Why it’s so scary that test prep works so well
Sarah Blaine is a mother, former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in New Jersey who writes at her own parentingthecore blog. In the last year she has written a number of pieces on this blog documenting her own evolution into education activism, including one published last year titled, “You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong,” and another titled “Pearson’s wrong answer — and why it matters in the high-stakes testing era.” Here’s a new post by Blaine about test prep — how it worked for her when she was studying for the bar exam to become a lawyer, and it how it affects students and the process of learning.
By Sarah Blaine
Studying for the bar exam requires stepping into a bizarre alternate reality. After three years of law school, my classmates and I celebrated our graduation and pretty much immediately began our bar studies.
I began with the PMBR prep course. The PMBR course is a supplemental bar course that focuses specifically on test taking strategies — and, to a lesser extent, content — for the Multi-state Bar Exam (“MBE”). All states other than Louisiana require aspiring attorneys to take the MBE, in which you have 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon to answer 200 multiple choice questions. The questions are tricky, confusingly worded, and have multiple right answers: your job is to figure out which answer the test makers think is the “best” right answer. Depending on your state, your MBE score is somewhere around half of your total bar exam grade. The bar exam is high stakes: no one wants to risk failing the bar exam.
To be honest, ten years later I can’t remember whether I took PMBR’s 3 day course or its 7 day course. What I do remember is this: on the first day of the course, they gave us a sample MBE exam. After a lifetime of acing standardized multiple-choice achievement tests, I got maybe — maybe — a third of the sample PMBR MBE questions correct. Now, that might have been slick marketing strategy to convince me that the course was worth my new law firm’s money, but my take is that it was legit: I did poorly because I hadn’t yet immersed myself in the MBE’s bizarre logic.
The test prep worked. After a week of PMBR, I was scoring significantly better. I don’t recall details, but I do recall hours of analyzing individual exam questions, discussions of strategies for identifying and discarding tricky wrong answer choices, and of immersing my brain in the test maker’s logic. After PMBR ended, BAR/BRI (the comprehensive bar preparation course) began. For BAR/BRI, we packed into a large lecture hall to watch videotaped cram lectures in the bar subjects in the mornings (I still recall Seton Hall professor Paula Franzese’s Property songs, and especially her promise that when the bar exam was over, there would be ponies). In the afternoon, I sat in my house or my local library reducing my morning notes into easily memorized flashcards for cramming “black letter law” into my head.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I picked up my then eight or nine month old from day care and played with her for awhile (yes, my first child was born in the fall semester of my third year of law school; in case you’re wondering, I graduated with high honors). Then I’d spend my evening studying more. About halfway through the BAR/BRI course, BAR/BRI had us spend a day taking a practice MBE. Because of my responsibilities as a mom, I’d been front loading my studies, and unlike many of my peers, I discovered at that point that I’d successfully immersed myself in the test-makers’ multiple-choice logic. As a result, I kicked the practice exam’s butt, and felt that I could focus the rest of my bar prep focused on the essay writing, with only a bit of continued MBE practice to keep my head in the game.
Bar exam essay writing was, again, its own unique genre. We were highly encouraged to write strictly according to the IRAC formula, in which we started with an Issue (e.g., “An Issue raised by this fact pattern is whether Fred is guilty of involuntary manslaughter”), then set out the Rule (“The elements of involuntary manslaughter are…”), then Analyzed the facts presented (“Fred’s actions meet the first element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…; Fred’s actions meet the second element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…”), and then stated our Conclusion (“Because Fred’s actions satisfy each of the four elements of involuntary manslaughter, he will be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter”). Bar exam essay writing makes for some scintillating prose.
When the bar exam arrived, my reaction was “Bring it on!” And four months later, I was gratified to learn that I’d passed. But the bar exam was a bizarrely arbitrary rite of passage. It was strange to realize that after three years of law school, I was unprepared to pass my chosen profession’s licensing exam without two months of intensive commercial test preparation. It was also strange to spend so much time learning “black letter law” (i.e., specific “rules” of law that would lead us to a particular correct answer). Even for the essays, analysis must lead you to a “correct” answer. This has nothing to do with the reality of legal practice, but it makes perfect sense to bar examiners because formulaic essays are far easier to grade. The same is even more true of the bar exam’s multiple-choice questions. Never mind that as a practicing lawyer your job is to see nuance, and to craft the best arguments you can (within the limits of your ethical responsibilities, of course) to support your client’s position. In ten years of practice, I’ve written a lot of briefs, but no judge has given me a multiple-choice test.
