February 10

So what are 21st century skills?

Recently, I tweeted an excerpt from an article written by Graham Brown-Martin, who founded Learning without Frontiers and published Learning Reimagined in 2015. Brown-Martin’s essential argument is that we need to understand 21st century challenges in order to know what skills are required, and he identifies a number of these challenges, including climate change, growing inequality, and an ageing population. His summation is “we have the option of educating for conflict & war or educating for peace & unity.”

Part of GameShift’s response to my tweet caught my attention. They asked “So what are 21st century skills?”

As I reflected on GameShift’s question, the word that came to mind was “adaptability.” We cannot presently identify all of tomorrow’s challenges. Global dynamics are in a constant state of flux, and we are more aware of this than any other point in history, due to the quantity of and rapidity with which information (whether true or false) is dispersed. To add to this sense of chaos, people are changing jobs 10-15 times during their lifetime.

Tony Wagner’s work, which examines education through the lens of skills business leaders are looking for, echoes my thinking, as “agility and adaptability” are listed among his Seven Survival Skills. How then do we develop adaptability in students? By offering them an authentic learning environment in which they create solutions to real-world problems. Project-based learning (PBL) is a methodology that provides such authentic, real-world learning. Exemplified in BIE’s model, it can be applied to virtually any problem or challenge.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a methodology that provides such authentic, real-world learning. Exemplified in BIE’s model, it can be applied to virtually any problem or challenge.

Just as in the real world, application of PBL begins with identifying and framing a complex problem or question, for which students are asked to create potential solutions. Integral to the methodology, they use design thinking to define, test and either discard or refine their designs in an iterative process.

We also see the 4Cs of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication woven into the structure of a PBL project. Solutions are often developed in a collaborative team. The team members are required to communicate with each other, often with experts on the subject, and with a public audience, to whom they present their products, their evidence of learning. Designing solutions to the complex problem or question requires critical thinking, in order to truly understand the challenge, and to research, analyze, and synthesize information needed to develop a solution. Likewise, creative thought, effort, and oftentimes failure are integral to the process of solution design and development.

Our schools and classrooms need to be as adaptable as our learners are going to need to be, or as Sam Seidel says, we need to “keep it real.” PBL is a winning way to get us there.

June 14

The Summer of Our Never-Ending Heat

I recently wrote about design thinking as demonstrated by a landscaping company. In another home-ownership scenario, I recently experienced what happens when there is a lack of systems  thinking, a close relative to design thinking.

Air condittioning image

When we turned our air conditioner on this year, the thermostat displayed a “call for service” message. Which we did, reaching out to a company that has done annual check-ups on both our furnace and air conditioner for several years.

The first technician who showed up, let’s call him Joe, followed typical steps. He looked at the thermostat, the central HVAC unit, and then proceeded outside to the air conditioner condenser unit. After a time, I observed him on the phone, where he stayed for a LONG time. After about two hours of effort, Joe informed us the circuit board to the condenser was faulty, and that he would need to order a new one.

His company then informed us they wanted to send a more experienced technician out, to make sure the point(s) of failure were correctly identified. The second technician, let’s call him Ethan, followed essentially the same steps as Joe, including the long telephone conversation. He then informed me that there were two possible points of failure, either the compressor or a blockage in the coolant line. He said he had been on the phone with the manufacturer, who had walked him through the diagnostic process. Furthermore, Ethan said, it was a unit that is rare in the industry, and quite frankly he thought we should use the manufacturer’s service people.

Summer is upon us, and still no air conditioning.

A phone call to a local service office for the manufacturer. A third technician, shall we call him Donovan. Same protocol as the other two. Donovan concludes it is the compressor that is faulty. His company orders one…

A week-long wait, and technician number four, whom we shall call André, proudly arrives with the compressor, installs it, then tests the system. It fails. André concludes the remaining failure is in the circuit board (remember what Joe had to say?), and his company orders one.

Summer is more fervently upon us, and still no air conditioning.

