October 2009

Boy scratching his head at a difficult math problem on a chalkboard

Credit: Getty Images

Two themes frequently promoted here for 21st century classrooms are, one, putting the problem first, and two, challenging and supporting students to learn via trial and error, though a structured and supportive learning process.   A recent posting to the consistently valuable edutopia offers remarkable new evidence supporting these methods.

Entitled Kids Master Mathematics When they are Challenged but Supported, author Bernice Yeung explains the research from New Jersey, and that allowing students to struggle with challenging math problems can lead to dramatically improved achievement and test scores “allowing students to struggle with challenging math problems can lead to dramatically improved achievement and test scores.”

This mathematics instruction is called the Rutgers Method, and has had astounding results, with fourth graders seeing math scores rising from 45 to 79% on standardized tests.   The method is described as follows: (more…)

This is what I think will be the last in a series of appreciations for Yong Zhao’s fine and important new Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.   I have previously written about Zhao’s sharp criticisms of the Chinese traditional mode of education, a model which we must be very careful to avoid imitating, and about Zhao’s enthusiasm forstudent talent shows and, more generally, educating for what he labels “talent diversity.”

Here I want to look at the heart of his chapter entitled “What Knowledge is of the Most Worth?”  Many of us are working on what should be the key skills to learn in the 21st century; our school has been giving this great attention this year.   Dr. Zhao draws upon multiple sources to assemble his argument: some are familiar, like Partnership for 21st Century skills and Dan Pink’s Whole New Mind; one is new to me, the European parliament’s “eight key competences.”  The best of the chapter is when Zhao lays out his synthesized five Core Assumptions, which “can be used to guide our decision about what school should teach.”

Assumption #1: We must cultivate skills and knowledge that are not available at a cheaper price in other countries or that cannot be rendered useless by machines. (more…)

Earlier this month Ed. Week published this  fascinating commentary by two Stanford scholars.   Bloom’s taxonomy, they explain, is often presented as a pyramid students must ascend, from knowledge at the base to analysis, then synthesis, and finally evaluation at the summit. This is a traditional or conventional view of learning– that we must begin with the facts, and “pour knowledge in” to the vessel of a student’s mind, storing up knowledge until the student is ready to (finally!) begin to be able to analyze and evaluate.

This blog regularly argues a different approach– that students will learn best and learn most by beginning with the problem, by beginning with the evaluation.

The knowledge we master best comes when we are seeking to solve a problem or analyze a difficult question.  As adults it is the same:  we don’t just stuff ourselves with facts that we hope later to have some use of, but we develop deep mastery of subject areas as we work to solve problems and address issues in those areas.

The Stanford scholars explain that Bloom himself never used a pyramid, and never meant to convey a progression of learning from knowledge to evaluation.  They go on to explain, brilliantly I think, that:

There was only one problem. The pyramid was upside down—at least for the history classroom. (more…)

At an excellent meeting this afternoon of our Academic Committee, we brought very close to completion our exciting new addition to our quarterly report card, a rubric we are calling the Essential Goals for St. Gregory Students (I think we may refer to it by the nickname the “Egg.”)

At every grade level, six through twelve, in every subject area, teachers will report on students progresupon each of these six goals, (several of which are broken out into sub-categories, for a total of 18).

The list we have prepared is derived from two major sources:  Tony Wagner’s list of Seven Survival Skills, from his book the Global Acheivement Gap, and from the NAIS Schools of the Future project, which has prepared a list it calls essential capacities for the 21st century. But it is our own product, reflecting our own priorities, and our own vision of what St. Gregory students must learn and develop to be successful in their futures. This is also intended to be a dynamic list, something that can continue to grow and evolve in time. (more…)

A frequent retort to 21st century advocates is that it represents a return to a new permissiveness.  I encountered this Friday during a debate I participated in with the founder and co-director of BASIS school, Dr. Michael Block.   In response to a question from the audience about the most pressing issue in K-12 education today, I answered it was my concern that the forces of standardization were narrowing education to the basics and most easily tested core components of math and reading, and driving out the teaching of creativity and the pursuit of individual student passion.  A second question asked about schools connecting to their community; I argued that schools should seek to connect student learning to community issues, and, for instance, have students in a chemistry class not just analyze the city’s water, but also make a presentation of their findings and recommendations to a city water bureau.