Compared to the bar exam, law school exams are a far closer approximation of what practicing attorneys actually do out in the real world. Many are open book, and whether open or closed book, the point of professor-written law school exams is to demonstrate that you’ve learned how to “think like a lawyer,” that is, that you’ve learned to apply legal principles to analyze and dissect the nuances presented by complex fact patterns. A typical law school issue spotter will say something like, “Read the following fact pattern [anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a page or two]. Identify the legal issues.” And then you’ll discuss the facts, apply the legal principles you’ve learned to those facts, and analyze the interplay of facts and legal principles. The point is to figure out whether you can see the areas of concern, so that when you enter practice someday, you’ll be able to listen to your client and figure out where to start researching whether he has a case. On a law school issue spotter, there generally isn’t a right answer: the professors care more about whether your analysis makes sense than whether you’ve correctly memorized the legal principles, as they know that any lawyer worth her fees (and who values her license) will do research before making recommendations to her client.
The strangest part of the bar, however, was getting my bar results two months into my new job as a baby lawyer at a large law firm. It wasn’t strange because I’d passed: I’d worked hard and I knew I had a decent head on my shoulders. What was strange was getting that score and realizing how little bar exam study had done to prepare me for the actual job of being a baby lawyer.
When I started in private practice, I didn’t know how to do anything:
I didn’t know how to file a motion.
I didn’t know what a motion was.
I didn’t know how to draft a certificate of service.
I didn’t know that you needed to submit a proposed form of order along with your motion.
I didn’t know what a case management conference was.
I didn’t know what a discovery plan looked like.
I hadn’t participated in a large-scale document review.
I didn’t know how to mark exhibits or move them into evidence.
I certainly didn’t know how to write a deposition outline.
I had no experience taking depositions, and didn’t know the first thing about how to manage a witness.
I didn’t know what an in limine motion was.
I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a trial brief.
I knew nothing about recruiting and working with expert witnesses.
In short, like every other baby lawyer, I didn’t know squat about how to actually succeed in my chosen career (other than what I’d learned the prior summer when I’d worked as a summer associate at my new law firm). If I’d started out as a solo practitioner, I would have committed malpractice. Thankfully, however, all that issue-spotting had earned me a position at a law firm with the resources to provide me with intelligent supervision and strong on-the-job training.
Ten years on, I find that I do use the skills tested on those law school issue spotter exams. In particular, I can read the file on a new case, and use the analytical skills I honed in law school to analyze the issues in light of the law, do (or assign) research where needed, determine what additional facts I need to learn, and make recommendations to my colleagues or my clients. When we learn new facts, I can adjust our initial analysis as needed to account for the changes and to craft new strategy. Those are skills evolved from prepping for those convoluted issue spotter law school exams.
However, ten years into private practice, I don’t draw on my two months of intensive bar test prep to advise my clients or manage my work. I don’t rely on essay formulas to craft my briefs, and of course I have never encountered an MBE-style multiple choice question. But the thing is… PMBR and BAR/BRI worked. Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score. In the past ten years, I’ve occasionally encountered some pretty crappy lawyers, but they all have one thing in common: they passed the bar exam.
The fact that test prep works is what scares me as a public school parent, because as a parent I know that my child’s standardized test scores tell me virtually nothing about whether she’s actually mastered the academic skills she needs for a successful future.
My two months of bar test prep taught me that mass-produced bar prep can successfully raise scores: my MBE score skyrocketed when I left my inquisitiveness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness at the door, and instead immersed myself completely in the test-makers’ logic. I was willing to engage in two months of intensive test-prep because the stakes were so high: I could have lost my new job for failing the bar. Test prep was a means to an end, and it was an end I wanted (passing the bar so I could begin my career as a litigator at a large law firm), so I was willing to spend (my firm’s) money and my time on the commercial test prep courses. Thankfully, though, our (generally tenured) law school professors focused on preparing us for the practice of law, and not on preparing us for a soon-to-be-forgotten standardized test.
