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Rethinking How Students Learn: Bob Pearlman on PBL

Bus driver…move…THAT…(school) bus!!!

And reveal the new learning environment of the 21st Century. Is it time for an Extreme Makeover: School Edition? I think so. And so does Bob Pearlman, nationally renowned educational reform consultant.

An example of “connected learning” (see my previous post), this topic is relevant on several levels for me right now. You see, Pearlman is going to speak at Heritage Hall in April regarding project-based learning (I absolutely can’t wait!). I am currently in the midst of dreaming and blueprinting a redesign of our Upper School computer lab. To top it all off, our E21 Team is thrilled about our upcoming road trip to see one of the premier examples of 21st century learning environment (21CLE) in our region – New Tech High at Coppell, Texas.

We all know that students learn best when they are engaged and allowed to do most of the learning on their own. Research has proven such about this generation of students. So what is the best way to accomplish this phenomenon? The successful formula seems to be:  PBL based pedagogy + 21CL environment + performance assessment = meaningful, connected learning.

Pearlman cites a Buck Institute of Education definition of PBL:

PBL is a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

Sounds intense, doesn’t it? It is. According to Pearlman, PBL activities at New Tech schools usually last 1-3 weeks long. Examples include presenting a plan to Congress solving the oil crisis and inventing a sport that astronauts can play on the moon so they can get exercise. Students usually receive a rubric up front, so they know what amount of work will be required to achieve basic, proficient, or advanced scores.

Here’s an idea I absolutely love…when students finish a PBL unit of study, they present to an external audience. That could mean community experts, parents, Board members, other teachers, peers outside of their own class, or more. And students self-evaluate throughout the project and write a summative reflection on what they learned and how the project can be improved. And, in the spirit of 21CL, why not share with a global audience…online?!? This could be done with a partner classroom, or simply through a blog or Wiki open to the world.

So what about changes to the physical environment? 21CLE’s are large open spaces with mobile furniture. Every student has access to a computer. Tables or desks can be easily moved together for collaboration or “break-out” sessions structured around student “need to knows.” Many 21CLE’s use glass walls or windows to make learning transparent to all students and visiting adults.

The best 21st century schools provide every student with a computer, which increasingly means a laptop in a wireless environment. [Bob Pearlman]

But it’s not just about the technology. It’s the pedagogy behind technology that makes for successful learning in a 21CLE. Students use the laptop to conduct Internet research, Skype with experts, work collaboratively outside of school to construct products of learning (i.e. videos, podcasts, websites), and utilize technology to present their findings. In other words, according to Pearlman, “Students utilize all these [digital] tools to be investigators and producers of knowledge.”

At New Tech High in Coppell the school has adopted new language to refer to students and teachers. They have become “learners” and “facilitators,” respectively. Pearlman goes on to describe the physical landscape of NTH@C, both in the classroom and in hallways & common areas. Because our E21 team will be visiting NTH@C in early April, I will save discussion on these revelations for a future blog post. For now, check out these links to five schools ID’d by Pearlman as “the best of the new learning environments:”

Columbus Signature Academy (Columbus, Indiana)
New Tech High @ Coppell (Coppell, Texas)
The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (Providence, Rhode Island)
High Tech High (San Diego, California)
New Line Learning Academy (Kent, England)

The bottom line: These findings, yet again, suggest that our E21 mission is true. We are on the eve of implementing at a 1:1 laptop program – not based on simply dropping in technology, but based on years of our own research about 1:1 and 21CL. Our program is founded on technology rooted in tried and true pedagogy. By moving forward, we further enable our students to go beyond passive consumption of information and actively CREATE their own knowledge and experience true lifelong learning.

And that is what it’s all about, friends.

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Rethinking How Students Learn: Ken Kay

With a plethora of options, it wasn’t easy to select just one title for my book study. In a way I cheated…I chose a book with 23 contributing authors and clearly divided chapters. Some of them I was familiar with: Howard Gardner, Cheryl Lemke, Alan November, Bob Pearlman, Douglas Reeves, and Will Richardson. Many I wasn’t. One thing is for sure, I’m going to get exposure to lots of different viewpoints and ideas relating to 21st century skills with this book.

I’m going to discuss some of the highlights as I read the book, one author (or chapter) per post. I’m starting with Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills – the nation’s leading advocacy organization for the cause of educational evolution.

Doing well in school no longer guarantees a lifelong job or career as it did for previous generations of Americans. Today, people can expect to have many jobs in multiple fields during their careers…The new social contract is different: only people who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed…Proficiency in 21st century skills is the new civil right for our times.

I believe Kay is simply stating that we, as a school, can no longer focus our efforts on imparting massive amounts of knowledge on our students. We have to add two more goals to our agenda: they must be able to adapt to change and they must be able to cast themselves in new roles with the same skill set. School is now about knowledge AND adaptability.

Any employee who needs to be managed is no longer employable.

Kay indicates that a manager at Apple made this strong statement to him. Obviously, Apple is a company founded on innovation; one that has probably always expected its employees to take initiative while granting them autonomy to do their job in creative ways. But in the 21st century, it won’t just be science and tech companies that expect this of their employees. It will become the norm.

Global awareness is a new essential in the global economy…Financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy are new imperatives…Creativity and innovation, flexibility and adaptability, leadership and cross-cultural skills…These are the kinds of skills that set people apart.

Wow! That hits the nail right on the head. If I were to try painting a vision in your of the 21st Century Charger, tossing his or her cap in the air about to embark on life after “The Hall,” I couldn’t have selected the descriptive terms any better. If our students matriculate to college with the skills Kay mentions above, watch out world!

Rigor traditionally is equated with mastery of content alone, and that’s simply not good enough anymore…However, in the 21st century, the true test of rigor is for students to be able to look at material they’ve never seen before and know what to do with it. Infusing 21st century skills into core subjects actually rachets up the rigor.

Chameleon-like adaptability is a skill that will ensure our students survival in the 21st century

In a nutshell, in the quest to ensure rigorous curriculum, we must now include the 21st century skills mentioned in the previous statement. Kay drives home the point again…knowledge isn’t enough…it takes the right skill set and adaptability to prepare our students for success in the 21st century. I am so excited to be teaching at a school that gets that, during a time when this important shift is taking place. We are ahead of the game, my friends. And the future is bright. Put on your shades and let’s get to work.

Up next: Howard Gardner.