21st Century Skills and the Common Core


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


21st century skills are quickly becoming taught and assessed in schools across the nation. Whether through explicit instruction or models like project-based learning, educators are quickly realizing that lower level content comprehension is not enough. The Whole Child Initiative calls for tenets that rely on these skills. We create a safe environment through collaboration. Critical thinking creates rigor and challenge. Communication can create engagement with the community. 21st century skills, when paired with content can create powerful and meaningful learning. The Common Core State Standards explicitly call for these skills, so through uncovering the 3 C’s in the Common Core, we can see how educators must teach and assess them.


In every grade level of the English language arts common standards, you will find the common standard that calls for “collaborative discussions.” I do mean every! This means that at each grade level, we must not only be teaching and assessing the skill of collaboration, but we must think about how it looks different from grade level to grade level. We know that group work and collaborative work can be effective, but now collaboration is more than just an instructional tool. It is a skill that needs to be taught and assessed.

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Roland Case has done some great work on unpacking the concept of critical thinking into quality indicators. One of these quality indicators is perseverance, being able to complete a challenge and work through the obstacles. In the mathematics common standards, there are specific mathematical practices that are mentioned. One of these is “make sense of a problem and persevere in solving them.” This is an explicit call in the Common Core to teach and assess one facet of critical thinking. In addition, as you unpack the Common Core, you will still thinking skills and related language for critical thinking. From being able to “evaluate,” “reflect” or “analyze,” the focus is on higher-order thinking skills that require that critical thinking be taught to all students and assessed.


Across each grade level in the English language arts common standards, communication—both written and oral—is evident. The Common Core calls for students to communicate effectively, and through a variety of mediums. Digital tools are mentioned, as well as oral and written skills. English teachers have always been responsible for this skill, but now all subjects are being called to teach and assess communication skills.

Unpacking the Common Core State Standards allows us to see the need to teach and assess 21st century skills to our students. When we look at the Whole Child Tenets, we can see alignment between them and 21st Century Skills. Perhaps the Common core will leverage the need to teach to the whole child.

Creating Rigorous and Relevant Assessments with Authentic Intellectual Work


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


When we ask students to do, perform, and produce, we must ensure that these tasks or assessments demand rigor and relevance. But let’s be honest, sometimes these words are thrown around as buzz words in education or are difficult to truly internalize as teachers when we are design assessments. What does it look like to ask students to do rigorous work? What does an assessment that has relevance look like? I can make my own assumptions, but how do I know if my assumptions are truly asking for depth of rigor and relevance?

I truly believe that one of the invaluable resources and professional development I received in my years as a classroom teacher was around Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW). I was able to take AIW and apply it to the many teaching practices and pedagogy that I was using, from project-based learning to Understanding by Design® methods. AIW focuses on authentic pedagogy and student work.

When developing AIW assessments that are rigorous and relevant, think about

Construction of Knowledge: The assessment should demand that students are doing higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) like synthesis and evaluation. A lower rating in this area would simply be asking students to reproduce. This is pitfall of some performance assessments; reproducing in a new genre. When we ask students to construct knowledge, is the assessment asking for these HOTS?
Elaborated Communication: The assessment should show a deep understanding of the content being explored, and the assessment must explicitly demand it. There should be evidence, which usually requires a complex purpose like persuasion and analysis. Instead of multiple choice, or short answer, ask your students to communicate, which you can choose from a variety of forms and genres, and make sure that there are summaries, examples, samples, and other important pieces of evidence that show deep understanding of the concepts you want them to learn.
Value Beyond School: This is probably the most obvious and most important part of creating a good assessment. Yet, it remains a bit difficult to quantify and measure a good assessment that shows value beyond school. AIW frames it this way: Does the assessment demand students to solve a problem or encounter an issue that resembles one in real life? Does the assessment demand students to make explicit connections to their own feelings and situations? A lower score here might only provide opportunity to explore the real-world connections or provide little opportunity at all. Again, the assessment creates an imperative connection to the real world and values of students’ experiences.