But what will my child gain from devoting 9 of her 13 years of public education to test prep? She might become a genius at immersing herself in the logic of the test makers, but will she learn to write purposefully and well? Will she learn to creatively attack a problem? Will she learn empathy and art appreciation and history and how to work as a member of a team? I fear that the answer is no, or at least not nearly as much as she would have if testing wasn’t driving curriculum.
Thankfully, my older child attends a school where the bulk of the teachers have tried hard to minimize the encroachment of test prep on the “real” curriculum, but even so, it seems to me that my fourth-grader is bringing home fewer challenging projects that engage her as a learner. She complained that her teacher has been racing through math curriculum so that they’ll have “covered” all of the topics they need for the PARCC End of Year testing. Fortunately, my kindergartener attends a K-2 public school that is relatively insulated from the test-taking pressures. Her class is making daily observations of their tadpoles’ development. Tonight at dinner the little one flummoxed the older one by explaining the functions of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the pre-frontal cortex.
I am thrilled that our local district’s test-focused superintendent (with her district-wide quarterly assessments to determine whether our kids were on track to succeed on the statewide annual assessments) recently resigned, and her interim replacement is a career educator who seems interested in putting exactly as much focus on standardized test scores as they’re worth. But not all children are in a district where progressive education seems to be making a resurgence.
Test prep — defined as taking concrete steps to get children into the heads of the test-makers — works. It really does, even on a test that’s allegedly of critical thinking, such as the bar exam (and, presumably, the PARCC). So as the stakes continue to grow, teachers will understandably be more and more tempted to engage in intensive test-prep (although bills to change this are in progress, under current New Jersey law, this year’s PARCC scores are worth 10% of teachers’ evaluations, but next year’s scores will be 20% of teachers’ evaluations, and the year after that PARCC scores will be 30% of teachers’ evaluations). Even where the teachers are not tempted, their principals or superintendents or even New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe may put unbearable pressure on them to raise scores — and coerce parents to allow their children to test — by any means necessary. For instance, just today (now, technically, yesterday) in an interview with the Newark Star Ledger, David Hespe threatened
“We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we have a comfort level moving forward that we are going to hit that 95 percent,” Hespe said. “This is not a no harm, no foul situation here.”
Under Hespe’s vision, public schools will become publicly funded versions of BAR/BRI and PMBR courses, and a child-centered, holistic public education will become rarer and rarer. Parents will be threatened and coerced to let their children test or risk further state intervention and loss of funds for their local districts (which already experienced drastic cuts in state aid under the Christie administration). The privatization movement will rejoice, as public school parents with the means will opt-out completely by sending their children to private school. Fewer parents of privilege will be left to speak out, and public education will instead continue its march to the test-prep driven bottom as it serves a higher and higher percentage of students whose parents can’t offer them other options.
I’ve refused to allow my test-aged child to test, because I believe in public education. My children attend public school in Montclair, New Jersey because I know that all children do better when they attend high-quality, integrated public schools with children whose life experiences differ from their own. It’s that vision of diversity and equitable opportunity that I want for my children, and that I, for one, believe is critical to keeping the American dream alive. Yet state bureaucrat David Hespe threatens local districts — and tries to sow division — in integrated local districts like ours because so many of us Montclair parents from all walks of life have joined together to protest PARCC’s destructive effects.
As I watched our local schools narrow curriculum and move toward a test-prep focus for two years under the reins of our test-driven (now former) superintendent, I toyed with the idea of pulling my kids out of their integrated public schools and sending them to private school (knowing that doing this would have required us to sell our house in our beloved neighborhood), but doing so would be a defeat. Instead, I elected to fight for our public schools by writing, speaking, and ultimately refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC tests. I will continue to do so.
The scary thing is: test prep works. That’s why it’s so tempting to teachers, principals, and school district officials whose careers are on the line. And that’s why we parents are the last line of defense. David Hespe might want to, but no one can fire us. That’s why we parents must stand firm against pressure such as that exerted today by David Hespe. It is up to We The Parents to ensure that our nation’s public schools in all neighborhoods remain — or become — more than test-prep factories. Our kids deserve no less.
