are the ongoing issues or challenges of them in practice?

A few notes:

Size, climate, and relationships have always been central to my vision of good schooling. The book recommends capping a high school at 100 per grade, 400 in total, and then has to compromise by letting it grow to 140 per grade, 560 in total. Pat Bassett often uses that 400 number too– keep schools, or divisions, to 400, and you will maintain that healthy size. Myself, I don’t want to work at, or lead a school where I don’t, or cannot soon, know every child by name (and most parents too)– and the numbers are critical.

I appreciate their emphasis on purpose: it is implicit in many, explicit in their embrace of community experiences and in curriculum, “topics that matter.” The chapter is well done: “High schools need to find ways now to engage kids in work that is important and meaningful to them now, at the time of learning.” This work, they say, should be challenging (construction and communicating knowledge), authentic (relevant), and collaborative.

The teaching discussion is better in the chapter than the the summary, and refers to a previous, full length book on the topic. It includes a long list of things we should seek more and less of– familiar Sizer like essential teaching– centering on depth over breadth, and students as do-ers. The building blocks of best practice teaching are the following: Integrative units (even in secondary, with curricula “built around themes”), small group activities, workshops (or the studio method, where students do and teachers “demonstrate, mentor, and give feedback”), representing to learn (what Marzano calls “non-linguistic representation” and says is the least frequently employed research based best practice), authentic experiences (say no more), and reflective assessment.

The discussion of voice at times seems to verge toward ideology and away from research; this is not to say I don’t support it, but that it is that much more a controversial subject. Their discussion of the research evidence is far less compelling. Marzano doesn’t find teacher or student empowerment as related to student achievement in his School Leadership that works research, (though he does find evidence for communication, situational awareness, and culture). But even if the research isn’t rock-solid, it is an ideal that bears considering. It is not the norm; to quote: “if teacher voice is faint in the governance of high schools, student voice reaches barely a whimper.” Teacher leadership or voice here is pretty diffuse: “there is no one formula.. it comes from the input and initiative of participants.” It can look like teacher initiated professional development, teacher led staff meetings, teacher leadership on school problemsolving, and time provided for teacher meetings and work. The authors are working on reconciling opposites– they also call for a strong principal– a strong principal who supports empowered teachers. As for students, they have good suggestions but little thorough examination of the practice: students choose assignments and assess their own work, students teach other students, student help plan units, students discuss issues in advisories, students form committees for school issues, students interview teacher candidates, students sit on boards.

Finally, on staff development, never an easy topic. They did well, it seems, to infuse the school culture from the outset with a commitment to being a model school– it was named Best Practice after all– and still, they find it hard. They have great funding for retreats– and still it is hard. Most helpful for me is the suggestion that schools and faculties declare for themselves, after research, staff development guidelines (i.e. fewer whole-faculty workshops, less lecture, more visits to other schools), and that you form book groups with interested, like minded teachers. They suggest an approach that allows for volunteerism– “begin with the willing and work patiently through a faculty, drawing in the more reluctant teachers as they see the successes.”

1. Drew School, San Francisco, Monday, September 8
2. SF University HS, Friday, September 12
3. Branson School, Monday, September 22

4. CART (Center for Advanced Research and Technology) H.S. , Fresno, CA: Wed. Sept. 24
5. Urban School, San Francisco, Friday, September 26

6. Bay School, Monday, September 29

7. Head Royce School, Oakland, Wednesday October 1
8. Tesseract School, Paradise Valley, Arizona, Thursday, October 2
9. New Technology High School, Sacramento, Monday, Oct. 6
10. Adelson School, Las Vegas, Friday, October 10
11. College Prep School, Oakland CA; Thursday, Oct. 16
12. Franklin H.S. IB program, Stockton, CA; Friday, Oct. 17
13. International H.S. (IB), San Francisco; Monday, Oct. 18
Athenian School, Danville, TBD
More coming soon..

Glad you asked.   I would of course be the last person to suggest it is any one thing– and I mean to use my website and blog to advance the conversation about what it is, and never to finally answer it.   Even this answer, as posted here, will change and evolve often.  

