Kudos and congratulations to the EdLeader21 team for another great day and a very successful launch to their national conferencing.   I am feeling very appreciative and delighted to have been welcomed to and included in this group, and it is an honor and a privilege to have the chance to participate alongside these impressive educators in the common cause of 21st century learning.

Thirteen thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Throughout the day there was an important emphasis on the role of the broader community in the work of planning our educational future.   Constituencies have to be engaged, and really included in the process of setting on a course of becoming a 21st century school. In Ken’s presentation on Seven Steps for Becoming a 21st Century District, he emphasized this, and it is Step number 2: it is essential, he said, to do this before steps 3-7.    He also placed limits on the role of the public: they are essential to defining the student outcomes, but let’s be clear: we develop consensus with public constituencies on the what, but not the how.   The public, he emphasized does not or should not play a role in specific curriculum or pedagogy.

The importance of the public communication also came up in a table conversation, when Bob Pearlman underscored it as a core component of a 21st century school.   The vision, the plan, the agenda should be clearly and well communicated on the websites, outward and inward facing, and school-leaders should be strong public and online communicators to their constituencies.

An example of this kind of public communication as part of community building and constituency support development was this video shared on Tuesday in the Ignite sessions and comes from the Albemarle County School District (VA) and its fine superintendent, Pam Moran (who sadly we missed seeing at the conference).

2. Interesting Resources Discovered or Highlighted. 

3.  The Above and Beyond Video.  Ken screened this in his session, and recommended it as a very lovely way to share some of the inspiring principles of 21st century skills in practice with some of your “softer” audiences and events.

4. Networking and colleague-ship was meaningful and rewarding.   To my observation, and to my surprise, the camraderie developed more swiftly and more fulfillingly than I have seen in other experiences.  I think this is because, in part, of a sense of struggle and common cause, and a sense of pride to be in a movement that is a vanguard, seeking  a change that we believe will dramatically improve the educational experience and preparation for our students.   It is hard to list names when I know I will leave some names out, but here goes anyway: some of the many individuals I was very glad to get to know, or get to know better, included Jared Cotton from Virginia Beach, Sara Wilkie from Birmingham, MI; Ann Koufman from Newton MA, Chris Thinnes from LA, Bob Lenz from Envision Schools, Paul Curtis from New Tech Network, Tom Scarice from Weston CT, Mike Hibbard from North Salem NY, and Bob Pearlman from Tucson.  (And many others!)

5. The new, forthcoming, PISA Based Testing for Schools program. I have sought for several years the opportunity to administer PISA testing to my St. Gregory students, because the questions are so well written and the cognition being assessed is far more meaningful to our students than what is tested in most other standardized testing: the PISA requires much higher levels of analysis and applied problem-solving than, say, the SAT.  It is a test worth teaching to, as Tony Wagner often has said.  Until now, it has been essentially unavailable to individual schools or districts.

But it is coming soon.   Our guest presenter who flew in from Paris just for this meeting, an OECD-PISA official named Alejandro Gomez, was terrific in sharing with us the new developments, advantages, and the reporting formats.  An important distinction: the PISA based test for schools is not the PISA test itself, and shouldn’t be confused (though it will be), but it is administered in an analogous way and uses the same testing principles as the PISA itself.   Results, too, will correlate, so schools can compare, up to a point, their student results with the international rankings, though OECD-PISA is trying to ward off very close and exact comparisons, because it believes that the statistical significance will be limited and so wants to avoid too specific and tight a comparison table. 

I am very eager to continue to learn more about PISA based learning  for Schools, and to examine and advocate for its use more widely: watch this space for future reporting.   

6.  That said, I am concerned about an aspect of assessment that was under-appreciated in these conversations. 

I believe and fear that we are not attending enough to the issue of student motivation for test-taking.   We believe that these new, next generation assessments are far higher caliber than their predecessors, and offer far more important information, and that they ought to be more interesting and meaningful for our students than conventional, now antiquated, bubble tests.  But that we think this doesn’t mean our students will follow suit– and if they aren’t motivated to do the best they can in the test-taking environment we put them in, the results will not be indicative of our schools’ successes, and the significance of testing quickly is lost.  The image is from Jared Cotton’s presentation. 

