What Questions Should School Boards Be Asking about 21st Century Learning?

Next week, I’m keynoting at the New Mexico School Board Association’s Leader’s Retreat. I plan to take a “Socratic approach” and frame my talk around a series of themes and sample questions that I think school boards should be asking in response challenges and opportunities of 21st century learning.

I wanted to offer readers the chance to offer their suggestions – via this blog’s comment or Twitter/edteck.

I plan to address three themes and pose some reflective questions for board members to consider.

Theme 1. Learning must engage student in rigorous thinking at higher levels of Bloom – analyzing, evaluating and creating. School boards should ask:

  • Does our school community recognize the difference between higher and lower order thinking?
  • Are students expected to just consume information, or are they asked to create something original that demonstrates their learning?
  • Is our district a creative problem-solving organization?
Answers: We cut music and art for remedial math. (Wrong!!!)
We recognize music and art are vehicles to teach math. (That’s better!)

Theme 2. Learning is relevant when the student understands how the information or skill has some application to their life, has an opportunity to figure out their own process rather than just learn “the facts,” and is given opportunities to reflect on their work and their progress as learners. School boards should ask …

  • Do our students get high grades for simply memorizing the review sheet for the test?
  • Do our students “follow the recipe” or are they increasingly asked to take responsibility for their learning products, process and results?
  • Is the audience for student work simply the teacher, or are students asked to share their learning with peers, family, community?

Theme 3. The digital age has redefined literacy. To paraphrase David Warlick, Literacy now means the ability to: find information, decode it, critically evaluate it, organize it into digital libraries, and be able to share it with others. School boards should ask …

  • If we’re no longer the “information gatekeepers,” are we teaching our students to critically evaluate information and use it responsibly?
  • Does our technology get used mainly by the educators, or are students regularly employing it to create understanding and share their learning?
  • Is our credit system based on seat time or can it be expanded beyond the school walls to any place / time virtual learning?

And finally I will wrap up the talk with an overarching perspective on accountability and assessment. I find it ironic that while schools chase NCLB “proficiency,” life has become an open book test. We need to unleash the power of assessment that targets and inspires. One-shot, high stakes tests are just autopsies. Students need regular check-ups where teachers can gauge student progress and target instruction. Ultimately the program must be designed to foster student self-assessment that gives them responsibility for monitoring their own progress. Students should be supported in on-going sell-reflection that addresses questions such as:

  • How can I use this knowledge and these skills to make a difference in my life?
  • How am I progressing as a learner?
  • How can I communicate what I’m learning with others?
  • How can I work with teachers and other students to improve my learning?

Schools will need to become places that create engaging and relevant learning experiences, provoke student reflection, and help students apply the learning to life. Authentic  accountability is reciprocal …  leadership is responsible to provide resources for success, educators are responsible for results. Simply sorting students along the “bell curve” won’t do.

… Please add a comment below or Twitter to let me know if I’m leaving anything out.

Sept 22, 2009 UPDATE: For School Board Leaders’ responses to the workshop see: School Board Leaders Reflect on Essential Questions / 21st Century Learning 

16 Replies to “What Questions Should School Boards Be Asking about 21st Century Learning?”

  1. As a long time School Board member and teacher-these are great questions. The big elephant in the room is RELEVANCY and I would put it at the top of the list. When many kids come to school it is like coming to a museum with live guides…and are not allowed in the door with the technology and associated strategies they use in real life.
    Second, real-time data is what teachers need and systems need to provide. A one year old standardized test, a 3 year old evaluation, a politicized test do not help students or teachers. Simplify and target assessment, provide data mentors (data mavens I call them), connect it directly to curriculum and instruction and standards (if they are really being used) and help them change course tomorrow not next semester. To do this digitize, digitize, etc.

    Board members make sure there is a fast track for innovation-make it easy not onerous for a new idea to get some traction-give it a quick peer review, some resources and try it out. Reward innovative thinking but not by saying “Sure, go ahead and add it to what you already do.” but by creating clear and speedy channels.

