August 2013

nrc report coverI made reference to this excellent National Research Council report just last week, explaining how I drew upon it for my “explorations of the 21st century learning landscape” presentation.  But that was just a glancing reference to it, really; now, in a short series of posts over the next few days, I want to pull out and share some key pieces of this report.

As valuable as this 204 page report it, it is not entirely easy reading, and surely some who are reading this are not likely to get to it anytime soon.   Its value is multi-faceted; first, because of its comprehensively broad survey of the educational priorities and methods required for successfully preparing students for the coming decades, and second, because its imprimatur from the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, makes it impossible to dismiss as the wild-eyed ideas of a partisan progressive radical.

Among its priorities are establishing the critical competencies– defining them by citing a 2005 OECD PISA report, which defines competencies as being

…more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilizing psychosocial resources (including skills and attitudes) in a particular context.

This report reviews the many which came before it, citing one which reviewed 59 in total, finding that the most commonly cited 21st century skills were “collaboration, communication, information and communications technology (ICT) literacy, and social or cultural competencies.”

Taking a slight tangent, the authors here very usefully surface a never-ending issue around the identification, listing and taxonomy of such 21st century skills: how do we separate these out from each other, when so many overlap so greatly.   They call this the Jangle fallacy— a term previously unfamiliar to me but which I’m so glad to have in my vocabulary.  It is when “investigators sometimes used different measures—with different names–to study a single psychological construct or competency.”  Examples abound, such as collaboration and teamwork, or flexibility and adaptability: are these different competencies, or are we jangling here?  The problem is more important when you get to this issue: perhaps “separate measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy were in fact focusing on a single core construct?”

Hence, the NRC report creates separate tiers for their taxonomy of the essential competencies, beginning with a big three set of bubble which are certainly distinguishable, dropping down to a second tier of critical components of each of the big three bubbles, and then sprinkling the bubbles with a dozen or more individual terms which are increasingly hard to distinguish altogether.

NRC report bubbles

If you’re curious about which of the many non-cog competencies is singularly most important, by their research, here is your answer:

Among intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, conscientiousness (a tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking) is most highly correlated with desirable outcomes in education and the workplace. Anti-social behavior, which has both intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions, is negatively correlated with these outcomes.

Hardly surprising–and not too terribly illuminating, because in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to easy to teach or develop directly.  (But see the Chicago report, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners” for more guidance on this.

So what is the point of educating for these competencies, anyway?  Why are they so important, if we are educating for life and work?

The committee views the broad call for  “21st century skills” as reflecting a long-standing issue in education and training – the desire that individuals develop transferable knowledge and skills.

Associated with this is the challenge of creating learning environments that support development of the cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies that enable learners to transfer what they have learned to new situations and new problems. These competencies include both knowledge in a domain and knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems—integrated forms of knowledge that we refer to as “21st century competencies” and discuss further below.

Now, if our students will have little need to “transfer what they have learned to new situations and new problems,” then there is no need to develop these capacities.   But, as we know, routine work is no longer routine.

work routines

So for nonroutine work, these competencies are more essential.  (more…)

There are two axes on which we can map and evaluate the excellence of a standardized test, or in other words,  external measurement of learning outcomes.   The first axis is does it measure what matters: does the work it requires students to do, the learning it requires students demonstrate, matter to successful citizenship and professional accomplishment?   Does it assess not content measurement but application of knowledge to original, complex problems; does it assess students’s ability to do that most important of things, TRANSFER?

The second axis is what is done with the results of the test?  Are the results used to punish schools, teachers, kids?  Are the results published in ways which rank kids, or rank teachers– even in the newspaper?  In a neutral position on this axis is the null effect: are the results provided to educators, without repercussions or rewards, but also without great guidance, insights, analysis, comparisons, examples?    Or, at the high end of this axis,  are the results used as and for compelling and creative information, illumination, and inspiration to improve learning for ALL students?

Map your favorite– or least favorite– tests on these axes– and then watch Andreas Schleicher in the TED talk above discuss the PISA test and map PISA.

(Full disclosure, I’m no longer, as of about a month ago, a neutral or objective commentator on this topic, having taken on an engagement for a PISA related project.   But, I was thrilled to seek and accept the engagement because of my passion for the power of PISA.)

Tony Wagner  was one of my influences here, particularly as he argued for the value of PISA, particularly what it measures, in a postscript to his film, the Finland Phenomenon.

“The PISA tests measure different things from TIMMS, which measures factual recall of memorized content knowledge.   This is a test asking you to apply knowledge to a new question or problem you’ve never seen before.”

Wagner interviews Roger Bybee, Ph.D., who explains that

“TIMMS and NAEP are similar in that they both are curriculum based, seeing what the standard curriculum contains and designing an assessment to see how well students have attained what is in curriculum.  PISA is an assessment that takes a literacy approach– not just the content one learns from the curriculum but how well you can apply that content in life situations in everyday use of the knowledge and the abilities one has.

