Some classrooms just aren’t effectively facilitating student learning, this blogger observed when visiting 21 high schools last fall.  In the previous post I wrote about many of the classrooms that I admired and appreciated very much, more than thirty in all, (and I named the schools where this excellent teaching was happening).  In this entry, however, I am going to share times when I observed what I believed to be quite ineffective teaching.  Although I will not be naming the schools at which these ineffective lessons took place, I should emphasize that all comments below are based on first-hand observations of actual classrooms at the 21 very good high schools I visited.

Classrooms that Aren’t Working for 21st century Students:

  • The Too Much of  a Good Thing Classroom
  • The Distrusting Classroom
  • The Ill-Will Classroom
  • The One Student at a Time Classroom
  • The Uninterested in Motivation Classroom
  • The Trying his Hardest but Unprepared and Unsupported Teacher Classroom
  • The Teacher-Centric Classroom
For each, after the jump, I explain a bit more what I mean, and give examples of these practices in action, (scrubbed of any association with the particular schools).   More

logo1-transparentbg-13In the fall of 2008,  I set out to learn what qualities could be observed to be most effective for student learning in 21st century high school classrooms.   At each of the twentyone 21st century high schools I visited and shadowed students for a full day,  I tried to  gauge whether what I saw happening was “working” for kids and their learning. (Follow the link to the schools to find the larely unedited (!) raw narratives of my observations at each school.)

I tested my observations against the roughly fifty books I have recently read on best practice, and I tested it against my own gut: Were kids genuinely engaged, and were they doing the work of learning in ways that would advance their understanding and their skills?  I also asked myself whether I would benefit from and grow intellectually in these classrooms.  How did I feel?  Was I learning?

From my observations in more than 100 classrooms,this is what I learned:  Students are learning most when their classrooms are learning environments structured around Purpose, Problems, Process, Professionalism, and Product.

For each of these, the Big Five,  I have provided, after the jump,  links to my live-blog observations of the classrooms (and I name the schools!) where I saw them effectively deployed: (more…)

Abstract Brain

In the immediately previous post, I expressed my appreciation that Conley’s College Knowledge calls for the teaching of more than scientific facts: we must also ensure for college success that our high school students learn true scientific reasoning.  Today comes a study comparing Chinese and US freshman college students in their mastery of scientific facts and reasoning: whereas Chinese students are much more knowledgeable of scientific facts, both groups are equal in being not sophisticated enough in their scientific reasoning.

The lead research offers an important inference from the results:

“Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed,” Bao said. “Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both.”


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More a manual than a narrative, this book belongs on the shelf of every 21st century K-12 educator; it is an important work that provides the core  knowledge and skills for college preparation education, and calls upon us to teach kids essential twentyfirst skills– problemsolving and critical thinking and scientific reasoning– in methods that are essentially 21st century, especially in the repeated call to connect the classroom to real-world problems. 
Key takeaways include:
  1. Our high schools must be more intentional about college preparation for all students, and define a graduate profile that precisely articulates the school’s understanding of a college prepared graduate.
  2. High school students should be given much more information, much earlier, about what college will demand of them, and what they need for college preparation.
  3. Conley particularly celebrates senior year “capstone courses,’ in all subjects, (which this blogger think to be especially “21st century”); an example would be a “problem-based” mathematics seminar: “Experts from the community in areas such as engineering, agriculture, and banking can serve as partners in the development of appropriately complex and challenging problems that students can address in such a seminar.  The problems can link mathematical and scientific knowledge.”    MORE….

It is an important ongoing discussion: what is the impact of technology on our brains and our learning and our intelligence?  Science Daily, a useful site whose reports on research impacting education are often captured in the ASCD email round-up, had a story recently summarizing research in the journal Science.    Although visual skills have improved, the research reports, critical thinking and analysis has declined, all due to the rise of technology in our students’ lives.

This is obviously of concern for this blogger, who simultaneously is advocating education which better teaches for critical thinking and analysis, and which embraces the integration of technology into the classroom.   Acknowledging the concern however is not admitting defeat.  There is still plenty of agreement between myself and the lead researcher, who argues for a balanced approach: “No one medium is good for everything,” Greenfield said. “If we want to develop a variety of skills, we need a balanced media diet. Each medium has costs and benefits in terms of what skills each develops.” (more…) new initiative from Gates is to publish an annual letter reflecting on the work of his foundation, and the transparency of it is commendable.   In the education section of the letter, he discusses successes, and the lack thereof, of his reform initiatives.   What hasn’t work, he says,  were the schools which took funding to become smaller, but did not forge a genuine change of culture: “the schools that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.”    Yes.  Independent schools succeed not just because their schools and classes are small, but because school-heads have much greater latitude  to change personnel and change programs.  It must be said, though, that where independent schools are not excelling it is often because school culture has calcified and the school-leaders are not exercising this kind of leadership. (more…)

Book Cover

This is a funny book by the late, great Postman.  Read the first few chapters, and you might find it hard to believe that an ardent proponent of 21st century education like myself would find any points of contact with the cantankerous Postman.  But read on, don’t let his diatribes against the internet and email fool you.   In the chapter on education, there are some very significant points of value for those of us trying to shape a new, contemporary education for our students.