But let me offer a starting place answer: 
21st century K-12 education (or, in my shorthand, the lovely palindrome 21k12) is education that concerns itself with at least some of the following questions, and of course many others additionally: 
1.  How is our educational program attending and responding to contemporary research in educational best practices?     
As Marzano writes in his central and essential research on this question, instruction is increasingly a science rather than an art, and the research is now too good to be dismissed.   And brain research has advanced too far to be ignored.   So a 21st c. school is vigorously pursuing understanding of what the research tells us are the best ways for students to learn.   Now, this should never be a straightjacket, and Marzano himself, in one of my favorite passages, says it is for experienced and thoughtful educators to select and apply the research with a careful eye for contingent circumstances.    Besides Marzano, I am also especially interested in contemporary educational thinkers Grant Wiggins and Tony Wagner– but my list is not intended to be exclusive.  
2.  How are we educating for critical inquiry, deep thinking, and problemsolving?
Voltaire was hardly 21st century, but he said to judge a thinker not by his answers but by her questions– and this, I think, is more important than ever.   Again and again as I read about good teaching and learning, I am struck by the emphasis on questioning, on teaching that promotes not certainty but ambiguity and argumentation.  Teaching should problematize, and learners should approach topics critically, grappling with underlying “essential questions.”   Much of the quality of a high school classroom can be found in the quality of the questions teachers ask students, and students ask of their teachers, or each other, of themselves.
3.  How is our educational program attending and responding to the way the world is changing, and what we believe as a school will be required of our graduates for success on a fast-changing planet? 
Tony Wagner.  Dan Pink.  Howard Gardner.  Thomas Friedman.   Ray Kurzweil.  I realize that sometimes Dan Pink, one of my favorites, can be a bit glib and superficial.    But the key here again is not that there exist any certain answers to how the world is changing, or that any individual guide has the best directions, but a 21st century education is actively engaged, ongoingly, in the consideration of how the future will be different, and reviewing its own program for alignment.   This can be done is so many ways– even in totally fun ways by watching future-set movies– and then seriously grappling with how our program can best adapt to our view of the future. 
4.  How is our educational program effectively and richly utilizing contemporary 21st c. tools for learning?   
The Greeks used a great deal of memorization and recitation as learning tools, because they only rarely could use writing; schools quickly adopted blackboards when they first became available.   Good schools are always using the best current technology available to advance student learning– not to learn the technology, but to use the tools to advance the learning.   The tools of our age are digital: laptops, cellphones, podcasts, wikispaces, and many more.   They are powerful and wonderful tools, and should be thoroughly and appropriately integrated, into student learning in a seamless way. 
5.  How is our educational program one which advances sustainability and stewardship? 
Sustainability has become the central thrust of NAIS’s bold and vigorous leader, Pat Bassett, and he is right: it must be at the core of what we are doing as educators.   How is our school itself self-sustaining, and modeling a sustainable way of living.  How are our students learning the significance of sustainability, and how are they learning to be better stewards of our planet?
6.  How is our educational program one of “authentic learning,” where students learn by doing, and are active participants in their own learning, doing work that is significant in its own right?
There is just no excuse anymore, with the tools we have available and the understanding we have of learning, to educate primarily by worksheets, lectures, and multiple choice tests.   We learn to ride bicycles by riding bicycles, out on the street, with a helmet and a helping hand, but not in a classroom studying a diagram and answering questions about it.  And we never forget how to ride a bicycle, either.    We should be consistently asking ourselves, how is the learning transferable, and how can it be transferred to real world applications now– not in some abstract future. 
7.  How is our educational program one that is engaged with the wider world in an globalizing age?  
The IB program calls it teaching and learning international-mindedness; I think it can and should be linked to our longstanding commitment to teach appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism.    The World is Flat, the 21st century is bringing citizens of all countries ever more interdependent, and our schools have to be actively helping students learn to respect, appreciate, communicate with, and understand the deep meaning of global interdependence.  
8.  How are we teaching students to be innovators?  
Thomas Friedman is now beating this drum, and we can find it in Pink, Gardener and many others: the single most important trait for 21st century success will be the ability to innovate, something the US has long led in, but which is fast becoming the central global competition?  Let’s ask ourselves at each school: what do we mean by innovation  what can do to better develop it in every student, and how can we measure student learning of innovation? 
But don’t let me have the last word: use the response button below.  What other questions should schools be asking themselves to better promote 21st century K-12 education?  Where are my questions above off base, do you think? 

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