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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.