logo1-transparentbg-13In the fall of 2008,  I set out to learn what qualities could be observed to be most effective for student learning in 21st century high school classrooms.   At each of the twentyone 21st century high schools I visited and shadowed students for a full day,  I tried to  gauge whether what I saw happening was “working” for kids and their learning. (Follow the link to the schools to find the larely unedited (!) raw narratives of my observations at each school.)

I tested my observations against the roughly fifty books I have recently read on best practice, and I tested it against my own gut: Were kids genuinely engaged, and were they doing the work of learning in ways that would advance their understanding and their skills?  I also asked myself whether I would benefit from and grow intellectually in these classrooms.  How did I feel?  Was I learning?

From my observations in more than 100 classrooms,this is what I learned:  Students are learning most when their classrooms are learning environments structured around Purpose, Problems, Process, Professionalism, and Product.

For each of these, the Big Five,  I have provided, after the jump,  links to my live-blog observations of the classrooms (and I name the schools!) where I saw them effectively deployed:

Purpose and Pertinence: Classrooms I visited for this project came alive, became electrified even, every time students were able to discern the larger purpose of their learning, or found connections from their studies to their own lives.  Everyone deserves to know and understand why they are learning what we are teaching; this is a key to motivation at the outset of learning, and key to transfer at its culmination.    More

Problems: Challenge them to do something first.  I could feel my heart-rate elevate when at or near the beginning of class our teacher started our learning with a difficult problem or question to wrestle with. Learning should begin not with the delivery of information, but the posing of a problem. More

ProcessIt was easy to see, as I visited more than 100 classrooms, that students were learning the most where they had the most opportunity to process their thinking and work over time and in a variety of ways.  Process here includes learning by doing, trial and error, questioning and brainstorming, and receiving feedback for revision in an ongoing iterative process. More

Professionalism: This was something that really emerged for me from my visits to 21 schools:  our students really respond and rise to the occasion when we treat them as young professionals, part of a learning team led by their teaching captain.  If we re-conceptualize our students as analogues to associates in a law firm, or interns in a hospital, we can recognize our students as capable people with much to offer even as we remind them that they, like associates and interns, have much to learn. More

Published Product: I saw so much pride and purpose in students when they recognized that their learning had a culmination of each unit  a finished and polished product.  I recently wrote about this at some length in my discussion of Ron Berger’s excellent book The Ethic of Excellence, but I will reiterate it here: although good contemporary learning is about process as much as product,  it still ought to greatly prize rich, authentic product published or presented to a general public More….