After these two comments, Dr. Block said of my ideas that they represented an “anything goes” view to education.

Yesterday, a fine colleague in independent school leadership, Peter Gow, noted a similar concern about the negative perception of 21st century education in a tweet yesterday: “Why do people confuse 60s-70s free schools and open classrooms with both classical 20s progressive education and 21st-century learning?”

21st century education is not about free schools or open classrooms, and it is certainly not an “anything goes” educational philosophy.   We absolutely intend it to be higher in rigor, not lesser, than any other approach.  (more…)

“Every test you’ve ever taken measured how well you understood the past not how well you create the future.”  Let’s make sure we change the tests, if we want to change the skills our testing measures.

(And, btw, I think the CWRA does test how well you create the future, and we are the first high school in Arizona to implement the CWRA, and hence, to test our students’ skills at creating the future.)

(hat-tip to education innovation)

When we marked Ted Kennedy’s passing recently, we called him the “Lion of the Senate;” it is hard now not to see parallels in the loss of another 77 year old Ted, a similarly great man who deserves to be viewed himself as a Lion of Educational Reform.

It is hard to be succinct about Theodore “Ted” Sizer’s accomplishments and contributions, but among many other things he was the Headmaster of Phillips (Andover) Academy, the Dean of the Education School at Harvard, the Chair of the Education Department at Brown, and most importantly, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Sizer wrote many books, including the incredibly influential “Horace” trilogy, and the wonderfully named The Students are Watching.  Let’s never forget that indeed, the students are watching everything we do, and ultimately we are accountable to them; borrowing from Sizer, it is cannot be forgotten that though we may feel in the short run accountable to parents, and accountable to testing, there is no doubt in the long run it is the students who will judge our results, our impact, our legacy.

Six Sizer books sit on my shelves; Horace’s School was the first book I reviewed for publication in 1992, and thus launched my educational writing sideline which this blog now perpetuates.  When I first studied education closely, as a graduate student in divinity school, Horace’s Compromise was the singularly defining influence upon my emerging educational philosophy.   Sizer’s legacy may equal that of John Dewey in the influence he has had, and will have, over education; the content of this legacy is best captured in the ten common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. I have pasted the principles into the body of this post at bottom.

The beauty of the Sizerian principles for me is the way they bridge two disparate slices or sectors of quality education. (more…)

Suzie Boss, always great, offered last week on Eduotopia her takeaways from the Harvard Business Review piece on “How Innovators Think.”   (I published my inferences here two weeks ago).

Her summary is better than mine, and I hope it is OK to re-publish here her three “nuggets:”

  • Make connections. Creative thinkers work across disciplines and “make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas,” according to Jeff Dyer, business professor at Brigham Young University. The “Aha!” moment often occurs when ideas connect in new or unexpected ways.
  • Never stop questioning. Good thinkers never stop asking questions. Inquisitiveness is the common denominator of innovative entrepreneurs, concludes Hal Gregorson, of INSEAD, an international business school. Yet school tends to value getting the right answer. This “drums the curiosity out,” he cautions, making many students — and, eventually, adults — reluctant to ask provocative questions.
  • Learn from failure. One of the hallmarks of expert problem solvers is known as rapid iteration. This term refers to learning from each attempt at solving a challenge and incorporating what worked into the next prototype. What doesn’t work on one try becomes a rich learning opportunity — and the platform for future success.
  • St. Gregory has chosen, under my new leadership, to embrace creating innovators as central to our mission and 21st century vision, and we appreciate  Thomas Friedman’s  inspiration.   Friedman returns to this theme today in the Times, in a column called “The New Untouchables.”

