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.

  • Design, Engineer, Build
  • Personalize, Choose, Create
  • Access, Integrate, Engage
  • Curiosity, Interest, Passion, Joy

As regular readers may recall, I’ve written several times before about the extraordinary educational leadership of Dr. Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County: first from a distance, and then from a close up and in person view.

Now readers have the opportunity to view her themselves by viewing this new TEDx talk from Dr. Moran, in which she shares her many ideas and concepts for educational transformation, as can be seen above, the titles of her slides.

In this talk, she calls upon all us to take learning from what NASA deems the limitations of low orbit travel exemplified by the space shuttle to deep space exploration of Moon, Mars, and beyond missions.    Standardized testing and test prep keep us in low orbits, but we need to take learning beyond to deeper understanding, greater mastery, creativity and production as opposed to consumption and regurgitation.

I especially appreciate her passion and commitment for not just STEM, but STEAM, because integrating arts and artistic/design sensibilities into STEM learning is so critical to creating tomorrow’s innovators.    She shares very engaging examples of students participating in Coderdojos and various Design/engineer/build and Makerspace labs.


Note: I am delighted to be co-presenting with Dr. Moran next month at Educon at Science Leadership Academy Philadelphia, on the topic of Performance Task Assessment & the CWRA: Better Goal Posts.

I’m recently returned from a quick trip to beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia.    Thursday I presented a five hour workshop on 21st century learning for the faculty of Tandem Friends School, and was pleased that nearly a third of the faculty volunteered to stay on for an additional 75 minutes for the material I hadn’t completed in the regular time.

Friday I spent the afternoon with Pam Moran, Superintendent of Schools in Albemarle County school district, a district of about 30 schools.   Regular readers here know that I am both friends with and a great admirer of Pam’s; last winter I wrote a piece about my belief that she exemplifies my model of Eight steps for leading in 21st century learning.

In my visit, we toured two of her district’s schools, and met many of her hard-working teachers.   Several themes emerged.

1. Open-ness and transparency.

“I think we have one of the most unfiltered internet service of any school district in the nation,” Pam told me, and this seemed to exemplify a larger spirit to open the world into her schools and  to bring her students out to the wider world, in every way possible.     When visiting a middle school, she explained to me that this was the most rural school in her district, and that that was why it was chosen as a pioneer school for a 1-1 laptop program: because these were the students who have otherwise the least access to the wider world of information.  This district is also proudly BYOD across all its high schools– students are all, always, welcome and encouraged to bring and use their own mobile devices and the educators there are striving to help students use them productively and wisely.

Pam herself is wide open, personally.   As we toured she never hesitated to go up to anyone in her path and introduce herself–sticking out her left arm for a shake and then reaching over with her right to be even warmer in a semi-embrace–  and then to ask them about their roles, their work, and to enthuse about it.    We went right into classrooms and engaged students and teachers,  gushing over what was happening.    Pam was simultaneously on her iphone, texting and tweeting as we went, determined to broadcast more widely the exciting things which were happening and to stay in touch with her network, both internal to her district and out in the wider world.

Learning spaces we observed, such as the libraries at both the middle and high school and in new cluster classroom areas of the big high school, similarly displayed this philosophy of transparency.  Regularly could be seen windows replacing walls, making spaces where everything happening became more visible to all school community members.   Lockers were being removed from the high school, Pam explained, (“most students don’t use them”) so as to create more open, central, common spaces, which soon will be furnished with comfortable furnishings and tables to create stronger spaces of civil society for the students.

I find this fascinating metaphorically, the replacement of private lockers, which take up valuable real estate so that students can store their individual stuff, by communal open spaces.  As more and more, student textbooks and notebooks are replaced by mobile technologies, which are nearly always carried on our persons, surely lockers will be ever less important for school-goers, and it is great to see the opportunities this change provides for more open space, more connection and community.


It is easy to say that we want our schools to adopt a 21st century learning program; it is only a little bit harder to describe what that program looks like.    The real work, we all know, is in the execution.   Ken Kay and Val Greenhill, the team who led (Ken was Founding President) the Partnership for 21st century skills (P21) recognized this a couple years ago, and shifted the focus of their important work from calling for this transformation and from describing a program to, instead, supporting the leaders who are executing it in their districts and schools, in a new organization called EdLeader21.

In doing so, they are working with, supporting and learning from, an assemblage of some of the very most interesting and exciting school superintendents in the country, including Pam Moran, Jared Cotton, Jim Merrill, and, right here in Tucson, Mary Kamerzall.    With the benefit of this experience, they have now written a very valuable, very informative book, about which the only significant criticism is that it leaves the reader with an angst for more– more such information, more detail, specifics and examples: when is the sequel coming?   I’ll throw in a few notes here about the areas I most hope to hear more about.

