Category Archives: 21C Skills

Check Out Incredible Curriculum Spiral via Ross School

Rhetorical question for all educators: do you have or wish you had a really well-scaffolded curriculum?

To be honest, I would have thought by now most schools could answer that integrated curriculum maps and tight alignment amongst subjects and grade levels were well in our rearview mirrors; that faculty who work in the same school but in different hallways had a good idea of what each were doing; that opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and cross-subject project work were as easy to find and pick as proverbial low-hanging fruit.

Unfortunately, that is still not the case at many schools, and even if your school has a good curriculum map, you REALLY might want to check out this mind-blowing tool I ran across yesterday. Thanks to a mention in Bold Moves for Schools (Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock), I found the Ross School and the Ross Learning System and “Spiral”, which you pretty much just have to play with to believe and understand.

The Spiral is the interactive visual manifestation of a preK-12 interdisciplinary curriculum “with a focus on sustainability and a systems thinking perspective…designed to prepare learners to address the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly complex, globally connected future.” The entire school curriculum integrates all subjects, aligned to their evolution through global and human history.

I have not even connected with Ross School yet, but I will, and will learn and share more, but I wanted to get this out there.

The Problem is Not Climate Change; the Problem is Irrational Thinking

I rarely use this space to discuss themes that might be interpreted as political.  If the reader interprets this post as political, they are missing the point.  This post is about history, knowledge, what we do with knowledge, and the utterly unique role that education plays in that sequence.

imgres-1In the last week I read two articles about scientific research on coral reefs. One reported that enormous swaths of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died in the last three years.  The other reports on a group of scientists who predict that 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be dead by 2050 due to rapidly increasing ocean water temperatures throughout the tropics.  I am specifically NOT citing a link to either of these articles because they were in newspapers and I did not read, nor would I be able to authoritatively discern, if the research cited in the articles was of such quality as to be considered “fact”.  I am not a marine biologist or a climatologist. There are likely scientists and others who disagree with both the rate of reef die-off and the causes.

I was, back in the day, a marine geologist, and recall well working with and learning from older oceanographers who researched global warming.  Way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the best research and computer projections indicated that our planet would warm substantially over the coming century.  The predictions included melting of ice across Antartica, Greenland, and in mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in average weather and rainfall patterns, and warming sea temperatures. Those predictions have proven both right and wrong. The planet has warmed, with almost all of the projected impacts, only it has all happened much faster than we predicted.  The vast majority of scientists and lay people around the world agree that this rapid warming is caused by the parallel increase in human-induced, carbon-based air pollution.

imagesCoral reefs are not just pretty places to visit.  They are very much that; I have visited and studied some of the prettiest in the world, but threats to beauty are not existential.  Coral reefs are one of the two most diverse, productive ecosystems on the planet (the other are the terrestrial equivalent, rain forests). They are incubator, breeding ground, nursery, and home to enormous webs of life that support the marine food chain, including humans.  Losing 90% of coral reefs in thirty years is a global crisis that is already in motion. Hundreds of millions of people rely on food that is supported by living coral reefs.  That is a simple fact.

Here is where education comes in. Research can be wrong.  We and our students need to have the capacity and mindset to look at research that suggests a global calamity within our lifetimes. What if the die off is slower?  What if only 50% of reefs are dead by 2050? Is that a good thing? We have proven throughout human history that we can change our planet, but we can’t change the laws of physics and nature. As educators, it is our moral duty to help students understand the impacts of messing with the laws of physics and nature.

imgres-2We have arrived at a place in America where somehow the burden of proof is on scientists to prove at a level of 100% that they are right about a future that is almost apocalyptically bad for virtually every human being. Any rational, well-educated person would take the opposite view: that you err on the side of caution; that if there is even a fair chance that something really horrible is going to happen, and you can do something about it, you do it.  The bigger the chance it will happen, and the worse the possible outcome, the more vigorously you pursue potential solutions. Then-vice president Dick Cheney, a person with whom I disagreed on almost everything he he ever said, used this logic with his famous “1%” doctrine: That if there were a 1% chance that terrorists were going to acquire a nuclear weapon, then any action to stop them was justified. T

The doctrine applies: Loss of 90% of coral reefs is the equivalent of dozens of nuclear weapons exploding in slow motion.  I hate to even think it, but the long-term pain and suffering that will result from loss of 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be vastly greater than a nuclear attack on a major American city. No one on the planet is immune from the changes in store when 90% of coral reefs die in a period of 30 or 40 or even 100 years.

