Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment using 21st Century Skills

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As a long time member of the educational technology community in one way or another, and a weekly listener of a number of educational technology podcasts, I have been thinking about how as a future administrator I can bring my knowledge of technology into the school. Over the past few years I have also been increasingly frustrated with my curriculum as a math teacher. Math has been a traditionally "chalk and talk" discipline, and most of the curriculum I have seen is based on helping students learn facts and skills to solve a very limited set of problems designed for a specific fact and skill just learned. While my knowledge of math curriculum is very deep, I also notice fact base curriculum trend in other subjects. Most of what we teach in schools is factual knowledge with a few skills here and there. I believe the 21st century skills movement might bring the cultural shift talked about by Betty J. Sternberg in her Education Week article "Schools Need a Culture Shift" (see article here). Part of this shift will be in the curriculum, which will result in a need for updating teacher responsibilities for instruction.

Instruction with 21st century skills should be no different that in the 20th century; things like critical thinking and analyzing are not new. We just have new tools that should make teaching these skills more relevant. I read a fascinating (see 21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead) article discussing how 21st century skills are not new, and firmly believe they are not, although I also know many teachers (myself included at times) who are not using these skills because of a number of reasons, including the curricula and mandated assessments.

Twenty-First Century skills, and the world with Google, have changed knowledge access and the need to memorize facts in my opinion much like the Shift Happens, and Pay Attention video's indicate. The amount of information available to humankind, with an internet connection, is incomprehensible. However, many of the tests created by teachers, districts, and states are fact-based tests with a scattering of higher order skills on the better assessments. We are not preparing students for our current society. The "need to know" facts are less important that the skill of finding and filtering information readily available. Whole economies are changing. Companies are providing services to customers at less than free (paying you to use their products) and succeeding. Yet education is stuck in the past when knowledge was not ubiquitous, and assessment was a tool to determine who had acquired knowledge. I would like to see assessment reflect the fact that students upon leaving public education will rarely be without a calculator, a dictionary, or infinite encyclopedia. In the near future most people will not be far from all world knowledge through the internet. For example, we have too many restrictive policies limiting teachers from helping students learn appropriate uses for technology, like restrictive cell phone policies. Education Week presented another article last week titled, "Cellphones in Schools: Flip ’Em Open" By Matt Levinson (see article here) that sums up this idea very well. I think we need to re-asses how and when we use traditional assessments, and move to more portfolio, product based, assessments of real tasks and real problem solving (like the atmosphere at many successful companies).

Many critics of incorporating 21st century skills into education look to the lack of internet connectivity across the United States, and the economic gap. Some claim there are digital natives and immigrants, however, I believe the United States is getting closer and closer to universal access to the internet. Changes are happening rapidly that will make this argument obsolete. I work in a very economically challenged school, yet I see more students with cell phones and technology than ever before. I think educators need to think about what we need parents and the community to provide so we can create curriculum, offer instruction, and assess problem solving skills. In the past, students were required to bring to school tools such as books, paper, and pencils; now we might be getting closer to requiring that students have access to the internet to communicate, find information, and learn to become life-long learns.

In my current teaching assignment as a math teacher I would like to see the curriculum reviewed in light of what and where students use math upon graduation, outside of simply using math to pass college entrance tests. All too often I hear the complaint, "When am I ever going to use this?" to which the honest reply is, "when you apply to college and need to pass the test." The skills identified as needed should be reviewed and input from industry and companies should be identified, and included in the curriculum. However, this dramatic shift of curriculum requires everyone to change, from the college entrance boards, to the graduation requirements, and NCLB tests. In the short term I would like to use and demonstrate 21st century skills, starting with the power of 24-7 learning. Mandating students to communicate outside of class, about class, using social media, would be one way to accomplish this. Assigning real problems that require real solutions, done in a collaborative environment, is yet another way to teach and use 21st century skills.

As a school leader it is important to create a sense of urgency to make change, especially change as dramatic as creating new curriculum and a new pedagogical paradigm. To help create this sense of urgency, I would look at the relevant data that shows students are not prepared to compete in the global economy. Sharing this data, and creating a network of individuals who can continue creating urgency by using the new media will begin creating urgency. For example, to help other administrators and teachers see the value of allowing students to work on real problems, I would invite the leaders and teachers to watch live demonstrations with students working problems and interacting with the world. I would demonstrate the power of the flat world (see The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman). I would have the leaders start reading and participating (by writing and contributing) in online communities in an attempt to enlarge my personal learning community (PLC) and help them create one. Professional development would need to change to accommodate 24-7 learning. Finally I need to highlight my senior math students who are about to graduate. They have very few financial literacy skills. They don't understand how loans work, interest is calculated, credit issued, or checkbooks balance. Where are they going to get these skills to solve real world problems they will face in the very near future? Note: Also take a look at this youtube video for all school administrators to get an iphone (I argue any smartphone would do the same).

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