Full disclosure time:  I enjoyed greatly my one year experience with edleader21, and have been an advocate for that organization.   I know Ken and Val personally, and am delighted to be neighbors of a sort with them here in Tucson (in fact, I am writing this in a central Tucson Starbucks, and I keep looking over my shoulder in case one or the other of them walks up behind me).   The complimentary copy of the book I am reviewing was sent to me as a kind courtesy on their part, with a warm and generous inscription.

Ken and I co-presented at NAIS in February, 2011, in a session entitled 21st century learning at NAIS Schools: Leading and Networking for Progress.  (My own remarks for that session were a slightly condensed version of a post I published also in February, 2011, 7 Steps for Leading in 21st century Learning.)

This new book expands upon a series Ken published last summer (2011) on Edutopia, a 7 part series on becoming a 21st century school district.

Ken and Val’s first step is, of course, the essential and universal first step:Adopt your vision” (just as my version of the seven steps commences with “Develop your vision (and Keep developing it.”)   The discussion here is rich and invigorating; it will energize readers.

There is no single version for 21st century student success that is the same in every school or district.   Lasting success always comes down to leaders like you.   For the vision to make an actual difference in students’ lives, it must come from and be embraced by the leaders of the school and district.  A vision that is born of genuine, authentic, passionate leadership is never simple, never cookie-cutter, and never easy.  But it is necessary.

Especially resonant for me is this quote from Virginia Beach Superintendent Jim Merrill:

I have finally found the thing in education that truly motivates me and it’s this 21st century education initiative.   This is why I am supposed to be a leader in this field.

The overview of the 8 key “perspectives” which are bringing so many to this appreciation for the importance of a shift in teaching and learning is excellent; I learned a great deal.   There is a powerful graph showing the change in workforce categories coming into our century, and good stats from a 2010 report that more than half of companies surveyed do measure the 4Cs in their performance review.

John Bransford, the renowned learning expert: is helpfully quoted:

in the US today we tell our kids the same thing 100 times and on the 101st time, we ask them if they can remember what we told them the first hundred times when in the 21st century the coin of the realm is if they can look at material they have never seen before and know what to do with it.

This first step/chapter, by itself, would be highly worthwhile reading for boards, education students, and others.   (more…)

(At the risk of seeming overly flattering and favoring a friend, for which I offer full disclosure and my apologies, I share the following post about an outstanding educational leader.)

Last week in Virginia, speaking to the Commonwealth’s fine independent school heads, I suggested they had a great model of educational leadership in their home state,   Albemarle County Superintendent Pam Moran.   I was asked, entirely reasonably, why I described her this way, and, caught off guard, I stuttered a bit in my answer, and disappointed myself in not providing a fuller explanation.

Curiously, that very same day, only a few hours later, I turned to chapter 7 of the book I was reading on my airplane home, a chapter devoted to the leadership qualities of the none other than Pam Moran.  In his book, Insights into Action: Successful School Leaders Share What Works, author and former school principal Bill Sterrett writes “Moran and other tech savvy leaders believe it vital to help our students and staffs use technology effectively– not for technology’s sake but for learning’s sake.”

Drawing upon that book and other sources, including a recent issue of the New Yorker, I now aim to better answer the question: what makes Pam Moran such a fine educational leader?  She offers, I think, excellent exemplification of what in my presentation last week I explained are the 8 Steps of Leading Learning Forward.

  1. Developing Ourselves as Leading Learners
  2. Articulating the Vision and Modeling Digital Citizenship
  3. Collaboratively determining our intended learning outcomes
  4. Measuring what matters most, using technology.
  5. Strengthening our faculty professional learning cultures
  6. Promoting Aligned Teaching & Learning
  7. Putting in place the necessary tools
  8. Documenting & Sharing.

Step One: Developing Ourselves as Leading Learners

Sterrett’s chapter on Moran opens with an epigraph from her, which by its placement and its emphasis conveys that she too believes that leading learning begins always with a focus upon our own learning.

I’m convinced that we administrative leaders have an obligation to initiate new learning [and] become skillful in the use of tools that accelerate and advance our learning work.

Sterrett goes on to write that

She believes the onus is on the educational leader…to be aware of new technologies.  “I know that if I can’t stay current than I will not be able to get my colleagues to do the same.”

Social media is also, for Moran, a vehicle for reflection and intellectual growth.

Moran finds that contributing to blogs is a good way to reflect on her practice.  By articulating her thoughts in posts that draw on her experiences and refer to her vision, she is able to model the importance of reflection and meaningful conversation for the greater professional community…. “The ‘hurried child’ has become the ‘hurried adult’– I fear– to the detriment of deep learning.