Notice that all these components require explicit direction from the teacher. If you were to hold up the rubric and assessment by itself, it needs to meet the components of AIW. This isn’t about supposition or assumption; it is about transparency with students. Learn more about AIW and peruse resources, including a 2007 publication relating the framework to authentic instruction and assessment (PDF), by visiting the Center for AIW website. The center also offers rubrics pertaining to specific disciplines, including science, literature, math, and social studies.

Active Game-Based Learning


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


OK, so I am a gamer. Not that I have the time anymore, but I do venture now and again into a game, whether a first-person shooter (FPS) or role-playing video game (RPG). I am also a big promoter of Game-Based Learning (GBL) and Gamification. To clarify, GBL is when games are used to balance the learning of subject matter through gameplay with specific learning outcomes in mind. Gamification is applying the concepts of game design to learning to engage in problem solving. Again both are geared toward building student engagement and learning important content. GBL is one method that creates not only a great opportunity to engage students in content, but also keep them active.

Brain-based learning research tells us that being active in and around rigorous learning can help keep students energized in the learning. During the activity, oxygen-rich blood flows to the brain which increases the ability to concentrate. John Medina, published a great book about how movement can increase learning. PBS did a story about a school where students took active “brain breaks” that kept students moving around the classroom. There are many ways to integrate activate movement on a regular basis for students, and using video games is another opportunity.

Microsoft’s Kinect is the key to using games for learning that require movement. Kinect demands students physically interact with the content in front of them. Whether it’s jumping in an obstacle course or moving hands to push buttons, the body is not only engaged in a game, but also in movement. Although it may seem like a far cry to link these games to authentic learning outcomes, the idea is to balance the gaming with the learning; increasing blood flow and engagement while gaming increases concentration for learning content. The other good news is that there are a plethora of resources in this area, some from Microsoft itself. They have a library, some with specific targets toward physical education, which has activities and lessons for students. These classroom activities align the video games to the Common Core State Standards (although they could be a bit more specific), and indicate which video games are necessary. I highly recommend going to DonorsChoose.org to create a funding opportunity for a Kinect in your classroom.

In addition, a Twitter friend of mine, Johnny Kissko, has dedicated much of his work to using Kinect in the classroom with his website KinectEDucation. His site is complete with not only lessons that are tied to specific games, but also applications that can be downloaded and purchased. Because there are so many resources out there, there is no reason for a teacher to not give it a shot. Using video games, and specifically the Kinect, can allow us to harness the power of brain-based learning and the engagement of video games to create student concentration and engagement.

Using Project-Based Learning to Engage Parents in the School Community


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Project-based learning (PBL) is a fantastic way to increase parent and community involvement in your school in a truly authentic way. Instead of finding lots of little strategies to engage parents, PBL provides an opportunity to use one part of your school identity, the curriculum and instruction, as the leverage to have parents present at the physical space. Here are some tips and strategies on how to use PBL to increase parental involvement.

Public Audience

One of the essential elements of effective PBL is a public audience. Every PBL project must have a public audience. This can look like a lot of different things. The public can be judges or audience for the final culminating work or presentation. The public can come in during the middle of project to help coach students on their work as experts in the field. There are a lot of options. All of these could be parents. Every parent has some area of expertise to share, from health care to technology. I recommend creating a roster of parents, their areas of expertise, and how they would be able to volunteer. Parents will want to come to school if their knowledge is leveraged in a legitimate way.

Educating Parents about PBL

Because PBL is nontraditional, it is imperative that parents understand what it looks like, what the grading expectations are, and why the school believes it works. Parents are going to ask the same questions other community stakeholders will ask. “How will this help my child do well on the standardized test?” “Why are you grading 21st century skills?” “How will you help my child who doesn’t like to work in groups?” You will get these questions, so be prepared, and have education available for parents about the components of PBL.

