September 2009


A continuing conversation here is how to teach the skills and habits of mind which will strengthen our students’ ability to be innovators.   Some may say it cannot be taught, but I refuse to accept that.   Harvard Business Review’s blog has a nice piece today on the question: How do Innovators Think?

The researchers, who surveyed 3000 creative individuals, and interviewed 500, report on five “discovery skills” which distinguish these creators.

  1. Associating: making connections among diverse ideas.
  2. Questioning: Asking what if, and why.
  3. Closely Observing, particularly details of people’s behavior.
  4. Experimenting: trying new experiences and exploring new worlds
  5. Networking with smart people from different sectors.  (more…)

The Arizona Daily Star published an op-ed piece of mine today, again discussing the question of China as role model. Click here to see it on their site.

This is a second posting in a continuing project here to combat the notion that China’s traditional educational model should be a template for American educational reform.    This pernicious notion is much in the air, and is advocated most loudly perhaps by Bob Compton and his 2 Million Minutes movie movement.   To combat it, I am drawing upon the research and wisdom of MSU Education professor Yong Zhao, who I think has a good claim to be the leading expert in the US regarding Chinese education.   I have now read his fine, brand-new book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, and I intend to share more from the book in future postings, but here I want to look most closely at his chapter: Why China isn’t a threat yet: The costs of high scores.

Zhao opens with a discussion called “Premier Wen’s Anxiety.”  Simply put, China has a “shortage of creative and innovative talent…only .003 percent of all Chinese companies own the patent for the core technologies they produced.”  Let me repeat that percentage: .003.    Zhao quotes from another source that “China has failed to establish, so far, an effective indigenous network of technological innovation…In 2005, only 21,519 patents originating in China were granted, while more than 134,000 originating in the US were granted.”   China President Hu is also cited, from a 2006 speech:  “China has a severe shortage of outstanding talents in science and technology.”  These data points alone call into question whether we in the US should seek to emulate China’s educational approaches. (more…)

Last week, Chris LaBonte, Ph.D., visited St. Gregory; Chris is the Middle and Upper School Head of Tesseract School in Phoenix.    He wrote the following to share with teachers at his school of the qualities of St. Gregory which impressed him:

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1. The school has a great outdoor program and works to train their seniors to become leadership facilitators to the Middle school and underclassmen.

2. . In the Upper school at St. Gregory they take a summer trip to Kenya where they teach in local schools.  This was quite impressive and encouraged me to be open to more exotic trips during the summer.  I encourage interested MS and US faculty to look at this for next summer.

3. I visited a number of outstanding classrooms; in one,  the Latin teacher had totally transformed his room, with a stage, life size chariots, Lego Roman solders.  This  reminded me that no matter WHAT the subject,  kids will love it if we love it and if this is demonstrated by the environment.

4. I visited an outstanding science lab in which some space had been purposely kept empty to run cars and tracts.  There was also tracking across the entire ceiling so that swinging balls could be hung from adjustable tracks. (more…)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

One of the attractions for me of coming to Tucson was the way in which this city is becoming a national hub of 21st century K-12 learning.   This is manifested in many ways: that Partnership for 21st century Skills is headquartered here, that there are some fine charter schools here, and that several of the public school districts are doing fine 21st century learning.

Elizabeth Celania-Fagen is the (relatively) new Tucson superintendent here, and truly an outstanding next generation educational leader.   She was appointed only about a year ago, and declared her innovative approach right away, in words which sound much like my own to the St. Gregory search committee: “The heart of who I am is focusing people around the future and what we want from our schools,” said Celania-Fagen. “Not everybody understands the difference between a 20th-century educational model and a 21st-century educational model.”

Recently she appeared on Arizona public media, where one questioner challenged her on what does she really mean, anyway, by her vision of “21st century sustainable outcomes.” She answered as follows:

It is no longer viable for our students to just memorize information, which has been sort of our history: You come,  the teacher has the information, the textbook has the information, you memorize it,  you regurgitate it, you get an A, and you move on. (more…)

illustration of a man pole vaulting over a computer

Problem and Project based learning, and technology integration, are  topics frequently advocated for here.  In a recent piece on edutopia (which is publishing great stuff these days), Suzie Boss has offered five steps for integrating technology without great additional expense.  Boss is author of a book called Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, a book I have recently acquired and am looking forward to reading and reporting on.

Step 1: Innovate with the Tools You Already Have. Boss makes two points in this section.  First, she argues that there is much you can already do without getting new tools,  but the larger point in this discussion is one close to my heart:  teachers need support from principals to experiment. “To support her nontraditional approach, Norfar required one more thing: “I needed a ‘yes’ principal — and I have one,” she explains.”  (I hope I am seen as a “yes” principal!)  And another: “It’s not about the stuff,” Carleton emphasizes. “It’s about making connections and working with what you already have. Our principal trusted us and allowed us to take that risk.”   A neat site for carbon footprint studying is also provided here. (more…)

There is a little civil war brewing nationally this summer/fall within the 21st century schooling movement.  The fight centers upon whether we should use Chinese education as a model for American schooling, and it has broad implications for issues of standardizing national education, and for programming within individual schools.

The argument I have been following is taking place between two individuals of sharply different backgrounds and perspectives, Yong Zhao, a Chinese born and educated scholar who is now an Education professor at MSU, and Bob Compton, a Kentucky venture capitalist and the force behind the 2 million minutes movement. (more…)

In recent posts I have argued, vigorously, that 21st century learning does, indeed, teach content and is serious about it– and indeed, we believe our contemporary teaching techniques teach content better.    And in my recent post on the 21k12 model, what we are serious about, I listed as number 12, that we are serious about research (or evidence) based teaching methodology, and I listed Robert Marzano as the leading national figure in this evidence based approach.  (I have appreciated Marzano previously on this blog.) Ed. Leadership,  in its recent excellent issue, is initiating Marzano as a new regular columnist, and this is an excellent thing.