The last time David Hespe threatened us public school parents, it backfired on him. In fact, I, for one, give him (through his October 30, 2014 memo threatening sanctions for opting out) credit for single-handedly sparking New Jersey’s until then minuscule PARCC refusal movement. Now, instead of learning from his mistake, David Hespe has doubled-down on his punitive approach to public education. Today, Hespe announced his strategy of trying to ensure public school parent capitulation to PARCC by threatening to further interfere in our local school districts and perhaps even withhold state funding.
One would almost be tempted to think that Hespe has bought into (or been bought by) the immersive logic of the test-makers. Hespe’s reasoning skills might get him a passing score on a standardized test, but reasoning his reasoning will get him nowhere in the court of public opinion. We New Jerseyans are contrarian by nature. David Hespe, please take note: threats to inflict collective punishment on entire communities because New Jersey parents have refused the PARCC tests as an act of conscience and courage are far more likely to infuriate than subdue us. We New Jersey taxpayers — and our kids — deserve a state education policy maker with real world — and not test prep — reasoning skills. I don’t need to wait five months for his score: Hespe failed the test.
(Correction: Adding dropped word in introduction)
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Miami-Dade Schools dumps 290 district-created tests
The superintendent of the nation’s fourth largest school district, Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade public schools in Florida, just announced what he called “the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not in the country.” He said on Thursday that he was cutting the number of district-developed end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 — including all for elementary school — to “restore teaching time” and “respect the educational environment.”
Other districts in Florida are doing the same thing, a reaction to a new law signed last week by Gov. Rick Scott, which was meant to reduce the number of standardized tests given to students. The law was seen as a response to a parent- and educator-led anti-standardized testing movement in the state, part of a movement to protest excessive high-stakes standardized testing that has led to continuous test prep and a narrowing of curriculum.
Florida has been at the forefront of the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, with former governor Jeb Bush instituting test-based accountability system when he was governor from 1999-2007. With Bush expected to announce that he is running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, anything that affects his legacy has resonance beyond the state.
The Florida law eliminated the 11th grade English Language Arts exam (already suspended by Scott earlier in the school year), and gave districts leeway to get rid of others — which is what is happening now. The law also reduced the weight of student test scores on teacher evaluations, from 50 percent to a third, and mandated that a commission assess the validity of the Florida Standards Assessment, the new exam aligned to the state’s standards. (Florida dropped the Common Core and the Core-aligned PARCC aligned and designed its own standards which critics say are similar to the Common Core.)
Carvalho, who was the 2014 National Superintendent of the Year, has been increasingly vocal with criticism about the impact that high-stakes standardized tests are having on students and the learning process. This past Monday, when computers crashed, not allowing many students to start state-mandated standardized tests, he tweeted that the validity of the exams was being compromised.
On Thursday, he made the announcement about the elimination of most end-of-course exams and then put it on Twitter and Facebook:
Today, we announce the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not in the country. pic.twitter.com/jw0IGD125C — Alberto M. Carvalho (@MiamiSup) April 23, 2015
.@MDCPS reduces formerly state-required end-of-course exams from 300 to only 10; completely eliminating them at the elementary level. — Alberto M. Carvalho (@MiamiSup) April 23, 2015
On Facebook, he wrote:
Today, @MDCPS announced the elimination of nearly 300 District-Developed end-of-course (EOC) exams, including all elementary school EOC exams. We have taken a responsible and logical approach to assessing students, in order to restore valuable teaching and learning time. We were joined by UTD and PTA/PTSA leadership, who were instrumental in voicing the concerns from students, parents and teachers.
Other districts in Florida are doing the same thing. This letter was sent to all teachers in Brevard County from Associate Superintendent Cyndi Van Meter:
April 20, 2015
(Clarification: Changed headline to make it clear that eliminated tests were standardized district-created exams)
Jon Stewart: Cheating teachers go to jail. Cheating Wall Streeters don’t. What’s up with that?
This is one of those videos that make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I you didn’t watch it, take a few minutes, and if you did see it, watch it again and see what you missed amid the layers of deep analysis for which “The Daily Show” is known.