Step Two Articulating the Vision and Modeling Digital Citizenship.   Leadership always contains as a key element strong communication with all constituencies, and sharing a vision of the future toward which one is leading.   Pam does so in many ways, including using powerful social media tools such as youtube, blogging and twitter.

One example can be seen in this compelling, snazzy, and effective video, articulating her district’s “continuing  journey toward quality learning:”


I rarely feature guest posts from those outside my own school, but when I read my  NAIS & edleader21 colleague Chris Thinnes’ piece about Race to Nowhere and the vexing issue of homework, which I have written about here before, I offered to post it.  Chris articulates very particularly and effectively my similar thoughts about this topic, and I am pleased to be able to share it here. 

Race to Nowhere Has Some Homework to Do

Chris Thinnes is a parent and an educator who lives in Los Angeles. He is the Head of the Upper Elementary School & Academic Dean atCurtis School, a member of the Advisory Group of EdLeader21, and the director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education at Curtis School (CFEE), which recently brought together educators from 103 schools and districts for “Transforming Elementary Education: An Evening with Sir Ken Robinson.”

In its latest emailed, tweeted, and web-based blitz encouraging schools to ban weekend and holiday homework, an impassioned group of self-styled activists has once again leveraged 21st century tools to provide a 20th century ‘solution’ to a 19th century problem: the overloaded assignment of dull, mechanical, and ineffectively designed homework exercises to millions of our nation’s youth. However, the similarly dull reasoning of their examination, diagnosis, and prescription (a ban, very simply, on weekend and holiday homework) will inevitably provoke irrelevant, unjustified, and blanket contempt for schools’ practices the rest of the year as well.

Race to Nowhere‘s activist arm, EndTheRace.org, swipes any reasonable analysis off the table with its burly forearm, before any of us — educators, parents, and students — have the chance to sit down to talk. In short, this campaign overlooks important dimensions of a complex discussion about the purposes of education and the needs of children, ignores forward-looking strategies about the appropriate design of learning opportunities at school and at home, insinuates a lack of professionalism and responsibility on the part of educators, and threatens further to divide, rather than to unify, educators and parents of children in our nation’s schools.

“The research on homework is clear and unanimous. Most homework does not increase learning, raise scores, or prepare students for the future.” -EndTheRace.org

If this were an accurate assessment of research ‘on homework,’ it would be compelling. However, this statement misrepresents the fact that only research on the overload of homework is ‘clear and unanimous’ in its findings: namely, that homework should be limited to developmentally appropriate workloads of 10 minutes per grade level per day. [http://today.duke.edu/2006/03/homework.html] (more…)

Last month I presented an Ignite session (5 minutes, 20 slides, slides advance automatically every 15 seconds!), at the first annual national meeting of edleader21, the new national professional learning community for 21st century education leaders.

My session was on a favorite (among many favorite) topics, flipping instruction such that we use online video delivery for homework and we use the classtime previously used for lecture for what was previously assigned for homework: application of learning to challenging problems.

I was honored, certainly, to have the opportunity to speak as one of 20 ignite presenters at the conference: everyone was terrific, and it would not be a poor use of your time to watch the entirety of the Ignite presentations, which you can find here.  I have included two of my favorites, focused on others of my favorite topics, creative problemsolving and 21st century assessment.  You can find them after the jump: (more). (more…)

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. 

Happy to report on the completion of a terrific first day, the first ever in fact, of the national meeting for the new “PLC for 21st century education leaders,” EdLeader21.

The sense of camaraderie here is palpable: this is a group of 150 dedicated, passionate educators who share a vision, across nearly 30 states (at present), for ensuring their (our) students develop the 4 C’s, the skills to a high level of proficiency that are so critical, always important but more critical than ever before, of communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.   Also clear is the admiration and appreciation felt from this population for EdLeader21’s leader, Ken Kay, the founder and longtime, now former, President of P-21, the Partnership for 21st century skills.

Today’s sessions only began at 3pm, with a warm and upbeat introduction by Ken and then a set of nearly 20 “ignite” sessions by various attendees.   Ignite sessions follow a very strict format: each presenter has five minutes to make their presentation, and their presentation is built upon 20 slides which advance, automatically, every 15 seconds.   It is fast-paced and a bit breathless, and sometimes is just way too hurried to be meaningful, but it is also a great way to hear a wide variety of perspectives and gather a great amount of wisdom in a time efficient way.

A reception and dinner followed; during dessert we were asked as tables to consider what topics were missing from tomorrow’s agenda, or what we’d like to work upon in more detail, and it was great to have this opportunity, which is not at all what happens at most conferences in my experience.   Ken and the organization’s Chief Learning Officer Val Greenhill deserve good credit for the things they have done to make this feel more like a learning community of shared interests and a commitment to learning together, in contrast to a typical conference. Our organizers also offered a nice touch in the charming conversational tone of the event program, unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.