Marzano’s piece is on teaching vocabulary effectively, and vocabulary, most certainly, is content, is knowledge, and I here loudly endorse the importance of this!   Marzano offers six, research tested and research demonstrated, steps for effective vocabulary teaching:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term. (more…)
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  • Just a few quick things I enjoyed hearing last night as teachers explained their programs to parents:

I want you to make a lot of mistakes because if you are not making mistakes you are not really trying to do anything.

Our students need to trust themselves that they do not need to be told the right answer, because often there is no right answer.   I ask very few questions which have only one correct answer.

You cannot not participate in this class: I have eleven students in this class and I will call on you a minimum of eight times every day.

At the commencement of my biology class, I survey the kids as to their view of the world’s biggest problems.  Then I categorize them, and have the kids vote to generate a top five list; this year the list is, in order, Shortages of Resources, Global Warming, Ignorance, Overpopulation, and Economic Recession.   Then, I help the kids understand how biology will help them understand these great problems that they have identified, and help them find solutions.

Lately I am finding myself regularly writing here to defend 21st century learning from its various foes; today, it is Diane Ravitch, who yesterday published an op-ed in the Boston Globe continuing her campaign against our movement: “skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked.”   (One of my hopes, as should be evident, is to not shy away from the critics, but post them right up here for all to see, and then, use their attacks to sharpen my own understanding and articulation of 21st century learning).

I really admire Diane Ravitch, I really do.   Her blog is on my blogroll; I follow her on Twitter; I have read, and I admire, her signature book, Left Back.  When I read that book, I did nod regularly: far too often, we have educated poorly when we have sought to teach students skills as much as, or more than, knowledge, and poorly when we have sought to “adapt education to the real life and real needs of students.”    But, in fairness, I think we have also, far too often, educated poorly when we have sought to teach students exclusively content and “knowledge,” without teaching them the critical skills they need, and without teaching in a way to provide our students relavance and meaning.

Ravitch cherrypicks a few anecdotes to support her contention that skills and real-world applications in education are foolish and silly; one such is a school “where children couldn’t read, but spent an entire day baking nut bread.”   But for every example, we can find one to balance it:  one that leaps to mind is the traditional classroom teacher Ben Stein portrayed inFerris Bueller’s Day Off, who stands at the front of the classroom delivering content to a room of students entirely disengaged and witless about his subject.

I am sorry, Ms. Ravitch, but it is my belief that far too many learning opportunities have been lost to traditional content lessons than to progressive classrooms where students are busy applying their learning and developing their skills.    More evidence comes from dropout rates at urban high schools; at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology  (CART) public high school in Fresno, for instance, I am told that they have a drop-out rate of less than 3%, compared to more than forty percent at the city’s more traditional high schools.

But, nevertheless, Ravitch is right that we need to be serious about teaching our students content and teach them for knowledge; she is right that sometimes when we teach for skills and  for relevance, our classrooms sometimes dissolve into silliness or disarray. (more…)

Below is the presentation I made last night to the board of trustees here at St. Gregory, seeking to articulate the defining and distinctive qualities of the “new model” school and the model that this blog is calling for (hence, the 21k12 school).   It is framed by defining the twelve aspects of schooling to be treated “seriously,” not just paid lip service to.    Apologies– it is still in a roughly hewn format, and needs further fine tuning and elaboration, but in the spirit of transparency, I want to get up for all to see what the board “got” to see last night.  (In future weeks, I will likely re-post this, in an amended, and beautified, version.)

Over the past ten days, we have surveyed parents, trustees, and teachers to inquire of them their view of the school’s 1-3 greatest strengths.   More than thirty parents, more than forty teachers, and more than 10 trustees responded.  I have taken the individual responses and grouped them into the categories that seemed most logical to me, and then, in this slide presentation, ordered them (for each constituency) from most frequently cited to least.  (Categories with only one or two items were usually eliminated).

I was particularly gratified to see that for each group, there were enough responses to make a category of innovative and creative curriculum: this is what drew me to St. Gregory, and I think, this will be an ever bigger part of the school’s future.   As one respondent wrote about the school’s greatest strength: “The creativity teachers bring to their classrooms and to the school. The school supports new programs and initiatives which provide our students with a wide range of opportunities to learn inside and outside of the classroom.”

(Remember, if the font size is too small to read, in the embedded version, you can click on the “full” button on the bottom left of the slide and it will blow up to full screen size.)

Regular readers here know of my enthusiasm for PBL: not project based learning, as it is usually refers to, but problem-based learning.   Just last week I approvingly quoted Dick Hersh, from his Ed. Leadership article, on the value of problem based learning:  “Teaching for such outcomes involves far more than asking students to passively receive information. Consider for example, problem-based or case-study teaching in which students are asked to apply historical, scientific, and cultural knowledge to address real problems.”     My own “manifesto,” such as it is, also features placing problems prominently at the front of classroom learning units.

Today, I want to point to a publication from Purdue, the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, and more particularly, the current issue’s Introductory piece, Summarizing Findings and Looking Ahead to a New Generation of Problem-Based Learning by Jason Ravitz, Ph.D., of the Buck Institute.   (Full disclosure: Jason was a classmate and friend of mine at Harvard, and he kindly solicited my comments on his article before publication, and recognized me in his acknowledgements.)

As an enthusiast for PBL, I am delighted to see the findings in this peer-reviewed journal article report positive outcomes for PBL. (more…)

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