  2. For theme 2, I’d like to know if school boards are willing to risk lower state standards scores (still staying accredited, but maybe going down from 95% passing to 90% passing) if it means more rigorous or in-depth teaching and learning is taking place. I have a feeling the scores won’t drop, but teachers will want reassurance that they won’t be fired for lower, but passing scores.

  3. Great questions, Peter. You are going to have quite a discussion going, I think.

    With the incredible scrutiny of today’s accountability assessments (“autopsies” as you call them), it would seem that any school board member must be able to answer the call (right or wrong) for data that demonstrates growth and development.

    In their shoes I’d be curious about methods for assessing (and reporting on) schools and districts for some of the higher order thinking skills you mention. If not multiple choice tests, then what? Tony Wagner talks about some assessment options in his compelling (and relevant) book, “The Global Achievement Gap”, but implementation at a district level is a far cry from theory in the pages of a book.

    So, the question might be, “How much interest, flexibility, and will power is there to try new things in your community? Or are your constituents satisfied with the current methods for teaching, learning, and assessing?”

  4. I am not sure what people here know about NM’s annual testing, but for the most part–it is a reading and writing test as even the math and science sections have questions that have to be explained, graphs defined, etc., besides the multiple guess questions. Schools that are fortunate to receive students that are ready to read, (or already reading), do quite well. Unfortunately, the rest don’t.

    Primary education, (k-3), needs far more support than it gets for reading and basic computation. Its time to quit passing along students and catch them up to where they need to be. Summer boot camps, after school tutoring, etc. should be the norm for students that are lagging behind. Students, with lagging skills whose parents don’t want them in the programs, should be made to opt out of testing.

    IMHO, your final statement is what is the most important. It is the key to self-improvement that many students lack. I know that at my school, they see no connection between school and their life and only do what is necessary to get by.

    I am interested in what NMSBA members comment about your presentation.

  5. My question is-what about schools that do not believe or promote learning with technology? I know that my school board has stopped all online courses and will only allow students to be in a face to face environment. Many extended tech tools are also being removed from the teacher use- Moodle and cell phones (yes, these are learning tools!) for example. Our school would not even recognize the eteacher of the year from their own district. How will you address these issues? How do you plan on getting this type of school board to understand the importance of online instruction?

  6. I love the analogies of school being a museum (from David) and that of high stakes assessments being autopsies. Too often, like a docent at a museum, we tell our students about the world while admonishing them not to touch anything. Our world, digital or not, is best learned though [relevant] experience, not talking heads. As for assessment-as-autopsy, what good it to have someone else assess (teachers are simply administering, not assessing), crunch the numbers, and provide a statistical printout that simply gets filed for the next teacher to deal with (or ignore). That is no way to effect meaningful change. Without rigorous and meaningful (for teacher and student alike) formative assessments, high-stakes summative assessments serve only to tag the cold bodies.

    Have a great discussion!

  7. Four years ago, I helped open our district’s first 1:1 technology school. We opened the school knowing this, and everyone there was looking forward to the new experience. My classroom and my teaching have been transformed, and I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity to teach with technology on a daily basis. I don’t think I could go back to sharing a computer lab.

    However, what follows are a few things that I wish my school board would have recognized before we started pushing this initiative to other campuses:

    1. Is there teacher buy-in for the technology?

    I’m not just talking about the district pets – I’m talking about the *real* teachers on campus? Will they use it? What’s being said in the lounge during lunch? The last school that just opened 1:1 in our district didn’t have teacher support. The campus culture didn’t mesh well with the new risks that teachers would have to take with the laptops. As a result, the laptops didn’t get used in the majority of classes.

    2. Is there teacher support for the technology?

    Professional development has to be supported. Before the teacher can be expected to teach with the technology, they have to be familiar with it. The only reason I know how to implement technology in my classroom is because I use it personally. Just offering technology classes showing people what Excel is isn’t supporting teacher learning, especially once you have started a technology initiative. I’ve been using a computer for a long time now, and I need more support than just Intermediate PowerPoint.

