Ken Kay, who is based here in Tucson presiding over his Partnership for 21st c. skills, co-edited this volume of essays, which offers a bit of an overview and introduction to the world of 21st century schooling.  It is not a current text– it is three years old now– and it is perhaps to their credit that they have succeeded so greatly in elevating this conversation that when reading the book in 2009, it feels a bit passe.    That said, there are a few nuggets still worthwhile for consideration– Kay’s article on Research and Development in the field, and a case study of one of my very favorite exemplars, New Technology High School.

Kay’s own contribution calls for new and more R&D in the field of 21st century learning, and lays out the rationale for doing so: we must redefine scholastic rigor in our new and changing context.  Our challenges are huge, and our competitors growing and looming.  He cites John Bransford to the effect that “our current educational system is still primarily focused on a model that teaches every child something a hundred times and measures their ability to produce the same answer the 101st time…. now it needs to be measuring a student’s ability to address a problem he or she has never seen before.”

He goes on to call for more research in pedagogy for 21st. c. skills (“reforms will only succeed when closely aligned with teacher professional development”), and for a new assessment strategy.  I think this is essential; for every initiative we are launching here educationally at St. Gregory, we must launch a parallel effort to measure its success and effects.     As an examples, he offers 4

“basic principles for constructing tests of critical thinking: (1) determine whether children can use instead of just recall facts, (2) make available evidence that is open to alternative interpretations, (3) ask respondents to explain what effect changes in evidence, such as faulty or new evidence being uncovered, would have on their answers, and (4) probe content knowledge appropriately in a real-world context.”  (I love any and all efforts to tie in real-world contexts).

Onto NTHS.   As much as I appreciate Tony Wagner’s and others admiration for High Tech High, I myself, having visited both schools, have a small preference for New Technology HS in my regard for their success at thoroughly implementing a 21st  c. learning program.   So I was happy to see the case study on NTHS here in the book.   I am going to take some space here to record some of the key elements from this discussion:

1. 8 Learning Outcomes at NTHS: Content standards; Collaboration; Critical Thinking; Oral Communication; Written Communication; Career Preparation; Citizenship and Ethics; and Technology Literacy.   “NTHS embeds these learning outcomes in all projects, assessments, and grade reports.”

2. NTHS promotes a “new type of instruction that better reflected the goals… Teachers start each unit with a realistic or real world project that both engages interest and generates a list of things the students needs to know.”   I have seen this in action, and it is terrific.  Units start with a call to action, a professionally typeset memo of some kind from CEO to the working team (students) with the problem being confronted, and the product the CEO demands to address it.  Off the students go, working in teams to collect and analyse the information needed, and to generate the product required.   Examples include: “a plan to Congress solving the oil crisis; addressing economic issues as a team of the president’s economic advisers, inventing new sports for astronauts to play on the moon.”

3.  I really appreciate that the article here acknowledges that some project-based learning programs are just weak, and NTHS promotes a seriousness about the program to combat this risk.  References are provided for samples of project based programs with a seriousness toward essential learning; one, in Australia, is called Rich Tasks.

4. Assessment, and reporting on student learning, is a focal point for our work here at St. Gregory this year, and NTHS also is very serious about this aspect of learning.

“Most schools give students a single grade for a course, often losing important data about the skills and abilities of the students.  At NTHS, student course grades are disaggregated into the component learning outcomes.   Instead of a single composite grade for each project, subject, or integrated course, the grade report for a project or course shows separate and distinct grades for content, critical thinking, written communications, and the other goals… NTHS has developed a unique way to assess certain 21st c. skills.  At the end of every project, students assess every member of their project team using an online peer collaboration rubric.”

5.  Finally, I was glad to read about “Schools as workplaces” one of my favorite topics these days.  NTHS  recognizes the need for

“a students-at-work environment involving computers, group work, planning, presentations, team teaching, and other strategies…  Teacher lectures are rare but are delivered on what NTHS calls a need to know basis: when students express a need to understand concepts and content critical to their project work.  NTHS looks more like a modern high tech office than a school.  When one walks through the glass-walled corridors, one see students at work.”

NTHS, CART, and other high schools are leading the way in reframing how we think about a school environment; it should be a place of students working as they would in a professional environment, and not a place of sitting in seats in rows watching others work.