7.  The dog that didn’t bark. The biggest surprise to me about the conference was what wasn’t much discussed here, technology.   There was very little discussion or advocacy or excitement represented here, to my observation, about advancing the use of digital tools in our schools.   Ironic, of course, because to so many casual observers, the strong perception of what “21st century learning” means is technologically centered-learning.   Ironic too, because Partnership for 21st century skills, from which this group evolved, was accused of being overly influenced by technology companies in its educational agenda.   But not here.   Occasionally there was reference to using technology to improve assessment, and in my own Ignite and breakout session the topic was the use of online video content delivery, but really, over two days I rarely heard the words “laptop,” “Smart-board,” “mobile devices,” “smart phones,” “Web 2.0,” “student blogging,” “digital video,” or any of the other highly important digital tools and concepts integral to 21st century learning, by my lights.  There was also very little technology used in the program itself.   I am not really trying to complain; the content addressed was rich and valuable, and I wasn’t upset there wasn’t more of tech-savvy programming.   But I would suggest that in future sessions it might play a somewhat larger role.

8. Bingo Fun. Kudos to Edleader21 for the amusing game of 21st century education bingo employed today.   It was nice to be able to be a bit self-deprecating about the fact that we do have our jargon and buzz-words in this particular field, and for this Tucson resident it was neat to see the Tucson-based Edleader21 team use some local vocabulary to spice up the Bingo (javelina).

9. Defining the 21st century school district.  One of the most interesting conversation revolved around the concept that our organization might establish guidelines or criteria for defining true “21st century districts.”  This isn’t an easy issue: it might be easy for us all to become too narrowly focused on defining standards that are, in the end, only particularly meaningful for ourselves: if the wider world isn’t especially interested in or excited about the term or concept, 21st century school, it might not ultimately accomplish much for us to establish it is as a laudatory benchmark.

The “21st century” construct is a bit problematic, as we all are well aware.  It is funny to be making this remark on this particular blog, which is after all entitled 21k12, celebrating 21st century learning in K-12 education.   But despite having chosen this term as a framing device for my blog, it is increasingly clear to me all the time the limitations of the term.  Every school on the planet at present is, after all, a 21st century school, for better or for worse.  Furthermore,  11 years after the turn of the century, the term doesn’t continue to be a forward-looking term, sadly.

One participant did raise this issue in the discussion, and offered as a potential alternative “deeper learning.”  It is a start, but I am not sure it can go a long way.  I am finding myself using two other alternatives more and more frequently. Innovative education is the first, trying to capture the idea that our work in these fast-changing times is to realign learning with the ongoing arrival of new information tools and different societal demands of our graduates. Second is “school(ing) of the future,”  the term used most frequently in my national association, NAIS, National Association of Independent Schools, which carries with it such strong forward-looking and responsive to the changing times connotations.

Whatever our term, there was strong consensus in the room we should have agreed upon criteria for self-assessment opportunities.   One of my table participants emphasized that organizations and institutions greatly benefit from using agreed upon benchmarks for establishing where they are on their journey in order to motivate themselves and find direction and prioritization of where to go next.

The room was, appropriately, more divided about whether to use these criteria for formal certification of schools.  Accreditation is onerous, and sometimes too paper-intensive, and we might be disserving ourselves mightily to overlay yet another bureaucratic burden.   Other voices argued however that if the criteria exist, why deprive districts which wish to take on the experience of certification from doing so, particularly if it serves the district’s political/marketing needs and serves the greater cause of establishing certified examples of excellent practice in this area.

Two middle-way ideas emerged.   One was to promote district alliances with opportunities for district members to visit each other as “critical friends,” offering feedback and gap analyses without formal certification.  Ken took us in another direction, with the idea that we could create annually perhaps 2-4 categories of 21st century education, such as use of assessment or strategic planning or professional learning communities and districts could submit applications to be considered as candidates for being deemed exemplary districts in this particular category.   Very interesting, these middle paths, with a lot of potential I think.

10. Evangelizing edLeader21.  Ken took some time at lunch to ask us to support the project by evangelizing to our friends and colleagues who share an interest in 21st century learning.   There is a stated concern that with growth comes trade-offs; we don’t want to become too big or impersonal, but I think this concern is a bit overstated—there is still quite a lot of room to grow without becoming unwieldy.    The EdLeader21 team needs and deserves the financial support growth will bring it, and, more importantly, as Ken himself argued, we will bring far more momentum to our cause, and this is a movement of sorts, if we enlarge and grow toward some possible “tipping point.”  Our students deserve no less of us than to carry the project upwards and outwards.