    One important thing that has never been addressed in my district is the amount of time it takes to prep classes when you get new technology. Granted, once it gets done, it saves time, but there is a huge investment of time that goes into teaching with technology that I don’t think people outside of the classroom truly understand. If I was teaching at a traditional high school, there is no way that I’d be able to do all of the things that I do in my classroom.

    3. Is there teacher support for Best Practices?

    Technology isn’t magic. It won’t take a mediocre teacher and make her wonderful. Instead, I’ve seen the opposite. If you want higher order thinking going on in a classroom, you can’t just assume that a laptop and projector will do it. If you have a classroom culture of silent reading, worksheets, and independent practice, it’s going to be hard.

    I saw a comment over relevancy, and I’d like to address that. The technology won’t make the curriculum relevant. Period. It’s the teacher that does that. The technology makes it easier to show the relevancy, but it still all comes down to the teacher.

    Sorry if I used this more as a personal soapbox for what I’d like my school board to know.

  8. nice post. very nice. thank you and good luck.

    my questions and thoughts currently – are around these two things:

    1) assessments – they drive us so are you willing to forgo standardized testing?
    (alternate ideas – test kids by what you get when you google them – eportfolio’s – and the like) deciding to keep standardized tests – may result in no more public schools

    2) pd – are you willing to radically redefine that?
    i think pd should be spent on 2 things
    a) what teachers are supposed to be doing in the classroom (and i don’t mean running tech – if teachers can’t figure it out – kids can) – what i mean is your theme 2
    b) how to model safe online activity

  9. The questions I would ask are:

    1/ Are you willing to turn class rooms into play and game rooms?

    2/ Are you willing to give kids challenges without giving answers? Are you willing to let kids search for their own answers, probably online?

    3/ Like monika says, are you willing to get rid on standardized tests? What do standardized tests do other than finding out how kids score on standardized tests?


  10. This is a great conversation to be having with school board members in New Mexico as that state is in active discussions with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) to join 13 other states in becoming a “P21 Partner State.”

    I would encourage the school districts to begin their conversations around 21st century education by asking them what skills and knowledge students need to succeed in the 21st century workplace, college and life. You’d be surprised at how important it is for everyone to start on the same page and have a similiar understanding of what we mean when we say “21st century education.”

    After that conversation, I’d move to “Now that you’ve identified the skills and knowledge that students need, what steps do we need to take to ensure that students are learning these skills?”

    Your discussion questions look good to me, but one area that is missing is about emerging 21st century content or themes. These are things like global awareness, world languages, health and wellness, visual literacy, financial education and civic literacy.

    Thanks for showing us your outline — good luck!

    Maureen Cain

  11. I wanted to thank all of you for your thoughtful responses. I’ll be sharing them with the folks at the NM Leaders’ retreat.

    Two additional responses that came via Twitter:
    @NFraga “they need to improve their pedagogy of work. More dialogue between schools, community and government.”
    @JHUeducation “I think school boards also need to ask how they are using tech to engage parents as active partners in the process.”

    And here are two more extended blog posts in response to my blog.
    Mike Hasley “Important Questions/Themes” http://tinyurl.com/ly9zp7
    Weemooseus “NMSBA Teaching and Learning” http://tinyurl.com/knwu8x

  12. I would ask the school board leaders to answer the same self reflective questions you pose for students in your final paragraph. Leaders must lead by example and if your audience can’t honestly answer the “How” questions in your final paragraph how can they make decisions for those learners who will one day, make decisions about who rocks your audience members’ rocking chairs.

    I would ask them when is the last time they assessed the ROI the board provides to the learning process. Are they conduits in bridging the gaps or speed bumps on the road to progress? Are they are part of the change they want to see in education or simply educational politicians banging the gavel? Do they make decisions and pass the policies w/out following up on implementation issues?

    Enjoy the session and I look forward to your follow up after the event.

  13. Peter – I’m engaged in writing some ‘Learning Principles’ per the Wiggins/McTighe model presented in Schooling by Design. I think your 3 Themes presented here are spot on as foundational elements for all curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Very helpful stuff. Thanks for being dedicated to relinquishing!


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