Transparency of Projects

Every time you do a PBL project, it is important to let parents know what work your students are doing, and also to excite them about it. Communication with the home about schoolwork is nothing new, but this provides a focused, timely moment to communicate. In addition, it also provides an opportunity to debunk any misunderstandings about the PBL project that is occurring. If you are doing a project on health and AIDS, you can take the time in the letter home to parents to assure that the project is not sexual education. A quick e-mail or letter home about the PBL project can excite parents, solicit their expertise, and clarify expectations.

Culturally Responsive Projects

Find ways for the products you have students create to be culturally responsive. Find ways to weave student culture into the project so that parents see that it is being valued in the work students are doing. If you are having students do a project on world religions, then have each student reflect on his or her family and personal beliefs. If you are having students investigate hidden histories of the oppressed, have them investigate the cultures of their families and communities. Make it intentional.

Because the public is an integral part of PBL, it is a real way to engage parents in the school and work that students are doing. It is not without challenges, but with these tips, you can make parents partners in an important part of your school identity.

Matching Physical Structures to Learning and School Culture


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Physical structures should match school cultures and learning modalities, not the other way around. Despite what some might say, physical structures communicate a lot about the learning environment and what to expect. Just like we set up seats for the first day of school to set a tone, the building communicates a tone as well. Throughout my visits, I’ve come across many innovative buildings that really set a tone for safe school culture and innovative learning. It’s not about technology and bells and whistles; it’s about the layout and ways that the walls talk.

My first two examples come from Dubiski Career High School in Texas. Where are the traditional lecture seats set up? Outside the classroom. These formal stations are set up throughout the school to allow for presentations, formal lectures, and other similar learning experiences to occur, but not in the official classroom. In fact, it is hard to tell where the learning environment begins and where it ends, hence creating the message that this is a continuous learning environment. This structure also communicates that learning occurs in many different places and in many different ways. Traditional lectures are not the focus but are used when appropriate, and this message comes across quite clear.

Another example: The school embraces different kinds of content presentations, as in the example of its mock trial room. The school creates a variety of spaces to indicate that learning and demonstration occur in different ways, keeping students on their toes and allowing for innovation and creativity. Overall, the physical structures of Dubiski Career High School communicate that learning is innovative, seamless, and appropriate to the objectives.

Dubiski Career High School hallway (Photo credit: Andrew K. Miller)

Dubiski Career High School mock trial room (Photo credit: Andrew K. Miller)

Manor New Technology High School, also in Texas, has physical structures that communicate both in terms of learning but also in terms of school culture. I’m going to focus on school culture examples. Classrooms within the building have large windows that open into the hallway. It communicates transparency of the learning, both for the faculty and for the students. Classrooms are not isolated. On the contrary, classrooms are open and welcoming. In addition, students and teachers share the space.

Student work is prevalent throughout the school, covering parts of windows and walls. Student ownership is the clear message that is being communicated. Yes, faculty share the space, but share is the key word and only a fraction of what students own. In addition, students claim ownership of the school walls in innovative and creative ways, as evident by the photo of the school wall. In this case, student work led to designing a mural that would remain on a school wall. What an excellent example of a high-stakes audience, which we know raises the level of student work. Here students are given the opportunity in the classroom environment to own the school, communicating that this place is first and foremost about the student.

Manor New Technology High School hallway (Photo credit: Manor New Technology High School)

Manor New Technology High School mural (Photo credit: Manor New Technology High School)

It would be great if we had the money to create innovative new structures to mirror rigorous learning and safe school culture. I know that many use this as an excuse not to try. Instead, I would encourage you to find ways, no matter how small, to create structures at your school that communicate a message that school put students first, that school is a safe place, and that innovative learning occurs. Look at everything from the schedule, to the way you set up your furniture in the classroom, to the space on the walls you give to students. You can start now to push for better physical structures at your school.