11. The gurus.  As I listened over the course of two days, it was increasingly clear as certain people were referred to again and again that there is a distinct set of especially influential thinkers and leaders in our field.   To my ears, and I kept them attuned, those names are Tony Wagner, Daniel Pink, Andreas Schleicher, David Conley, and Ken Kay.   Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, authors of the 21st century Skills book, deserve honorable mention for having been seen in a few different slide shows,  and when you consider how very frequently CWRA was made reference to, its founder and patron saint, Dick Hersh deserves also an honorable mention, though his name itself wasn’t heard frequently.

It is a bit unfortunate that the list above seems to be exclusively white and male, though I should note that Ken did announce upcoming webinars with the terrific  Yong Zhao and Linda Darling-Hammond, and that Sal Khan is also gaining ground and was referred to with some regularity during these two days (Khan is also featured on the homepage of edutopia this week).  Who would I suggest should be not overlooked?  I never heard Karen Cator’s name come up, but she deserves attention and recognition.  Anya Kamentz, Cathy Davidson, Teresa Amabile, Milton Chen, and Jane McGonigle could also join these ranks soon, or should have already, perhaps.   Consider using the comment box on this post: who are the gurus who we should consider as similarly important and inspirational to our work as the names in the previous paragraph? Let’s start the 21st century education hall of fame.

12. Flipped Teaching/ Reverse Instruction.  It was great to have about 20 participants attend our Flipped Teaching (or Reverse Instruction) break-out session, and it was an honor to be asked to facilitate it.   (I was a bit sorry to have to miss the PISA assessment session, but you can’t have it all).    Our group was engaged and had very good stories to share of innovative teaching happening in their own schools.   As the conversation unfolded, the largest concern was, entirely understandably and importantly, equity and access: it doesn’t work to offer instruction via online video if some students lack the technology and broadband access to view online video.   We discussed some of the creative or intensive efforts some schools/districts are making to provide students technology and access.    A second concern raised had to do with whether parents would be disappointed if they perceived flipping to reduce the rigor of homework and to diminish the role of the teacher as instructional deliverer in the classroom, but other participants responded with their perception that parents are delighted to have a shift in the nature of homework and are delighted to have teachers act more as instructional coaches in active classrooms.   The third main topic of our discussion addressed more largely the way education is being and is rapidly increasingly being influenced by the widespread availability of online learning, and how we have to keep thinking very carefully about how bricks and mortar education must evolve to meet the needs who can have so much learning available to them elsewhere.

As a break-out group, we had three suggestions to the Edleader21 team.

  • 1. Please keep a close eye on this developing phenomenon, and update us regularly on new developments.
  • 2. Plan one or several webinars with experts on the topic, including Eric Mazur of Harvard and Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams of the Flipped Classroom Network.
  • 3. Consider preparing a white paper or compendium of best practices or successful strategies in how districts are overcoming the digital divides in their school populations.

In the session I shared this slide show (not mine!) about Flipped Teaching, which is the product of and available at Knewton.com.  If you are interested, be sure to browse the slides: the last few slides include research evidence on its effectiveness and a good set of sources for more information.


13.  I appreciated that rather than emailing out an event survey form in the next few days and then nagging us continuously to complete it, the team here used instead a post-it approach in the last hour of our meetings, having us take a few minutes to identify Hits, Misses, and Suggestions.    Close readers of the above can find many from me, but here I will reiterate a few.  Hits included the success of the colleague-ship networking goal, the importance placed on and information provided for doing the hard work of developing and implementing effectively appropriate assessments, and the participant centered PLC elements, such as the Ignite session and the participant suggested breakout sessions.   Misses?   “Reporting out,” in general and in particular after the 21st century district criteria conversation, was a dud– and is a format that just doesn’t work very well, whether in meetings, conferences, or classrooms.   Suggestions: more attention to the digital revolution and the issues of Disrupting Class; more use of technology in the event itself; even more attention to networking using speed-dating style formats, perhaps, or other types of breakouts and affiliation developing tactics.

But all in all, this was a great launch to a terrific and important new organization, and I was very glad to have attended and I am very pleased to be a member.   Thank you all who made it possible.