Some other thoughts on the day and on EdLeader21:

1.  Assessment is King.  No other topic had even a quarter the amount of attention that Assessment did, in my observation.  One of the key quotes in Jared Cotton’s presentation (below) spoke to this: “We value what we measure rather than measure what we value,” with the strong inference taken that we all, accordingly, need to rething what we measure to get our values more in alignment. (more…)

I’m very pleased to be a member of this new national organization, edleader21, a professional learning community for 21st century education leaders run by my friend and fellow Tucsonan, Ken Kay, the founder and longtime President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

In this new video, Ken explains that “we’ve been talking for years about the need to create 21st century skills for our young people, but we haven’t really talked about another critical element, and that is how important is it to have a generation of 21st century leaders.”

The video features a set of outstanding 21st century education leaders and superintendents, including my friend Pam Moran, the superintendent of Albermarle county, Virginia, and my until-recently fellow Tucson educational leader, Elizabeth Celenia-Fagen.

In the video, Pam Moran argues passionately for 21st century learning for our students:

the reality is that old style teaching, 20th century teaching, is really over.  In this day and age,  it is kids active, kids engaged, kids being able to find out whatever they need at any moment in time in order to be able to accomplish whatever jobs they want to accomplish, whether it is in school, out of school, in careers, or in college.

Liz Fagen goes directly to leadership, asking how do we bring these important changes to our schools?

Think Big, Start Small.  When you take those best people, those early adopters, those innovators, and you put resources behind them, they will develop, they will exceed your expectations, and then from there it spreads like wildfire.

I am especially taken with the comments from Jack Dale, Superintendent of Virginia’s Fairfax county:

the breakthrough we need to make in looking at 21st century skills is not looking at them in discrete units but looking at them holistically and how well they are interconnected: What you want is leaders who think that way as well.

This is among my great passions: to support and encourage fellow educators on our shared journey to become the 21st century leaders our students need us to be.  With this in mind, it is a great pleasure to be a part of edleader21.

[cross-posted from Connected Principals]

According to a College Board webinar I participated in last week via EdLeader21,  as part of its promised “revamp” of the AP toward depth over breadth and better integration of the skills and content, the College Board/ Advanced Placement program is developing a new online platform called “the AP Lifeline.”  It is intended to be a rich resource and repository of the “learning objectives” in each subject area, with mini-lectures on each and sample questions and answers.

(Click here for the College Board’s overview of their changes).

I am a bit put-off by the name: AP Lifeline? Doesn’t that almost sound as if the AP drives kids to an almost suicidal level of stress, so much so that they require being thrown a lifeline?  Now, many are concerned that this is the case (see the new film Race to Nowhere), and we all are aware that a small number of students do struggle with academic stress to the point of suicidal impulses, but it seems an odd choice by the College Board/AP to acknowledge and underscore this problem by naming their resource the “Lifeline.”  Give them points, I guess, for self-awareness rather than denial.

But how about:

  • the AP Hub?
  • AP Deeper?
  • AP Inquiry? (more…)

On Monday I enjoyed an hour-long webinar with two executives of the College Board who presented on the coming changes to the AP.  “Advanced Placement Course and Exam Redesign,” it was called, and our presenters were:

  • Auditi Chakravarty, Executive Director, Advanced Placement Curriculum & Assessment
  • Trevor Packer,Vice President, Advanced Placement Program

The webinar was an exclusive opportunity for members of the new network, EdLeader21, which I am pleased to have just joined.  Led by the founder and former President of the Partnership for 21st century skills, Ken Kay, EdLeader21 is, in the words of its website: The nation’s first professional learning community for 21st century education leaders.

The AP is of course a controversial and polarizing program in the eyes of  “21st century education” leaders and thinkers.  21st century learning heavily prioritizes thinking skills, such as critical thinking, effective communication,  and creativity far above content knowledge and memorization.   That is not to say the one is entirely at the expense of the other: great teaching and learning happens when these two are synthesized and synergized.  But the AP exam and the course of study to prep for it, particularly in History and Science, simply does not effectively blend content and thinking skills. (more…)

Thank you, all who attended our session today, and welcome all to a quick recap of our session.  The session was very well attended, and we had some terrific questions from the audience.

Some links and resources from the session:

As I noted in the session, I am building a list of school-heads and senior academic administrators who might be interested in being part of an NAIS network who wish to collaborate and communicate for the purpose of our schools in becoming true centers of 21st century learning, and Schools of the Future.  You are invited to share your interest by completing a line in this google doc spreadsheet: You can find it here. I will be following up in the next few weeks to those who sign up with ideas about next steps.