Jon Stewart on Wednesday night made the inevitable comparison between the former teachers and administrators in Atlanta who were sentenced for cheating on standardized tests — a few for as much as seven years — with Wall Street denizens who in 2008 connived in a way that nearly brought down the country’s financial system. Only one was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
The Atlanta convictions, of racketeering and other crimes in a standardized test-cheating scandal, were believed to be the worst of a wave of test cheating in nearly 40 states and Washington, D.C. — not by students but by teachers and administrators who were under pressure to meet certain score goals at the risk of sanction if they failed.
The case stemmed from a 2013 indictment by a grand jury of Beverly Hall, the now-deceased Atlanta schools superintendent, and 34 teachers, principals and others. Twelve teachers eventually went to trial; one was acquitted of all charges and the 11 others were all convicted of racketeering — under a law used against the Gambino organized-crime family — plus a variety of other charges. Prosecutors alleged that Hall had run a “corrupt” organization that used test scores to financially reward and punish teachers. Hall passed away earlier this year.
The judge in Atlanta is said to be reconsidering his harshest sentences.
Stewart compares the cases and finds a surprising number of similarities — except the sentences.
Here it is:
How teachers want to evaluate their students
Kathryn Mitchell Pierce is a literacy teacher at Wydown Middle School in the Clayton School District in Missouri, where she has been working since 2003. She has taught in elementary school as well as at the university level, and has written extensively on the role of talk in literature study, as well as about children’s books and professional resources for literacy teachers. In the following post, she writes about how teachers would like to assess their students, referencing a project by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in which teachers are reporting on how good assessment works.
By Kathryn Mitchell Pierce
I was once advised that if you want to know how well a canary sings, it’s best to start by listening to canaries. If we want sage advice on how to improve teaching and learning — which requires strong curriculum, well-prepared teachers, and adequate resources to support learning — then we would be wise to turn to our nation’s teachers for suggestions. The NCTE English Assessment Story Project has endeavored to do just that — to gather stories and suggestions from teachers across the country. With nearly 350 responses so far, educators from kindergarten to college are weighing in with ideas about how good assessment works.
Teachers are the most important agents of assessment. What they’re telling us is that they need time and support to use assessments that actually inform instruction.
Consider this full dashboard of tools and techniques that Tiffany, a high school teacher, describes using for every unit she teaches:
- Pre and post assessments at the beginning and end of each unit
- A combination of review skills and mini-lessons to reintroduce topics.
- Guided practice and then a practice assessment
- Follow up practice for reinforcement at home.
- Short assessments: quizzes, exit tickets, bell ringers, short tests, etc
- An overall unit test, which could be in the form of project where students must transfer a learned skill into an authentic task.
- “Root cause” analysis with colleagues to figure out how to reteach trouble areas.
Literacy and learning are complex, multi-faceted processes. Teachers like Tiffany use varied assessments in order to preserve this complexity. They integrate this information with their ongoing observations and interactions.
The NCTE/IRA Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing reiterate this central role for the classroom teacher:
“Most educational assessment takes place in the classroom, as teachers and students interact with one another. Teachers design, assign, observe, collaborate in, and interpret the work of students in their classrooms. They assign meaning to interactions and evaluate the information that they receive and create in these settings. In short, teachers are the primary agents, not passive consumers, of assessment information. It is their ongoing, formative assessments that primarily influence students’ learning.”
What teachers want and need in order to carry out this crucial role isn’t fancier tests — it’s time to work collaboratively with assessment data and professional development to help them understand how to make sense of the various data sources already available. One elementary teacher shared:
Honestly I think the data that is needed is already out there in a variety of well-designed assessments. What is needed most in order to improve our teaching is some inservice on data interpretation. We spend so much time on collecting data but then interpret it very differently and respond differently. …. Let’s look at our data, find out who is consistently showing improvement in student achievement and then attempt to replicate what they do. We don’t need more assessments, we need to use what we already have more effectively.
If time is money, then making time available to effectively use the data that already exists seems like money well-spent.