Let me be clear: we did not wake up this week and realize the coral reefs are dying at horrendous rates. We have predicted and known it for decades.  If you are an educator, you need to help your students understand the relationship between history, knowledge, and their futures.   As educators we want our students to be problem solvers.  Well, this is a perfect example of finding the right problem to solve.  THE PROBLEM IS NOT CLIMATE CHANGE.  THE PROBLEM IS THAT, NEARLY UNIQUELY IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, A SEGMENT OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION DOES NOT BELIEVE IN SCIENCE THAT HAS PROVEN TRUE OVER DECADES. That is a problem that educators and students can and must solve.

If you are upset with me because I wrote about something that you think is political, or because I suggested that to disagree with my premise indicates irrationality or a lack of education, then I apologize for your discomfort.  You may stop following my blog; or please post a comment that points out the flaws in my logic; or denounce me.  Any discomfort among us does not measure up when it comes to problems of this magnitude.

Explosion of Deeper Learning at Underserved Neighborhood School: Bayside STEAM Academy

And people wondered why the low income school with the mascot of a big wave with fists had a lot of trouble with fighting during recess…

img_2959The new mascot is the green sea turtle that live in the shallow, southernmost reaches of San Diego Bay just a few steps from the newly renamed and rebranded Bayside STEAM Academy, a public K-6 school that is rapidly transforming itself from a low performing place of bored students and stale curriculum into a vibrant learning community.  Bayside is a public neighborhood school in a largely Latino, severely underserved community that, until this year, was the lowest performing school in the South Bay Union School District.  Like other schools that have pulled themselves into a dramatic transformation, Bayside STEAM decided to “change to ready, shoot, aim” instead of waiting any longer, says principal Kevin Coordt.

img_2964I visited Bayside to see their AR sandbox, which may be the first built and deployed in an elementary school in the country.  This remarkable invention by scientists at the University of California, Davis, cost less than $2000 to make and all of the plans and software are open source and free.  (Check out video link to the AR Sandbox to see this amazing learning tool in action!) As an ex-geologist and oceanographer, I was blown away that the work we did by hand a few decades ago can be simulated in real time by a bunch of kids who can build and change landforms, oceans, and the flow of water and rain by moving sand around and doing some simple coding.

But the sandbox is just one element of the transformation at Bayside.  Like other schools, they restructured their school day to include passion driven electives offered by teachers who get to select areas of personal interest.  These 8-week electives include everything from making musical instruments out of trash to studying the art of Georgia O-Keefe and Matisse.  One class has built working mini-submersible ROV’s out of PVC, tiny motors, and Arduino units that can submerge, maneuver, and test water for temperature, salinity and other environmental indicators.  Their students entered an Arduino competition, and despite academic test scores that lag way behind almost every other school in the competition, their teams took first and second place.  “Our kids know how to fail, try something else, and try again:, says Coordt, “because that is what we are doing every day.

In addition to having built the AR Sandbox, teacher Michael Moran is building on the students’ new understanding of landforms to map the area around the school using borrowed surveying equipment, to understand how and where some parts flood during high tides and rainstorms.  Then the students are selecting plant types that will thrive in different slope and drainage conditions.

img_2965Coordt says that the impact of their new emphasis on design, making, and STEAM has already percolated across the school amongst teachers, students and parents.  Attendance is up, referrals for discipline are down, and the school’s 79% increase in year-to-year performance on standardized test scores is one of the highest increases of any school in the county. Parents report that their students now don’t want to miss a day of school.

Are you finding it hard to shift your schedule, let go of classroom time that you know is ineffective, engage students who sit and are bored much of the day, elevate engagement and deeper learning practices, fire up your faculty, or raise test scores?  Connect with Kevin and his team and learn how they are doing it in real time in a school that for years had been tagged with that perpetual assumption of low performance in a poor community.

Truth and Democracy: An Existential Choice for Educators

Col. Francis Parker, a contemporary of John Dewey, said that the primary role of education was to instill in students the skills necessary for them to fulfill their roles as democratic citizens.  If the events of the last year have taught us anything it is that these skills, and how they are exercised, are being tested by a new threat: a current and future society where almost anyone can almost instantly communicate almost anything to almost everyone else in the world.  The role of education must evolve to meet this challenge, or potentially fail in our primary mission.

imagesThe full nature of “truth” is too large for me to ponder here, so I am going to reduce it to three categories in order to begin thinking of the role of education in this new world:

  • Opinion: Something I believe is true because it matches my other experiences, faith, or world view.  I may believe that it is “true” that abortion is a sin because of my faith, or alternately that every woman has a right to choose because I believe that individual secular human choices outweigh a specific religious belief. Each is equally valid to the owner, regardless of how objectionable to the “other”.
  • Weighted Truth: In a society based on rational thought and the role of law and precedent, and notwithstanding the possibility, no matter how small that we are wrong, the preponderance of evidence should count for more than opinion.  If 5,000 scientists from multiple disciplines say that global climate change is real and caused by human activity, and one or two disagree, the weight of the objective evidence must prove greater than mere opinion.  Were this not the case, our entire system of criminal justice would fail.
  • Factual Truth: Some things are provable.  Video and audio recording are real and we have ways to prove if they have been faked.  Hard data, acquired through objective means and disciplined research are real.  Evidence gathered from multiple sources with little or no self-interest in perpetuating false claims are real. If we cannot agree on this, we have no basis for civil discourse, which traditionally has been a differentiator between democracy and authoritarianism.

It is utterly critical, given the tenor of public discourse and the thorough breaching of these three categories in current social and political media, that education take an entirely new look at the subject of literacy and our students’ ability to discriminate amongst these three categories.  History is replete with examples of how distortions in the truth, amplified through the mechanics of ever-increasing technologies of mass communication, have proven able to crush democratic-leaning social institutions.  Propaganda is found across the political spectrum; it is not inherently liberal or conservative.  Regardless of our political leanings we simply must agree that propaganda is the fatal enemy of democracy, and education is one of the few weapons we have to defeat propaganda.  

Might we need to pull back on the time we spend in high school teaching Hemingway, the quadratic formula, the future imperfect tenses in Spanish, or medieval European history, or in elementary school building baking soda volcanos or learning to dribble a ball?  Might we have to make a choice to re-route some of that resource to a new set of essential skills, to educate our students about how to filter and discriminate amongst opinion, truth, and propaganda in modern media to which they are constantly exposed? I emphatically argue: hell yes.  That is not because those traditional elements of education have less value than they did yesterday; they still do.  It is because educators have never been just tasked with teaching children the content they need to function in society.  We are sometimes tasked with preserving society itself, and in this case, the democratic foundation upon which our society relies.

That foundation is now challenged.  Mass communication technologies allow absurdities to be broadcast as truth, seeking to influence those who lack the knowledge or skills to know the difference, or to reenforce thinking based on a previous foundation of questionable support.  The reach of propaganda, opinion, or outright lies masquerading as truth, is vastly greater, faster, and more impactful today than it was in the days of chief Nazi liar Joseph Goebbels or Soviet grandmaster Vladimir Lenin (the ultimate historical propagandists of the political right and the left).

We as educators have to make some choices, and it starts with a new discussion of what is most important for our students and how we will spend our time with them. I believe that giving our students the tools by which to perpetuate civil democracy,  like how to sort the relative weight of “truth”,  trumps all other responsibilities. Every educator and every school community should engage in this discussion, not over the specifics of each transgression splashed across the internet, but as an honest discussion of the degree to which “truth literacy” becomes a greater focus of learning across all grade levels. Despite standards, traditions, and inertia that hinder change in all schools, you do have choice. It may well be that future generations will look back to see who tucked in their heads when choices were hard, and who rallied around our most hallowed responsibilities.

Award-Winning Student Film on US-Mexico Border Issues: Learning Beyond Classroom Walls

One of the hallmarks of deeper learning, and certainly one of the drivers of education in the future, will be a breaching of the walls between “school” and “world”.  Another is demonstration of understanding based on something more authentic than an essay or a test.

Yesterday I saw work done by two ex-colleagues at Francis Parker School in San Diego, and the students of their Social Justice classes.  Opportunities for this kind of learning, which encompasses so much of what we call “21st Century” or “deeper” are everywhere, if  we are just willing to create the time for our students and teachers to find them.


“We Are Not a Class; We Are a Start-up!”

The way Bo Adams tells it, a couple of weeks ago they had a large group of visitors touring the iDiploma Hive at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School, meeting with one of the student cohorts who are working in teams on various self-selected, long-term design and development projects.  A cell phone range and one of the students looked at her phone and apologetically said, “I am so sorry; I really have to take this; it’s my client, ATT”.  Has that ever happened at your school with one of your students?


The Mt. Vernon iDiploma program is one of the most truly innovative steps in education I have seen after visiting and working with nearly 150 schools around the country and in several other countries.  Many schools are now seeing the value of engaging their students more deeply and authentically with community partners, mostly as interns or in interest-based capstone projects.  This is GREAT; a powerful and inevitable breaching of the artificial classroom and campus boundaries that have separated “school” and “world”.

img_2901iDiploma students have taken the next step; they are value-added collaborators with their community partners.  These partners are, in fact, “clients” of the students.  In addition to the group that was tasked by ATT to research, design, and develop a new app, one group has attracted the attention of Porsche; another designed a community park for the local parks and recreation department; a third is doing a study on how to reduce traffic in their neighborhood; and a fourth is working with the Atlanta-based non-profit Frazer Center to imagine uses for their 39 acres of forest land.