    Who are they, the “new untouchables?”  They are the ones who keep their jobs in the recession;  the ones who “have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained.”

    The new economy is ever more challenging, and global competition will never diminish, but “those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive.” (more…)

    The other very valuable piece in the current ISM Ideas and Perspectives is their report on the ideal student schedule for 21st century learning.   ISM offers this advice:

    1. Recognize that today’s students are different.
    2. Understand that we must teach for depth, not breadth.
    3. Prepare students for a knowledge, not industrial or service economy.
    4. Students do not have a short attention span, teachers must engage them, however, to sustain their interest.
    5. The practical outcome of these assertions is that teachers must teach in longer periods. We are now recommending that upper and middle schools move to class periods of a minimum on 75 minutes.

    This is a topic on which I am passionate.  One of St. Gregory’s great appeals to me as I looked at schools all over the country was that it has such a healthy, 21st century school schedule, with four block periods a day of 75 minutes (exactly as called for!).   When, last fall, I visited 21 high schools, spending at each an entire day shadowing students, I perceived the difference between traditional, 7 45 minute period blocks, and 4, 75 minutes blocks, was huge.    Longer blocks meant more active learning, more time for reflection and synthesis, more time for participation and problem-solving, more time for thinking.   Shorter periods felt choppy and inconsistent and rushed.    ISM is right: 21st century education demands longer teaching blocks, and 75 minutes fits a school day and a learning program quite well.

    Good to read this month’s ISM Ideas and Perspectives and find two very affirming articles.   The first, on faculty professional development,  takes the front page, and the take-away here is that student performance improves significantly when teachers participate in “peer-induced learning”  and when teachers are surrounded by more effective colleagues.     In other words, the most effective professional development is not externally driven (attending conferences/workshops/grad school, or receiving wisdom from external trainers), but when it is internally driven, peer-to-peer.    “These findings illuminate two specific learning methods by which faculty cultures are enhanced.  Specifically, as noted, teachers may learn directly from their peers, and/or teachers may be influenced to acquire stronger work-related skills as a result of interaction with teaching role models within their faculty.”     (more…)

    Washington-Lee High School's Stephanie Nichols teaches Bazin Amaha, 14, and other students. "Math is not a set of rules to memorize. It is problem-solving," she said.Washington Post wrote yesterday about new NCTM principles “emphasizing that “reasoning” and “sense-making” should be at the center of all lessons.”     This is great to see; the argument here on this site is that we need to emphasize these things all the way across the curriculum.

    The council “says a fresh emphasis on the goal is necessary after a half-decade of high-stakes testing has taken spontaneity from many math discussions. Multiple choice tests leave little room for expansive thought.”

    Engagement is a constant theme here, and the concern is that much of mathematics instruction, abstracted from any linkage to the real world and devoid of any relevance,  creates too great a distance for students. particularly in middle and high school:   “teenagers are more autonomous thinkers… Younger students are more willing to work at something because they are told to; teens need a reason to care. They need to be engaged.” (more…)

    In a previous post, I mildly criticized my new blogosphere friend Yong Zhao for his comments in an on-line video touting elementary talent shows as a good example of American education’s excellence in educating for talent diversity.    Here now I want to say that Dr. Zhao’s treatment of this is much better in his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way.

    The chapter is called Why American Hasn’t Lost Yet, and the subject is what Zhao labels “talent diversity.”    He cites Richard Florida and Amy Chua  on “the increasing importance of talent diversity for national development.”

    How does talent diversity work in relationship to a country’s prosperity?  First, different talents complement each other…. For war, you need some who are good at planning, some good at commanding, some good at information gathering… Second, talent diversity breeds innovation and encourages innovators.  Different talents bring different and often fresh perspectives…. Third, talent diversity prepares society for change… To cope with major changes, a society needs a diverse pool of talent to continually lead new development and work in new industries. (more…)

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