Additionally, when teachers work together to make sense of samples of student work, and to create common ways of analyzing these samples, they engage in powerful conversations about learning and what counts as evidence of learning. The end-result of these conversations is a deeper understanding of growth patterns in literacy, a broader repertoire of strategies for supporting students, and a fuller appreciation for the intricacies of assessment. An elementary teacher explains, “Assessment should be a tool for teaching, putting the focus back on helping our students succeed.” In an atmosphere that seems to frame assessment as a bad word, I find hope in vignettes like this one from high school teacher, Juliette:
We start with the end in mind. Interest inventories, diagnostics, and multiple intelligences questionnaires are used to ascertain where the students are, especially since we have a large population of students coming from the International Center. We find that many of our students are below grade level reading, limited English and lack of exposure play a role…
Such things are possible. The best assessment processes are those that truly inform instruction AND contribute to teachers’ professional knowledge base. Listening to teachers is the best place to begin if we’re truly serious about improving teaching and learning.
Listening to teachers is the best place to begin if we’re truly serious about improving assessment practices.
Must today’s eighth-graders know three ways animals survive in cold winters? How to renovate the instructional core.
When was the last time you saw a high school senior running down the hallway, high-fiving his classmates about schoolwork? That’s the start of the following post about what kind of instruction makes sense in the 21st Century. It was written by Tyler S. Thigpen, who has worked in public, private, and charter schools in Atlanta. Currently he is a Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Thigpen is the former head of the upper school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, a co-founder of Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in southwest Atlanta, and a former Spanish teacher in the Gwinnett County, Ga., public schools. Earlier, Tyler worked as minister at a local Atlanta church and led international development in Peru in areas of healthcare, education, poverty reduction, infrastructure, and human rights. A husband and father of four, he holds a midcareer Master of Public Administration from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government and a master of Theological Studies from Regent College of the University of British Columbia. Follow Tyler on twitter: @tylerthigpen.
By Tyler S. Thigpen
When was the last time you saw a high school senior running down the hallway, high-fiving his classmates about schoolwork?
I witnessed this last year, where I was the principal at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. Students worked in groups and used learning from all their classes to address limited land or water, a real-world problem they’d had a hand in organizing together to solve. They were part of a student body that experienced improved test scores in every category. These are young adults who, under a model of 21st-Century learning, have a curiosity about the greater world they are about to enter, and an appetite for using what they’ve learned to solve problems.
There is a sea change in how and for what reasons we educate in an information age. Learning in the 21st Century is about moving beyond teaching facts and more fully integrating complex thinking into our nation’s classrooms. Emerging research suggests 21st-Century learning helps students master core academic content, retain what they learn, and stay motivated, all of which result in higher performance.
So how can schools restructure themselves to whet these appetites for learning?
In what follows, I offer five steps school leaders and teachers can take now to create the conditions for a much fuller integration of 21st-Century learning. None of the following ideas is easy to implement. But each recommendation below is feasible now and, when implemented together, has the potential to produce results that move a generation of students, parents, and teachers to transform the sector from within.
1. Cut non-essential content.
Did I mention this wouldn’t be easy?
Teachers and students need time and space for the nuanced skills associated with 21st-century learning. “Non-essential content” refers to any and every content-based standard that students are currently being taught, but will not be held accountable for.
This act of letting go can be challenging. Emotions, customs, and teaching routines create inertia. But the move to subtract content-based standards is logical for several reasons. For example, Robert Marzano discovered enough benchmarks to require an additional 10 years of secondary education. No one is going to benefit from being overwhelmed with content they can’t absorb.
The Internet is also a game-changer. Information is universally available for anyone able to access, understand, and discern content’s bias, quality, and extraneous information—effectively, learning how to learn. Should an eighth grader, for example, have to know three ways animals survive in places that have cold winters? Should she have to remember exactly how the human eye sees objects and colors, a question on the National Assessment of Educational Process? Or is it more important for her to know how to find accurate, useful information in a timely manner?
Of course, knowledge is still crucial in 21st-century learning: knowledge layers on top of knowledge, building upon itself, in order to enrich learning into the future. Acquiring knowledge and learning skills are not mutually exclusive; there is such a thing as dual emphasis of content and skill cultivation. But discerning what is worth remembering in the Information Age is our first step in staying relevant in the 21st century.