The multi-year program teaches the basics of user-centered design, and then allows students to live that skill set.  Teachers are there to mentor the skills, and then to help students find their own pathways. In just one hour I overheard three groups of students asking lead teacher Meghan Cureton some version of “how should we…”  In each case, Meghan responded with some version of “have you asked each other that question?  Have you exhausted your own collaborative thinking and resources on that yet?”, before giving her own guidance.

Many of the 9th graders enter the program without a background in design-based thinking; they are learning on the fly. They are breaking old habits of “doing what the teacher tells us to do”.  One student enthusiastically staked his claim as we walked by: “We are not a class; we are a start-up!”  If that is what we want from our students, let’s start treating them as start-up entrepreneurs, not empty vessels we are trying to fill with our own wisdom.

Pre-Schoolers Own Design-Centered Learning at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian

img_2894I have spent less time in early childhood pre-schools than at higher age and grade levels, so it was a treat to learn from Erin Carey at the pre-school division of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta.  What I saw was not only a huge leap beyond the color-and-paste days of my own pre-school days; it was a remarkable picture of how student-owned learning can flourish at even the youngest grade levels. I frankly never thought I would see a day when three-year-old children were designing their own learning directions, but that is where we are and where the promising future of K-12 learning is leading.

img_2895Mt. Vernon has created a unique blend of Regio-inspired student-owned learning and early childhood design thinking.  One classroom of three or four year-olds had self-selected “ice cream” as a major theme of study; another “cars”, and a third “the water pump out in the playground”.  They were learning foundational literacy and numeracy around these themes, but much more.  They went on observation walks, drew sketches of what they found, and collaborated on idea maps with the help of teachers who actually know how to spell and draw.  A parent came and showed them how to change a tire and then left a spare tire in the room so they could play with the lug nuts.  They went on a field trip to Cold Stone to see how ice cream is made AFTER having learned about how ice cream is made on their own study path.

img_2897Erin told me about the time that one class of four-year olds, having studied the water pump, invited the two-year-olds from down the hall in to listen to a panel discussion (yes, the kids were the panel), and then ask questions and play with the pieces of PVC and other odds and ends they had gathered in making their own pumps.

I am not an expert in early childhood, but I can’t help but believe that these kids are getting a set of mind-tools that go way beyond learning letters, numbers, and how to write clean letters with a pencil.  There are no iPads or other technology involved, at least as far as I saw.  This is just laying a very strong foundation for the kinds of skills we claim to value: creativity, observation, synthesis, collaboration, communication, and taking ownership of learning.

“Conferences” are Dying; A New Species of “Design Camps” Arises!

NOTHING moves the needle of school innovation faster than high quality, interest-based, peer-to-peer collaboration.  If teachers who are eager to create a deeper learning environment for their students can “see” what that looks like, and learn from peers who are actually doing it….boom.  We are seeing the emergence of this kind of collaboration in explosive new ways that you can mimic, steal, and scale, right now, regardless of budgets, time, or experience.

photo-1I have experience with helping to create large professional development conferences; I have seen the time, energy, and expense that can be swallowed by the effort.  A new model of free, open, collaborative, energetic, inspiring learning is emerging that is re-writing the education learning conference model.  It is a hybrid of EdCamps, which are completely informal and a bit anarchistic (in a great way), and a traditional conference with keynote speakers and formal breakout sessions.  A small group of dynamic edu-leaders launched their second annual Design Camp for this coming January…and filled more than 200 available slots in less than a week.  Last year’s Design Camp was an enormous success by any measure; this year’s will be larger, more diverse, and even more energetic (if that is possible).

What are the keys to re-creating this kind of successful PD?  How can you replicate it in your own community?

