21st Century Skills or Adequate Yearly Progress?

The Boston Globe (October 30, 2008) recently reported on efforts to redirect district curriculum to "skills the district has deemed necessary for survival in the 21st century, including critical thinking, invention, problem-solving, and multicultural collaboration."

In a town known for top-notch schools, a Sharon School Committee member has launched a grassroots movement that she and other officials hope could lead to less emphasis on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System statewide.
"Accountability is a good thing. Learning standards are a good thing. But is focusing on one test a fair measure of student success? I think that answer is, 'No,' " said Laura Salomons, a School Committee member since May and a mother of four.
Salomons has submitted a proposal that seeks community support for allowing teachers to avoid tailoring their lessons to the MCAS. Instead, she would like to see teachers directed to instruct students on skills the district has deemed necessary for survival in the 21st century, including critical thinking, invention, problem-solving, and multicultural collaboration.
"I have come to the conclusion that we, as a school district, may be overly consumed with doing well on MCAS," Salomons began in her eight-page proposal. "The focus is a detriment to reaching the school committee and superintendent's goal of 'providing students with . . . learning opportunities that encourage lifelong learning skills and that support a student's artistic, social, emotional and physical development.' "  More

I find that I rarely get asked to do staff development to "bring the scores up." Increasingly I'm asked to help teachers create more engaging learning environments for students.

While NCLB began with the admirable goal of narrowing demographic performance gaps and putting an end to sorting kids on the “bell curve,”  it may be doing just the opposite. Many of our schools are now compelled to force feed the content required for “adequate progress” as measured by standardized state tests. Does test prep = academic "feed-lot?"

Too little time is left for student-centered, project-based learning that allows students to work at the upper level of Bloom. Innovation requires much trial and error (Bloom’s evaluation). Learning to self-assess your problem solving approach is not a skill fostered in multiple-choice test-prep environment.

NCLB correctly put the focus on student achievement. Our students will need a strong foundation in core concepts. But schools can’t be filled with routine tasks. They need to be fluid environments focused on helping students take responsibility for thinking and problem solving where there sometimes isn’t a right answer.

Fostering Creativity

idea festival
idea festival

Creating is Bloom’s highest level of thinking. Creating is not limited to “the creative.” We all create when we make new combinations of existing elements. Someone put wheels on the bottom of a scaled-down surfboard and created the skateboard. And so it goes…

While teachers and students are constrained by mind-numbing test prep, the rest of society is working overtime to foster creative connections. In September the annual “IdeaFestival” was held in Louisville, KY. It brings together creative thinkers from different disciplines to connect ideas in science, the arts, design, business, film, technology and education. The festival motto – “If it can possibly go together, it comes together here.” Why not apply that perspective in our schools?

Here are some suggestions from the festival on how to come up with new ideas. Many can be easily adapted to help our students discover their creative potential in the classroom.

1. Think when you are not thinking, for example, on a run or walk.
2. Listen to classical music, go to a concert or a play or sit quietly in a park to daydream.
3. Read periodicals you would not typically read — a scientific magazine, for example, if you are more interested in business. Same with books outside your typical genre.
4. Attend a conference outside your field.
5. Surround yourself with creative thinkers.
6. Immerse yourself in a problem; ask questions, investigate possible outcomes.
7. Keep an idea journal.
8. Take a course to learn a new language or some other skill outside your expertise.
9. Be curious and experiment.
10. Articulate your idea, seek feedback, put structure on it, harvest it.

Summarizing What’s Important with a “How To” Video

Explaining “how to” requires students to research a subject, evaluate what’s important, and create a guide for someone else to follow. It gives them an opportunity to write for an authentic audience and purpose and use skills that rank very high on Bloom’s taxonomy. When we ask students to summarize without giving them an audience and purpose all we are doing is asking them to “guess what the teacher thinks is important.”

A few weeks ago I posted on the great opportunities for students to teach others by creating how to videos. Since then I ‘ve found a great source list of How To video sites at ReadWriteWeb.

Students Can Create Videos to Teach Us “How To”

There’s an emerging genre of internet videos that fall into the category of “how to’s.” Lots of folks are offering up instructional guides for how to do everything imaginable from How to Chill a Coke in 2 Minutes to How to Fold a Towel.

Explaining “how to” requires students to research a subject, evaluate what’s important, and create a guide for someone else to follow. It gives them an opportunity to write for an authentic audience and purpose and use skills that rank very high on Bloom’s taxonomy.

If you want to get your students writing and shooting these videos here’s some suggestions:

1. Get the new Flip Ultra video camera – remarkably easy to use and only $114 at Amazon. Works with Mac or PC. I’ve been using one for a few months and I’m impressed with the sound and image quality and the simplicity of use.

2. Have students take a look at this ingenious “how to” done by Common Craft – no elaborate props or on-screen talent required. The Flip camera won’t be able to shoot as closely as the Common Craft video below, but students can easily recreate the look on a larger scale using the classroom white board and the optional Flip Ultra tripod ($14 at Amazon).

3. Post the video to TeacherTube – a safe alternative to YouTube.

OK – time to make a movie!

Note on editing. The Flip video comes with its own software that works with Mac or PC. Ingeniously, the software resides on the camera and works anytime you plug the Flip USB into a computer.� The Flip video files are created in an AVI format that can be edited on a PC using software like MovieMaker. Mac iMovie won’t accept the Flip video AVI format directly, but you can convert an AVI file to a (iMovie-friendly) m4v file format using free iSquint software. Students can design, shoot and edit the video, then do a voice over. That way they can focus on the visual message separately from the audio message.

8/08 Update: The latest version of Flip video software will allow direct import of files into Mac iMovie!

Teaching Innovation? Inspire Your Students with Maker Faire

Last month’s Maker Faire drew do-it-your-selfers from across the country to San Francisco to show off their creations. While the rest of us seem content to buy what we need, there is a dedicated community of tinkerers out there that is keeping the American tradition of backyard innovation alive. Why not showcase their work to inspire your students to think more creatively?

I’ve made the point that schools need to foster creativity to prepare our students for a future that will put a premium on adaptability. Innovation requires both a strong foundation in content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in new ways – usually across a variety of disciplines. And it requires using all of Bloom’s skills from remembering through creating. Creating is not a skill limited to the gifted. It’s something that all students can do – think of it as a new combination of old elements.

If you’re looking to inspire your students, you might send them online to Maker Faire or it’s parent, Make Magazine (or the like-minded site, Instructables.) Even if you’re too timid to let them haul in old washing machine parts, you can give them the opportunity to do paper designs of their creations in the style of Rube Goldberg.

In the meantime enjoy The Best of Maker Faire 2008

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