Harvey, technician number five, arrives bearing the circuit board. He cheerfully installs it, and turns the unit on. And promptly burns out the brand-new circuit board. Because the harness between the compressor and the circuit board is faulty.

Summer is hotter. Still no air conditioning.

Now, I know nothing about air conditioning units, and have only a conceptual understanding of the electrical side of things. So, I invite those of you who are savvy about the details to enlighten me. If my thinking is faulty in what I say in the rest of this post, call me on it!

Let’s ignore the process(es) Joe, Ethan and Donovan followed, and start with André. He has just installed a brand-new compressor. He has furthermore diagnosed a problem in an electrical component within the same overall system. Does it not make sense that he would want to ensure no other components have failures?

Air conditioning schematic

A systems thinking approach would have looked at “how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the system.”

We all live and work within systems. Families, neighborhoods, professional communities, etc. As an educator, my teaching/learning environment is a system.

Our students also exist in a variety of systems, one of the most important being their school system. As the Waters Foundation states:

“It is a growing priority to encourage educators to develop and apply their own systems thinking capacity to teaching and learning. Our future depends on the preparation efforts of today. Children will need to have the skills and knowledge necessary to manage the complex problems they will ultimately inherit.”

In part two, I’ll explore systems and design thinking in a PBL environment.

Oh, yeah, when Harvey returned with (another) circuit board and a  new harness and installed them… the air conditioning system worked. Hurrah!

May 11


Recently, we initiated a landscaping project at our house. It consisted of adding some hardscape, a few new plants, and rearranging some existing plants. As I observed the process in motion, it spoke to me as an exemplar of what we should implement in our classrooms and schools.

When the owner/operator of the landscaping company, Mr. M,  first came to assess the work we wanted done, he asked many questions. We hammered out a rough idea of what we wanted, both hard and soft scape. He showed us samples of different stones, and we chose one. This is similar to the design process of a good inquiry- design- or project-based undertaking. I appreciate both the Stanford d.school and IDEO methodologies regarding design thinking. Although the vernacular varies somewhat between the various definitions, the underlying principles remain constant.

Stone Wall

Stone wall by David R Tribble is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Throughout the implementation process, Mr. M confirmed details with me such as the pattern the stones were to be set in. He adjusted his plan accordingly. This exemplifies the iterative process of design thinking, wherein one develops a prototype or first draft, then refines it, often multiple times, based on testing and feedback.

When Mr. M presented a written quote for the work to be done, we were prepared to negotiate with him, to find ways to reduce the price or increase the services rendered, or both. However, the quote was so reasonable and comprehensive, we found it unnecessary to negotiate. This conveyed to me his authenticity. Mr. M portrayed who he is – a competent landscaper who is proud of his work and provides his services at a fair price.

Authenticity is a characteristic gaining traction in many arenas, including education. As Sam Seidel phrases it, we need to  “keep it real.” In order for students to fully engage with a topic, they need to connect with it in some way. Talking about dry, dusty dates from the past is not real, nor is an out-of-context math formula. However, comparing Andrew Jackson with Donald Trump leads to student connection. Similarly, building a greenhouse makes those math formulas very real.

York U Greenhouse

York U Greenhouse by Raysonho is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Mr. M also portrayed his identity through his branding. Each of the numerous trucks that came and went had identical signage on their sides. The signs included the company name, a list of services, and contact information. What is our “brand,” our culture? BIE’s John Larmer, in this article cites a definition of culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” The more clarity we have in our definition, and the more closely we align our practices with the definition, the more our culture flourishes.