About measuring what matters, Schleicher has a funny line:

So with PISA, we try to change this by measuring the knowledge and skills of people directly. And we took a very special angle to this. We were less interested in whether students can simply reproduce what they have learned in school, but we wanted to test whether they can extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge in novel situations. 

Now, some people have criticized us for this. They say, you know, such a way of measuring outcomes is terribly unfair to people, because we test students with problems they haven’t seen before

But if you take that logic, you know, you should consider life unfair, because the test of truth in life is not whether we can remember what we learned in school, but whether we are prepared for change, whether we are prepared for jobs that haven’t been created, to use technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve problems we just can’t anticipate today.

The bulk of the talk is dedicated to what I described above as the second axis: what do we do with these results?  OECD and PISA have dedicated 15 years to making sense of international testing results and comparisons– and it is a treasure trove. (more…)

I greatly enjoyed a lovely morning here in Santa Barbara today presenting to the Cate school faculty on a topic of their choosing, touring the 21st century learning landscape with an emphasis on the skills, competencies, habits and attitudes which are most being emphasized in learning today.Cate_School_Logo

After an entertaining launch to our morning with the Marshmallow Challenge, we discussed the importance of collaboration and iteration in the 21st century learning, with a suggestion that PBL is the best way to support these elements.   Keying off of the TED talk about the Marshmallow Challenge, we also asked the question how we help our students act more like Kindergartners– prototyping and iterating– than MBA students, searching for the one perfect solution.

We then transitioned to a review of the the 21st century skills landscape, and drew heavily on the excellent National Research Council Report, Education for Life and Work.    (I’ve embedded this magnificent free, 200 page resource at the bottom of this post.   It is not an easy or quick read, but it is a very worthwhile study.)

That work features a tripartite construct, comprehensively communicating what we need to support the learning and development of the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal qualities in each student.  Below is the graphic with the key two or three elements the report emphasizes for each of the three major categories.

NRC report bubbles

Onto the tripartite structure I mapped the Cate’s 5 Educational Principles– Knowledge, Communication, Curiosity, Determination and Compassion– and my “top ten” list of key 21st century skills and habits of mind and character: the 4 Cs; play, iteration, and experimentation; 2 essential intrapersonal elements, grit and the growth mindset; and the four critical components of the internet era: connected learning, attention and self-regulation, information literacy, and positive digital citizenship.   You can see this all mapped out in the overly crowded slide (!) below, with Cate’s 5 elements in red, my set in black, set atop the NRC tripartite bubbles.

21st century learning landscape

Each of these areas we explored in varying depth, taking an extended pause in which participants were provided and actually asked to undertake/solve and discuss four pertinent self-assessment and test questions:  Duckworth’s grit survey, a Growth mindset survey; a sample CWRA question; and sample PISA questions.

Below are the videos we used in the program.  My thanks go to everyone at Cate, including my main contact Jay Dorion, Assistant Headmaster, and Ben Williams IV, Headmaster of Cate.


Love this video from John Seely Brown about embracing change and the secrets to 21st c. learning.    It is very worthwhile, and could be very valuable for sharing with educators and inspiring conversation about its implications.

Two main messages predominate, the same two featured in his wonderful book, A New Culture of Learning.

1.  Developing mastery is an iterative process, of playing, messing around, experimenting, assessing progress and adjusting all along the way.  Brown shares this in his case study of surfers– experimenting, observing, reflecting, improving.

“Tinkering brings thought and action together in some very magical and powerful ways.” 

2.  The network is alive with the ability to support learning.   Any passion a kid has can be supported by joining a network, a community of practice,  of those who share your passion.  Most learning happens when we indwell in a community and network of shared passion.   “Maybe the learning has to do with learning how to join. Learning is something you do consciously but something you absorb, after joining the community of practice.”

Now through digital media is enhancing the ability of surfers to share their innovations and, within 48 hours, surfers around the world are aware these developments and then building on them in turn.   But not just surfers– you can find this in every field of human endeavor.

This part of Brown’s discussion is very much aligned with one of my very favorite TED talks in the past few years, Chris Anderson’s talk on Crowd Accelerated Innovation. 

Fast-changing times demand we keep learning all the time, and by our ability and willingness to tinker and the power of networks, we can do so better and better.

oecd pisaThe country reports made the point that, in many Asian countries, classes are much larger than in the United States and teachers typically use whole-group instruction through the entire class period. They also pointed out that, in these countries, one sees little lecturing by the teacher.

Instead, the teacher gives real-world problems to the whole class and, having observed the students attempting to solve those problems, asks several to come to the blackboard to talk about their approaches to the problem, knowing that some of those students have made errors in the strategy they have selected for solving the problem.

As described in the country reports for Japan and Shanghai-China, the teacher uses these differences in strategy to develop a class discussion that focuses on the underlying concepts involved in problem-solving, and thereby promotes a deep understanding of the topic under discussion among both the quickest and the slowest students in the class. Nothing could so vividly demonstrate the point that instructional practice matters.

lessons-from-pisa-for-the-united-states_9789264096660-enAsian teachers often complain about class sizes getting too small to find a useful range of student solutions to a problem in order to conduct a good class, instead of complaining that the class is too large to teach effectively, as in the United States.

