by Mark Basnage, Director of Academic and Institutional Technology, Prospect Sierra School
Editor’s Note: We recently discovered the Bay Area’s Prospect Sierra School’s interesting learning model that prioritizes 6 ideas for learning in the 21st century. There is, of course, no single “best” way to pursue “21st century learning”–nor any learning at all for that matter. But seeing the way other inspired educators pursue the idea can teach each one of us a lot. In this model, we appreciate the inclusion of self-knowledge, as well as moving past the idea of content to true disciplinary knowledge–seeing knowledge in context and application.
Making Learning Meaningful: 6 Priorities For Whole Learning
1. Disciplinary Knowledge
Build and apply content knowledge to think deeply and act as a practitioner of the discipline
Disciplinary knowledge could be viewed simply as a body of static facts to be memorized—times tables, historical dates, the conjugations of French verbs, or scientific formulae. Students need these facts to learn material and prepare for tests, but the facts alone do not prepare a student to practice a professional discipline. For instance, if you move to Paris, you won’t spend time conjugating verbs. Instead, your knowledge of French will need to be more practiced, practical, and fluid to really communicate with others.
Students need to be able to connect the information they learn with how it’s used in the field. Thinking like a practitioner means knowing the facts along with the tools and habits of mind of a mathematician, a historian, a French speaker, or a scientist.
What might this look like in a classroom? In science, in addition to learning rules and formulae, students may encounter “problem spaces” instead of finding neat questions handed to them fully-formed. As scientists, their job would begin with building and testing hypotheses—posing a question and then figuring out a way to answer it—the way professional scientists do.
2. Innovation and Creation
Experiment and create, while embracing failure as an opportunity for growth in order to design new ideas and solutions
Innovation and creation go beyond applying a creative twist to an existing project. Students must learn to design and create entirely new ideas, solutions, actions, and objects. Creativity requires time for tinkering, wonder, and lingering attention. It also requires the ability to find and ask the right questions.
True invention also calls for a “fail-forward” mindset—the notion that many small efforts will lead to deeper understanding, and that the failures along the way will act as instructive guideposts. Students need exposure to and practice with Thomas Edison’s attitude toward invention: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work … I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
Our culture idolizes this image of the inventor as a brilliant individual working alone. True innovation, by contrast, has a deeply interpersonal quality. Creating a solution that people will actually use means developing empathy to incorporate a deep understanding of users’ needs.
Recognize one’s emotional, physical, and learning needs, strengths, and challenges to nurture personal growth and resilience
Self-knowledge is a lifelong learning process that empowers individuals to discover and embrace their own individuality. In the classroom, teachers encourage their students to find their strengths through new experiences and interactions with others … even in the face of setbacks and failures. Having self-knowledge produces confidence and supports flexibility in the face of new challenges.
As students grow at Prospect Sierra, they learn about their strengths and what challenges them in several areas:
- Emotional: What motivates me? How can I stick with something that is hard for me?
- Social: How well do I understand the feelings of others? How do I work with a team?
- Learning styles: How do I learn best? What makes that knowledge stick?
- Physical: What activities do I enjoy? What activities do I find particularly challenging?
As teachers (and parents), we accept the fact that self-knowledge skills can’t be taught without being modeled. To teach children to learn about themselves, we must shine a light on the processes we use to discover ourselves.
Share knowledge and resources, building on a diversity of ideas and experiences to achieve group goals and interdependence
In a world of big, messy problems, information overload, and increasing specialization, no individual can possess all of the knowledge needed to create good solutions. This means that problem-solvers need to be able to share their knowledge and work together to find connections between ideas and systems.
Teaching collaboration means we have to go beyond asking two children to share crayons to color in a worksheet. Students must learn to confront real questions without predefined answers. They must learn to work together to find solutions to complex problems.
Real world collaboration demands that individuals first develop and know their own strengths, then think independently about a problem, and finally, be able to represent a point of view. Then, when a team comes together to construct solutions, each member must learn to value the diversity of skills, backgrounds, and experiences offered by others on the team.
With collaboration, we can begin to see the interconnections between the 21st century skills. Notice how collaboration depends on self-knowledge, communication, and disciplinary knowledge.
Express ideas effectively through varied means of presentation; understand one’s audiences, actively listen; and build connection
Everybody remembers what communications looked like in schools a generation ago: the dreaded five paragraph essay, a diorama here or there, the science fair poster board, and the occasional oral report. These formats are not inherently problematic, but each was likely prescribed by the teacher, which meant that students didn’t have to consider their audience or decide which format best fit the story.
The salient feature of 21st century communication is not the form it takes, but how well the form matches the content and purpose. For instance, when Prospect Sierra seventh graders use iMovie to report the stories of change-makers, the software offers them a myriad of creative choices. Students have to decide whether to add extra features, available at the click of a button.
Students practice 21st century communication as they process these decisions. Will sound effects and fancy transitions help students tell their story better? Will background music keep people engaged or serve as a distraction? Students must consider their audience and determine which added features will best enhance their story’s message.
Understand one’s impact and influence in a local and global community; cultivate compassion, and take positive action
What does responsibility look like? Most simply, responsibility means being accountable for our actions as we live amongst others in a community. In school, this ranges from keeping the classroom and common areas clean to participating in school-wide recycling and composting. It also influences class curriculum, as when science students study the influence of sustainable building practices.
But to be impactful, responsibility should extent beyond school grounds in ever-widening circles. This can be a community service opportunity as simple as the first graders’ Save the Bay cleanup. But recent students Carrotmob activities have shown that students can project wider, more proactive influence.
In our first Carrotmob event, students elected to support Medierraneo Pizza in their effort to reduce their energy use. Mediterraneo received a student-led pizza sales event that funded the purchase of greener equipment. And that one event rippled outward, as the pizzeria’s larger community, the Emeryville Public Market, has since begun composting more than a ton of food waste a week.