The interactions of the landscaping team were also telling of the climate in which they work. I could not understand most of the words of their conversations, but could nonetheless interpret the temperament of the group:

  1. The majority of the time, Mr. M was present and worked alongside his men. Not a “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side.” In this Edutopia article about this methodological shift, Dan Jones states “[w]hen teachers move from the front of the room to working beside students, students begin to take a deeper ownership of the learning process and produce a meaningful connection with the material.”
  2. The men laughed, joked, and chatted with good humor. I never heard a voice raised in anger or impatience. The group was varied in age, and probably in experience, but they functioned as a collaborative team. As Aaron Brengard states in this BIE article, “[c]ollaboration is an essential part of our culture… it raises up the quality of all work.” He further discusses the importance of collaboration not only within student teams, but among the adults in schools, and how “[w]e believe that working together makes us better and without one another we will not reach the level of work that brings us closer to exceeding our expectations.”
  3. Each person seemed to know the tasks they were to complete, and tackled them with industry and enthusiasm. When there was a question, it was answered quickly, with a straightforward response. Elena Aguilar, in this post about effective teams, includes two traits that I observed among the landscaping crew: “[a] good team knows why it exists” and “[m]embers of a good team trust each other.”
  4. They took breaks. For lunch, and a few other times in the day. As they sat, they continued to chat among themselves. The parallel I draw in PBL practice is the time we spend in reflection. It is an opportunity to review what went well, what went poorly, how did I/we grow, what is the next goal. In this Edutopia article, James Kobialka offers some great ideas for effective reflection.

It seems apropos that I found parallels between a landscaping project and school settings. We all function within a landscape of some type. I wish all of us a lush, colorful, growing garden as our habitat.

Lush garden

Lush garden by Lynn Greyling is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

November 5

#AltCV and #DigiWriMo

Phew. That’s all I can say. When the #DigiWriMo folks issued the call to create an “alternative CV,” “based not on degrees and position and peer-reviewed publications, but on what we think is most important about who we are and what we are genuinely most proud to have accomplished,” I decided to make the exercise a challenge. More of a challenge than I anticipated, really.

Animaker is a tool I have barely glanced at, but which has fascinated me for some time. So, I decided to use it to create my #AltCV. Thus the adventure began. Animaker has an eleven-and-a-half minute tutorial. I watched it once. Fumbled through assembling a few “scenes.” Several things did not come together as I wanted them to. Went through the tutorial again, to find the explanation for the nuances I was missing. Like all good learning experiences, the process was iterative. I would make some modifications, replay the video, identify the improvements I needed to make. Again and again.

In my work as a PBL (project-based learning) coach, this is an aspect I impress upon teachers. Students need to be given feedback on their work, and the time to revise. Not only once, but multiple times. My all-time favorite example of this is Ron Berger’s video of  Austin’s Butterfly:

It is all too common for educators to get caught up in the but-I-have-all-this-content-to-cover mindset, so students don’t have the occasion to delve deeply into any given topic, nor do they have the opportunity to reflect on their work, and to make improvements.

This year in our Meliora group, we are studying World History. To some, I will sound like a heretic, but I care little about what these students carry away in knowledge and facts about World History (well, I do hope they remember “les grandes lignes,” the major points). What I mostly care about is that they develop deeper thinking and analytic skills. We spend significant time discussing events in history, and making connections to today, to my students’ reality. By using open-ended questions, “why?” and “how do you know?” being perhaps my favorites, the students are required to think, and to defend their rationale.

I also care that the students learn to reflect on their work, and to actively find ways to improve it. As they develop projects, I offer feedback throughout the process. They also conduct peer reviews of each other’s work, so they can learn to critique using “kind, helpful and specific” (a phrase coined by Ron Berger) feedback.

As I went through the development of my #AltCV, I was also applying Standford’s d. school ideology of “iterative generation of artifacts intended to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution.” As they further explain in the excerpt below, iteration is fundamental to good design. Interestingly, they discuss iterations within a process, in my case the complete video, and then within a step, in my case a single scene. That is exactly how I tackled it, narrowing my focus as the flow began to take shape.

d school design thinking excerpt

I would argue this design process can be applied to many, if not all, academic disciplines. When I work with Meliora students on their history projects, we first look at the big picture, their overall argument/thesis, then over time narrow the focus to particular details that need fleshed out and refined. Likewise, when solving a math problem students need to learn to determine the process to be used, then drill down to the detail. And so forth.

And, now, for my #AltCV: