Look to experience, not policy, to assess 21st century skills

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Learning to collaborate and to solve ill-defined problems are to the 21st Century what industrial discipline was to the last hundred years, according to those who have studied what employers and society need. They need to be considered basic skills, just as are reading, math, and science, and they are one of the key elements of Learning 2.0.

By the turn of the millennium, it was clear that jobs requiring routine thinking and skills were giving way to those involving both higher levels of knowledge and also some applied skills, such as expert thinking and complex communicating, that are not well captured by most current educational standards or taught in the conventional curriculum. Teamwork, for example, is taught mostly in extracurricular activities.

But how to do this? If we as a society want creativity, if we want working together, where do we teach it? How do we assess it? The current policy path links new basic skills with a new generation of tests that will be a part of the Common Core of standards.

But the tests and the Common Core face a very long developmental chain and growing political opposition. A whole series of decisions has to fall the right way for tests and curriculum to emerge and be adopted. And all that happens before classrooms start to change.

Consider, for a moment, a parallel policy pathway. Instead of using educational policy to produce new tests that are to drive instruction, why not turn the process upside down and create accessible forms of learning that involve the new basic skills? Let changes in learning drive the tests.

By reversing the process, we would adopt the developmental strategy of “permanent Beta testing” made famous at Google. Get changes in learning and on-the-ground evaluation first, and build tests and curriculum based on the experience of thousands of users. Start from the bottom, not from the top. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, whose Why Don’t Students Like School? should be on everyone’s reading list, argues that seeing what works requires that some kind of assessment plan be in place and admits that measuring 21st Century skills is extremely difficult. Yet, there exist demonstration projects that carry with them both the capacity to evaluate and some experience developing instrumentation and professional practice. (In a longer essay, I discuss the potential of study groups, project-based learning, and rethinking subject matter teaching to introduce 21st Century skills.)

We can probably advance 21st Century skills as much through grounded experimentation as we can through explicit public policy.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Check out his blog, Mindworkers.com.

Filed under: Commentary, Curriculum, State Education Policy, Testing and Accountability


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3 Responses to “Look to experience, not policy, to assess 21st century skills”

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  1. Bob Pearlman on Aug 26, 2011 at 10:29 am08/26/2011 10:29 am

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    Getting Group Projects Right
    Michael G. raise a very good point about getting group projects done in a fair way. Too often, Michael writes, “Joe does all the work …Of course all three get the nice A that Joe worked so hard for.”
    From 2001 to 2009 I worked with 50 communities across the country to launch New Technology High Schools which are 100% project-based and focus on group collaborative projects. I can’t recall one that didn’t have a problem getting group projects right at start-up, or when a new 9th grade class entered. This should not be surprising. Schooling in the US and elsewhere is typified by students doing individual work and rarely do they do group work and are assessed for both their individual contribution and for their collaboration skills. Often in the beginning it is the smart kids who get the most frustrated, since they are used to doing well on their own.
    New Technology High Schools manage this problem by a series of practices. First, student project teams negotiate a written contract with one another, specifying roles, responsibilities, benchmarks and deadlines. Second, the teacher-facilitator meets regularly with the project team to assess and review progress and plan next steps. Third, the project team produces their product and presents it to an external audience made up of community experts and parents, who rate them on their project and their presentation skills. And fourth, students evaluate their team members based on a schoolwide collaboration rubric. This confidential evaluation data is shared immediately with the student (and the students parents) through an online grading program and is the basis of the student’s collaboration grade. See my PowerPoint, Learning in the 21st Century — Students as Self-Directed and Self-Assessing Learners.
    So there is truly a learning curve for students to work together effectively. But even in year one for students doing group projects, the culture, the norms, and the practices start to take hold. By the time they start grade 10, most all become effective project workers, and by graduation they exhibit high-level collaboration, communication, and project management skills which are great assets as they pursue postsecondary education and careers.
    Businesses and the military do extensive training of their personnel, build a culture of teamwork, and build systems and practices to support effective groupwork. Schools need to the same. It just doesn’t happen automatically.
    For a closer look at these practices, see my article, 21st Century Learning in Schools – A Case Study of New Technology High School in Napa, CA.
    Bob Pearlman

