Good afternoon—thank you for welcoming me; it is great to be joining you all in ISAS.

Rhonda’s agenda explains that Mark and I are here because we are both passionate about 21st c. ed—let me tell you about how I came to be so passionate.

About 16 months ago, I found myself confronting a funny year in my life, a year with a salary but without a job.  So I was looking for something to do.  I had read the book that is now a movie, the Julie-Julia project, and so I thought for a moment about spending the year cooking my way through Julia Child.  But I ruled that out after beef wellington.   Instead, I decided upon a different kind of blog project.

I was very interested in the conversation about 21st century skills, something for which Dan Pink’s book first ignited my interest.   But I didn’t just want to look at skills: I wanted to look at how kids are learning today and about what’s working in schools at the kids’ level.   Like Tony Wagner explains in Global Achievement Gap, a book which greatly informed my project, what happens in the classroom is most important.   I also remembered Michael Thompson in Pressured Child—where he explains that to know about learning at a school , you need to shadow a student.

So I did it: like Julie Powell,  I set up a blog and created a little bit of a stunt,  I visited 21 high schools, and at each, I spent a full school-day shadowing a student and live-blogging my observations about what was happening in classrooms and what I thought was working in those classrooms.  Incredibly, most (but not all) of the schools I contacted welcomed me.

What I am here today to tell you, to bear witness to,  is that I came to recognize from my visits that the schools I visited fell into two, very different categories—different in the way they felt, emotionally and experientially, for me as a shadow student for a day, and different in the quality of learning I observed to be happening.  I should say the 21 schools do fall across a spectrum, a wide spectrum, but the spectrum nonetheless is clearly divided in two, and I want to underscore this—they were REALLY different.

In the six schools I found to be truly 21st century schools,

  • the  classroom experience was  dynamic, active, engaging, energizing, rather than static and enervating;
  • the experience of being a student was much less about following directions, and more about taking initiative,
    • less about absorbing someone else’s information and more about generating new information,
    • less about fulfilling the task, duty or role of being a student, and more about acting in the role of investigator, creator, publisher.

Let me name the six schools I am saying are 21st century schools.  I spent two days at High Tech High in San Diego, the school which Tony Wagner gives the most attention to in his book; I also visited two other outstanding charter schools, New Technology High School in Sacramento, which I think is the most interesting school; and the Center for Advanced Research & Technology, or CART, in Fresno.  As for independent schools, I would name three out of the fifteen I visited as outstanding twentyfirst century schools: Urban School and Bay School in San Francisco, and Redwood Day School in Oakland

How were these 21st c. schools different from the others, which I will call 20th c. schools?  This is something I have written about at length on my blog, and I have only a few minutes here, but let me share with you a few of the ways they were different:

  1. Real-world relevance:  At the 21st century schools, there was a constant connection to real-world concerns; these connections were embedded in math problems, in science labs, in history discussion.  High Tech High, especially, kept a consistent focus on students doing project based learning which frequently brought students out to the real world and tackling real issues.
  2. Problem based learning:  I had long heard about PBL as project based learning, which I like, but I am a new and zealous convert to the other PBL—problem learning.  For some of these schools, every class period begins with tackling a problem;  for NTHS, it means that entire units of study, several weeks in length, in every curriculum area, are consistently introduced with a carefully designed complex problem to tackle.   In the 20th c. schools, students first learned content, first acquired information, first and then only at the end of the lesson or unit were they asked to apply it to a problem; in 21st c. schools, this is powerfully inverted.
  3. Time, time for processing, for experimenting, for discussing, for doing learning.  At 21st century schools I visited, there was universally a block scheduling with minimum 70 minute periods, but this was rare at the other schools.   I can’t say enough about what a big difference this creates for the experience as a learner— it was so sharply different having class-time really available for processing, for practicing, for trying new things, for asking questions, for doing projects.  I will add that a very recent issue of ISM’s Ideas & Perspectives makes this exact point.
  4. Professionalism. I realize this may be the most nebulous of my categories, but what I sensed among the students at 21st century high schools was they viewed themselves in a different light—not sharply, it was subtle, but nevertheless, it seemed different in the way they saw themselves as young professionals preparing for a career and participating in a learning team.  AT CART, in Fresno, the students in the biomedicine lab wore scrubs; the students in the law and economics workshop wore suits.  This may have been the most extreme example, and there were exceptions to this one, but I think it is really interesting to see what we can do to shift the sociology of schools towards a culture like Ted Sizer describes, of students as workers, or of students as young professionals.
  5. Technology Integration. This is probably the most commonly identified element of 21st century education.  Every one of the schools I am categorizing as 21st century schools had some form of 1-1 computer arrangement, usually laptops.     There are very few young professionals today who don’t work constantly with a computer as part of their daily life, and, in 21st century schools, this is also a natural part of the environment.   This is the topic I probably need to say the least about, as this is such a huge conversation right now.  But it made a big difference; at these schools, I genuinely felt that we students were actively empowered for our learning.   I should say too that I watched, carefully, for signs that computers were distracting students, and at these schools I did not see that happening.
  6. Faculty collaboration and development: One last thing about 21st century schools was that they displayed a much greater degree of teacher collaboration.  They were more likely to have team-teaching, and they had much more time allotted for teacher planning and development.   Time was structurally built into the week or even every day, and teachers took it as a serious, core element of the job.

I want to conclude by addressing the question about what is 21st century about 21st century education.  In many ways, I am happy to join the critics and agree that there is nothing very much new about this.

Many. such as Peter Gow and Diane Ravitch, see this movement as a revival of progressivism and a carrying forward of the work of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and I think that the late, great Ted Sizer has had a great influence on this.   Sizer’s emphasis on students learning skills in addition to content and his guiding metaphor of students as workers are both influential.

But I do believe that there is a genuine conceptual category which the term 21st century education captures and conveys; it deserves the label 21st c. ed. based upon the convergence many strands, as:

  • in the prominent widespread attention to the essential competencies which are rightly understood as more important than ever for success in a fast-changing world;
  • AND in the reports coming out of both brain research and pedagogical research about what works best for learning;
  • AND in the growing recognition that students today are different having grown up in such a different environment, and that we need to teach differently to better engage and motivate these different kids;
  • AND, in the pioneering and exciting work and results happening at schools like High Tech High and New Technology High School,
  • AND, finally, in the vividness, the sharp difference, I experienced visiting what were clearly two different forms of schooling–—this convergence of forces is what I say justifies our proclaiming a true, new and vital 21st century model of education.