2. Gradually add 21st-Century skill-based standards.
Rest assured, 21st-century learning does not mean more technology. What it does mean is integrating skills that are, according to EdLeader21, characteristics of “divergent thinking skills”:
• Fluency—generates high volume of new ideas in response to open-ended questions or problems • Flexibility—openness to examining ideas in unexpected ways • Originality—generating options that are unusual or statistically infrequent • Elaboration—making ideas richer or more complete • Metaphorical thinking—use comparison or analogy to make new or unique connections; making the strange familiar, or the familiar strange
Put another way, 21st-Century learning means developing an emphasis on leadership, group organization, and focus to complete projects together. It also means embedding curiosity within the curriculum.
For 21st-Century learning to work at scale, teachers must move beyond discrete, discipline-based standards and tests that reinforce emphasis on low-level learning expectations to include nuanced, complex skills.
Individual teachers, as well as schools, can embed 21st-Century skills now to the extent they make time to include them after subtracting non-essential content standards. Districts and states can embed them by revising standards to include them responsibly, either by leveraging already existing lists of 21st-century standards that are associated with positive student achievement, or by producing their own by collaborating with undergraduate and marketplace professionals, aligning expectations and goals, and enumerating the appropriate suite of skills.
3. Introduce trans-disciplinary learning environments.
Trans-disciplinarity—mixing teachers and standards—is an educational or research strategy that crosses disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach, usually with a focus on problems that cross the boundaries of multiple disciplines. Trans-disciplinary studies focus on an issue—such as pollution or hunger—both within and beyond disciplinary boundaries with the possibility of new perspectives.
In a trans-disciplinary framework, students work together with other students, with teachers from across disciplines, and even with external experts from across industries, to leverage both content standards and skills in service of either exploring some broader theme or finding a solution to some common, contemporary problem.
This approach to unit building is advantageous to learning for two key reasons, both of which have to do with relationships. The first is that students can relate deeply to one another and therefore achieve certain 21st-century outcomes. The second is that it positions students to see relationships between content areas (see Education Week 2013).
To achieve this kind of unit planning now, schools can form teams of teachers from across disciplines that collaborate together to teach the same or similar groups of students. Grouping teachers in teams that cross disciplinary boundaries and then empowering them to develop units collaboratively create the conditions for these rich learning environments.
Is this approach a panacea? No. Not all subject areas are conducive to a trans-disciplinary framework. Math in particular is often best incorporated when math teachers lead the way in deciding when in the year it is best for trans-disciplinary units to occur. But to the extent that curriculum development can incorporate skills acquired in multiple disciplines, this type of learning augments and engages students in a way that abstract learning cannot.
4. Change the way students and teachers make use of time.
To move towards a 21st-Century learning environment, we must revisit how students and teachers spend their days and weeks. First, teachers need more time to plan collaboratively, author curriculum, and learn the approach. School leaders can orient master schedules to simultaneously allow for more teacher planning time in general as well as more planning time and professional development for grade level teams. School leaders can also pay a stipend to talented teachers for authoring curriculum and assessments during summers. To mix teachers and disciplines responsibly, planning and training must begin months prior to the start of each semester.
Students also need more time in the aforementioned mode of dual content and skill cultivation. To that end, we might envision students spending time in disciplinary learning environments for part of the school day, where they encounter and master foundational content and skills within the disciplines, and in trans-disciplinary learning environments for the other part of the school day, where they work together in groups, actively use the disciplinary content and skills they have gleaned, and further develop other 21st-Century skills that transcend the disciplines.
5. Let student interest and mastery of standards drive change.
Let us imagine for a moment a group of teachers from across disciplines asking their students about their interests, aspirations, and curiosity. Then imagine them mapping, authoring, and delivering instruction and assessment around what students already care about deeply. Would this approach to education not be considerably more interesting for students who, our best surveys suggest, grow increasingly disengaged with school as they grow older? Does not the rapid exchange of information in this generation call for rapid-fire exchanges of ideas in the classroom?
The traditional organizers of curriculum—i.e., the disciplinary categories—are entrenched. Teachers are used to planning and delivering instruction alone. Students are quite accustomed to disciplinary modes and outdated learning expectations. Getting buy-in from all involved is a huge challenge. And transforming even just one school takes years.
But there are thousands of brave educators pioneering 21st-century learning who have found ways that captivate and prepare young people better than what most schools do now.
All that is needed now is for us to resolve those ways are scalable, and to update our approach. Our children cannot afford to wait for the adults in the room to catch up.