  • Hold the event at a school; stop paying fees to rent hotel rooms when schools have tons of free space after hours.
  • Hold the event on a Saturday when every teacher is free.
  • Don’t pay keynoters or workshop facilitators; after facilities expense, the biggest cost for a conference is hiring talent. I am one of those, and I charge a fee for 98% of the events I attend.  But when friends and local colleagues call and ask if I will keynote and share for a morning for free, I am there!
  • Don’t serve lunch; brown bag it, and maybe get one or two school parent’s associations to kick in for coffee and bagels in the morning.
  • Start with a small group of schools to provide a core group of attendees; Design Camp is organized by Design 39 Campus, VIDA, and High Tech.  (Follow and link with the dynamic leaders of these three schools: Joe Erpelding, Eric Chagala, and Kaleb Rashad.) A portion of spots are reserved for teachers at these schools and the rest are opened up to the rest of the world.
  • It is free!  In the word’s of Wavy Gravy at Woodstock, “it’s all of us, man; we are all helping each other”!
  • Build around a solid theme and vision. Don’t be afraid to say “this is the direction of learning in the future”.  Don’t offer a camp that is watered down with a bit of everything for everyone.
  • Screen workshop proposals; all breakouts should involve active learning; no reading Powerpoints; and facilitators should be experienced (or teamed with someone else who has experience).

So, get a small group of energetic, like-minded, eager school leaders together and launch your own version of Design Camp. In the first year you will learn a lot; commit to this as an annual event and it will blow your mind how quickly word gets out!

Virtual Reality Will Change “School” Forever: Major New Article

Transformational technologies — from the wheel to the printing press, steam energy, the telephone, radio, air travel, television, personal computing, and the internet — have never been just about changing how we “do” the mechanics of our lives. Truly transformational technologies allow us to fundamentally re-imagine our relationship to the world around us.

In a major article just published by ISTE, I share something I have been working on behind he scenes for the last two years: the rise of virtual reality and what it will mean to the future of education. I make the argument that, until now, technologies in education have largely been transactional tools. Virtual reality is the first evolving technology that merges both transactional and relational capabilities, and as we all know, relationships are the key to great learning.

Education has not, in fact, been fundamentally disrupted by the computing revolution as predicted 20 years ago. It will be disrupted by virtual reality, as both adult and student learners are able to connect in deep learning experiences outside the bounds of time and space that currently define “school”.  This transformation is going to happen extremely quickly relative to the rate of change in most schools, yet we, the educators, are not developing the pedagogy required to take advantage of this revolution.  We need to get in the game now, not ten years from now.

Please share the article!


Reunion With a Teacher-Hero Who Taught Us to Learn

The great transformation in which education is engaged in the first quarter of this 21st century is simply this: we are changing our focus from what we teach to how we learn.  Forward leaning schools are shifting, in the words of Bo Adams, from teaching organizations to learning organizations.  Perhaps most of all, we are remembering that learning is not the mere transaction of knowledge.  While that transaction is important, truly great learning is the relationship between learner and teacher, learner and co-learners, learner and self, and learner and the experience of learning.

Last weekend I had lunch with one of my own teacher-heroes, my 7th grade Western Civilization teacher who I had not seen in 47 years.  In 1969, Diane Heilman (now Diane Heilman Rolfe, but forever Miss Heilman to me) was a 26-year old veteran of just two years in the classroom. We, her students, found ourselves launched from six different elementary schools into our first stormy year in junior high school.  The first day of school, just three class periods into a new life, I saw something different.  The desks in Miss Heilman’s class were set up in a huge circle around the room, not in rows. Her perch was a high chair behind a podium at one front corner of the room.

Reflecting back, Miss Heilman told me that she still remembered the advice given her by an older veteran mentor as she started her teaching career.  “Treat your students as scholars”, he told her. “Learning is about your relationship to your students, nothing more”.  All that year she called us her “scholars”.

What is both wonderful to recall and tragic to realize, is that how Miss Heilman taught us nearly five decades ago, now is the stuff of books and blogs and conferences; many or most teachers have yet to transform their teaching to what we now call a “deeper learning” model.  In that circle of desks, we discussed and discoursed.  We held the great debate of Sparta vs Athens (I was an Athenian and we won the debate), and we carried out a mock trial between two Romans over a disputed parcel of land (which my side won as well!).  Of course there were many times when Miss Heilman lectured to us; I remember the way she would wipe the chalk dust from her hands as she re-took her perch and provoked us to reflect, respond, and defend on what we had heard.

Those were turbulent years, as are these, and that turbulence found its way into the classroom.  A poster of a smiling, dashing Moshe Dayan hung on the back wall as we brought the battles between Israel and the Arab world into our studies of the cradle of western civilization.  We looked into the roles of faith and philosophy, not in their linear sequence in the march of history, but in their impact as thematic drivers of the human condition.

I have long forgotten many of the details that we learned in Miss Heilman’s class, but I sure have not forgotten how we learned, and how it launched the learner in me.  She was one of the four or five best teachers I had, from kindergarten through Stanford graduate school, for a simple reason.  She primarily was a farmer of scholars, not a teacher of knowledge, and by excelling at the former, she succeeded at the later.