[Strong Perfomers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States, p 241]

PISA has been a fascination of mine for the past few years; like many other educations committed to educational innovation and learning from best practices, I was intrigued by the success of Finland in the 2009 PISA administration, and the value of PISA testing was affirmed for me by my friend and mentor Tony Wagner in his video about the Finland Phenomenon.  (I most recently wrote about PISA testing in April: PISA-OECD Test: Using Results to Improve Learning in Fairfax County)

OECD, which manages the PISA test, generates a terrific stream of quality monographs about what can be inferred from PISA testing; the quote at top is just one such example of many– and I intend to share more in the months to come.   I’m deeply committed, as regular readers may know, to the idea that problems should come first and that “inverting” the familiar/traditional dynamic of teaching content first, presenting problems second, is the truly compelling”FLIP” teaching.   This concept is well explained in Ted McCain’s Teaching for Tomorrow:

we need to invert the conventional classroom dynamic: instead of teaching information and content first, and then asking students to answer questions about it second, we should put the question/ problem first, and then facilitate students with information and guidance as they seek the answer and hold them accountable for the excellence of their solutions and of their presentation of their results”

As we can learn from PISA, this methodology is widely deployed in those (particular) Asian educational programs which demonstrate strong success at the PISA testing– and for the many of us who tend to favor smaller classes, isn’t it fascinating to see the logic employed by Asian teachers to prefer larger classes?

edleader21Learning from PISA will be one of my major projects for the next six months or so: I’m delighted to share here news that I recently signed on with my friends at EdLeader21 for a contract engagement with them to write this fall and winter, in conjunction with Edleader21’s Chief Learning Officer Valerie Greenhill, a guide with the working title  OECD TEST FOR SCHOOLS (BASED ON PISA): An IMPLEMENTATION TOOLKIT.   (EdLeader21 is headed up by Ken Kay, founder and former long-time President of the Partnership for 21st century Skills).

This project, which has funding support from the Hewlett Foundation Deeper Learning program, will include articulating the alignment of the PISA/OECD test for schools with 21st century skills and learning outcomes, sharing case studies of how districts and schools are using the OECD test for schools based on PISA results to improve learning for their students, and capturing a set of best practice strategies for implementing the testing program and applying its reports effectively.

As Valerie Greenhill has written about the EdLeader21 work with PISA/OECD test for schools,

EdLeader21 has played a unique role throughout the establishment of the OECD Test for Schools. As members of the advisory board, we have represented the voices of district and school leaders around issues of implementation. We have continually stressed the need for resources and energy to be applied to what we see as the most important part of this project: What happens AFTER school leaders receive their results.

The OECD Test for Schools result report is lengthy and quite complex. For the results to translate into meaningful changes that improve student outcomes, school and district leaders will need targeted advice for implementation. The Implementation Toolkit will contain such practical guidance for education leaders who have received their results

Wish me luck in this in this initiative, and please offer me your thoughts on valuable PISA testing resources and on best using PISA and other test results for improving student learning and 21st century college, career, and life preparation.


Enjoyed enormously participating Thursday at the second annual Education in a Changing World conference at Montevista Christian School in Watsonville, CA, near Santa Cruz.  Sir  Ken Robinson and Alan November headlined, and I was glad to join new friend Aaron Sams (co-author of Flip Your Classroom) and others as featured presenters.  My thanks go to Headmaster Stephen Sharp for the invitation and warm welcome.

I did two sessions on PBL: Why, What and How, and one on Digital Citizenship: Fighting Fire with Fire.

This first set of slides on PBL draws in part on great resources from, High Tech High,  and www,pbl-online,org,  It lays out my case for PBL for a wide array of reasons, most of all because there is no better strategy we have to support our students in developing the skills and mindsets for becoming life-long learners.

We also took a short section to discuss the difficult tension within this PBL model between teacher directed and standards (or defined knowledge outcomes) PBL and student-directed, individual passion pursuing PBL: a tension every teacher should recognize, own, and confront in his or her curricular development.

Regarding Digital Citizenship, my argument was a fight fire with fire argument.   There is no better way to overcome and fight back against nasty and problematic digital citizenship than with positive and pro-active digital citizenship,  In this presentation I share multiple examples of inspirational digital citizenship by youth, make my argument with examples, such as the exemplary Dan Savage program “It Gets Better” and with a reference to the excellent Harvard Berkman Center report by danah boyd and John Palfrey, “What you must know about to combat youth bullying. 

I then, , offered four strategies to develop positive digital citizenship in our schools: renewing and revising our RUPs to become Bills of Rights and Reponsibilities for digital participation,  Modeling it by Educators, Establishing the Norms and Expectations with curricula, including an awesome PBL DIgCit curriculum from Greenwhich, CT, and finally, practicing good habits in our classrooms with recommendations around specific key literacies drawing on Rheingold’s Net Smart.