  2. Charles Taylor Kerchner on Aug 14, 2011 at 8:22 am08/14/2011 8:22 am

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    First of all, thanks for taking time to read the essay and respond. I appreciate your interest.
    Your observation that kids and parents generally hate projects is right on. But projects in conventional schools are worlds apart from those in schools built around project-based learning. They are built in and substantive, not added-on because the teacher thought it trendy. Take a look at this shot video on what project based learning isn’t from High Tech High: http://videos.hightechhigh.org/
    It’s not a case of my wildest dreams: Younger students can work well in groups, too, but they have to be properly motivated. (Again, graze some of the examples at High Tech High for demonstrations of high school and elementary students not looking bored working together, producing good stuff.) Part of the motivation is wanting to learn, and in some schools part of the motivation is the group itself. At the New Tech schools, students grade others on participation and can remove non-contributors.
    The issue of how to group highly motivated fast learners with disinterested ones is present in all schools, not just those that teach using groups or projects. Some teachers work with this diversity well, some don’t. At the Rocketship schools in San Jose, everyone gets to work on the higher order thinking material, and those students who need it get extra help during and after school. The school is structured that way.
    Finally, I’m sorry that it’s making you ill, but lots of teachers know how to teach and evaluate creative work. You make an important and valid point that students need the basics; they are building blocks for creativity and application. But educators and software developers are creating lots of new tools that make it possible to get the basics and combine them with application, and to respond to diversity in learning levels and styles. And, surprise, some of this work is actually being done at ed schools.


  3. MichaelG on Aug 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm08/12/2011 3:15 pm

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    Dr. Taylor, I read your longer essay and while it has some nice ideas most of them are impractical in the current situation.
    Every parent and good student I know of hates, just hates, group projects and always for the same reasons.  Joe, Mary, and Sam are assigned a group project.  Joe does all the work because each of the others either can’t make it to any of their group meetings or is too busy with extracurricular activities to do anything or is just plain clueless so Joe makes more progress doing it on his own.  Of course all three get the nice A that Joe worked so hard for.
    That famous study you mentioned about group work was for college students.  Don’t in your wildest dreams apply anything that works for college students to high school or grade school students.  College students want to be there.  College students are self-selected and generally in the top 1/2 to to 1/4 of their HS class.  If you put HS students to work in groups in class, the bad students will just use the opportunity to chat with their friends and just raise the noise level and get nothing done.  The good students will zip through the stuff and wonder what to do with their free time (hint – it won’t be constructive).  If you put the good students (if there are any) with the middle or poor students all will strongly and loudly object to being stuck with the moron/nerd.
    All this talk about creativity and such is all very nice but no teacher has any idea how to teach it and has no tool to measure it if they could teach it so it amounts to making collages or something generally useless.  Since they can’t assess creativity, no student takes it seriously and will do absolutely nothing that isn’t graded.
    More importantly, most teachers are just trying to get the basics in.  They are dealing with algebra students who can’t do fractions (a LOT of them) and English students who can barely read.  The basics take all their time and energy so when are they supposed to do anything along the lines of your nice creativity ideas?
    All this talk of creativity makes me ill.  Not that creativity doesn’t exist but you can’t measure it and if you can’t measure it you can’t tell if they have more creativity after you did your teaching of it or not.  Therefore you have no idea of what works and what doesn’t.  What the traditionalists that talk about creativity REALLY mean is they don’t want to have to have their students take any external assessment because they don’t know how to teach the standards.  The ed schools are to blame for that because they spend all their efforts on things like creativity instead of how to teach the basics.

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