First though I want to draw in a short quote from a chapter on information; in it Postman offers very helpful distinctions between information, knowledge, and wisdom, and I think they really speak to those of us trying to move the learning experience away from an accumulation of facts (information) to a greater sophistication of thinking and a deeper understanding of concepts.   What is great is that he also links his ideas about wisdom to one of this blogger’s central points: at the center of 21st century learning is problem solving:

Knowledge is only organized information.  It is self-contained, confined to a single system of information about the world. One can have a great deal of knowledge about the world but entirely lack wisdom…. I mean by wisdom the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems. [italics added] (more…) bit bland, but nonetheless valuable contribution this week from the Partnership (P-21), on learning environments which support 21st century learning.   P-21 is offering a valuable approach, this blogger believes, in articulating that it is by progressive educational vehicles we will best prepare our students for the changing world.  In this new white paper, the topic is not what skills students need to learn but rather what systems will support them, and it is a healthy list: flexible and sustainable learning spaces, credits for learning accomplishments rather than seat time, technology to support learning goals, a commitment to professional learning communities (and planning time!) for teachers.

[A] 21st century learning environment [is] an aligned and synergistic system of systems that:
 Creates learning practices, human support and physical
environments that will support the teaching and learning of 21st
century skill outcomes
 Supports professional learning communities that enable
educators to collaborate, share best practices, and integrate 21st
century skills into classroom practice
 Enables students to learn in relevant, real world 21st century
contexts (e.g., through project-based or other applied work) (more…)

Cover Image

I love this book (published 2003);  I think it conveys better than any other I know an essential message for schooling today: that quality student work matters, that we can teach for it and expect it and recognize it, and that as much as process matters, product matters equally.    So much energy is being expended on measuring student achievement quantitatively, and this blogger is on record endorsing quantitative measurements (but the right ones!), but we also need to embrace the qualitative too.

In the past year I have read nearly 50 books on contemporary schooling, and this is one of the very best in that set.   Berger teaches 5th grade, and so I fear that some might dismiss his counsel as being only suited for elementary schools, but that would be a big mistake.    Secondary schooling needs to make a much bigger commitment to challenging and supporting students to do truly excellent, finished work, and to display and publish it widely.  Sizer has taught us that exhibitions matter, that students should be being prepared to present some final demonstration of their learning for secondary graduation, but I think the method must be broader than just a summation: throughout our students’ schooling they should be presenting and publishing polished work. (more…)

High commendations from 21k12 to Peter Gow and his blog, The New Progressivism.     Gow, who has contributed brilliantly to the ISED list serve for years, and much to the illumination of this blogger, is now broadening his mission to use a blog platform to advance a “new progressive” educational agenda, an agenda that 21k12 is hard pressed to find any difference of significance from the agenda of this blog.

Any difference that may exist between us lies largely in the semantics.   For what Gow calls the “New” Progressivism, I prefer using the 21st century educational concept, believing it less ideologically loaded than the “progressive” term.   Schooling today cannot separate itself from the agenda of reformers who want to ensure education is preparing a highly skilled 21st century workforce, and I want to embrace and collaborate with that movement– co-opt it if you will– by using language that we can all rally around– and I think the 21st c. term does that.



Below is a short article (not written by me) which appeared in the Summer, 2008 Sidwell Friends Alumni Bulletin, and below it is my response, published in the following issue as a letter to the editor. 

“One-on-One Learning: Next fall, every sixth grade student at SFS will receive a tablet laptop computer as part of an exploratory pilot program. The decision was made after a committee spent last year researching one-to-one student laptop programs, visiting peer schools that have such programs, and debating their findings. The committee recommended the pilot program, in which every student has his or her own tablet PC. Since the committee also found that one-to-one programs are most effective when tablet use is determined directly by the classroom teacher, the sixth grade teachers will decide whether, when, where, why and how their students will use the laptops. ” [italics added]

Fall 2008 Magazine

And my letter to the editor, published in the Fall, 2008 issue: 

Dear Editor, 

As a K-8 school-head myself, I applaud Sidwell’s initiative to bring tablet computers, 1:1, to its sixth graders. Doing so will greatly empower those students to be more effective learners, better able to construct their own knowledge, collaborate with others both near and far, and produce their own creative content in authentic and meaningful ways. Certainly, their teachers will be and should be setting goals for their students, and carefully guiding them in their use of these tools.   But, I feel confident that Sidwell teachers will not and should not entirely “decide whether, when, when, where, why, and how their students will use their laptops.” (more…)

DetailsRecently read this book by Ariely– and found the following discussion highly relevant to my thinking here on 21st century education: 

As we learned in our experiments, cash will take you only so far— social norms are the forces that can make a difference in the long fun.  Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instill in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education.  To do this we certainly can’t take the path of market norms.  The Beatles proclaimed some time ago that you “Can’t Buy Me Love” and this also applies to the love of learning– you can’t buy it, and if you try, you might chase it away.  

So how can improve the educational system? We should probably first rethink school curricula, and link them in more obvious ways to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime, elevation of human rights, etc.), technological goals (boosting energy conservation, space exploration, nanotechnology, etc.) and medical goals (cures for cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.) that we care about as a society.  This way the students, teachers, and parents might see the larger point in education, and become more enthusiastic and motivated about it. 

Class Struggle by Jay Mathews, Education Columnist  Jay Matthews is at it again, this month, in his Washington Post column, calumniating against any teaching for 21st century skills.  He did so in November, and I responded to it then, and here goes again, arguing that teaching 21st century skills is nothing but a fad: “a pipe dream that should be tossed in the trash.” 

As before, he himself acknowledges he is being “cranky” on this topic.   The main new thrust here, and there is little that is new, is an attack on the Partnership for 21st century skills (P21) for advocating that our education system  must be “aligned” in order to best prepare students for the fast changing world.    Now I would agree that the word “must” is a bit excessive (I’d have offered “should seek to be”) but to go from this statement to the conclusion that P21 is demanding an “all-at-once” transformation of our system is much more excessive, and a really unfair attack on the partnership’s program.  (Read P21’s response to Matthews).   


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