Category Archives: Uncategorized

Schools That Work for the Future


I had the opportunity to travel to Japan last year to speak to groups of Japanese educators about changes in education targeted at better meeting the needs of students in the 21st century.  The perspective I was asked to share, specifically, was how my school was implementing a multi-disciplinary, project-based learning model, and why we were doing this.

As I visited schools in and around Tokyo, I met with numerous teachers and administrators committed to education reform that will foster individuality and creativity while at the same time maintaining respect for harmony as part of the Japanese culture.  No small task considering the challenge of deeply held cultural norms which have traditionally placed paramount importance on the individual’s place within the organization.

Interestingly, education reformers in Japan appear to be seeking less centralized control, less uniformity of curriculum, and more individualization of instruction, while American reform efforts over the past 20 years or so have been more targeted at seeking a greater measure of commonality in the curriculum.

So, as I shared the instructional model we were implementing at Asia Pacific International School (APIS), I focused on the following question:

How can schools best educate students in the 21st century where our children are facing an uncertain and rapidly changing future?  

First, I think we recognize that there are still important foundational skills and content knowledge, but simply acquiring knowledge is no longer enough to prepare our students for success in a changing workplace and increasingly global economy.  So, we build everything within this framework of rigorous academic standards, but recognize that what students are able to do with the academic content is actually more important than the content itself.

This is nothing new, most teachers I know have always tried to provide some connection between the world outside of school and what is being learned inside, but I think we have to go beyond making a few real-world connections for students in the 21st century.  For the bulk of formalized, public education, students lived in an environment of information scarcity, and schools were the holders and transmitters of information. The 21st Century, however, is characterized by information abundance, where the average student has access to more information through their smart phone than any teacher, set of textbooks, or school library could ever offer.  For students to be successful in the 21st Century, schools must focus on things like Synthesis and application of knowledge in meaningful projects.  What we found at APIS was, “The more meaningful the application of learning to the student, the greater the intrinsic motivation, and therefore the deeper the learning tended to be.”

I have an image for what we should see when we look at our students in school, and each day this image becomes more and more a reality.   This vision is:

  • A group of students of different ages and experience
  • Joyfully & effectively working together
  • Committed to solve a problem that matters


As much as possible, we start with projects that students are passionate about and that give them the opportunity to do something meaningful to impact their lives, the campus, the community, or the world.  We then map our adopted curriculum standards from Common Core ELA, Next Generation Science, Social Studies, and Common Core Math to be addressed within the context of the multi-disciplinary project.  This has a transformational effect on the level of student engagement and the depth of understanding.

Project-based learning, however, is not the best practice for every situation or learning goal. There will always be some things that are best approached through a more traditional classroom instructional model to ensure critical concepts and skills are mastered.  Throughout the project process, teachers convene mini-lessons and check for understanding through a variety of more traditional assessment models.  But this is always targeted at providing the necessary intellectual capital or base skills necessary to competently apply learning in the context of a meaningful project.  It’s about picking the best instructional practice for the learning goal.

At APIS, and the majority of multi-disciplinary, Project-based schools I have visited, mathematics courses are provided a stand-alone period of instruction due to the highly sequential nature of the content learning.  Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science each require some level of sequential learning, but the majority of content standards and learning goals can be scheduled much more flexibly throughout the school year.  Despite this stand-alone period for math instruction, it is still important for the multi-disciplinary, project-based blocks to collaborate with math teachers to connect what is happening in the math class to projects wherever possible.

It is also important for the multi-disciplinary blocks to be complemented by targeted instruction in visual and performing arts, world languages, and technology, as these are important for 21st century learners in the conceptual age where creativity and technology drive a global, innovation economy.  According to the United Nations Creative Economy Report, “Widening local development pathways”:

The creative economy –which includes audiovisual products, design, new media, performing arts, publishing and visual arts– is not only one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the world economy, it is also a highly transformative one in terms of income generation, job creation and export earnings.

When schools provide students the opportunity to connect the academic and creative disciplines in the context of meaningful projects, we begin to transform learning and empower students to not only grow academically and personally, but to also discover their potential to make a difference in the world.

It’s about,

  • A group of students of different ages and experience
  • Joyfully & effectively working together
  • Committed to solve a problem that matters

Continuum of Purpose


Letter to a new School Administrator


I have very vivid memories of the year I made the move from teacher to school administrator. It was a big, life-changing step.  Every BIG change we make in life has its adjustment period, but when you are in a profession that is rooted in something greater than chasing a dollar, I think this is especially true. If you are like most teachers, you went into education to make a difference in the lives of kids, not just get a paycheck, so you constantly do the self-check on whether or not you feel like you are making a difference. The best educators I have known are always a little bit anxious over this and always live with that nagging worry that they aren’t doing it well enough.  In order to survive, you learn to moderate that voice in your head and be aware of the ways you are making a difference.  I think in the classroom, in dangerous proximity to the unwashed masses of kids, you get a lot of tangible, daily opportunities to see your interaction put a smile on a face, or help a kid figure something out, or lift a kid’s spirits when they are down.  When you move to administration these opportunities to make a difference in the lives of kids actually expand, but they become more abstract.


I remember when I made the move how I worried about so many things; the responsibility, the changing relationships with both students and my peers, the new interactions with parents, etc.  Most of all, I remember missing the energy and dynamics of the relationships you build with kids when you work with them daily in the classroom.  By about three months in I had the sense that I had made the right decision – I was really happy to not be grading papers at home at night and stressing over lesson plans – and I was beginning to feel like I had what it takes to figure the job out.  I was, however, needing to grieve the loss of the more intimate, daily interactions with kids in “My” classroom, where I was master of that little universe.  I realized that the relationships I had with students were going to slowly change as I interacted with far more of them, but with far less real, deep, individualized attention.  Owning that, grieving it, and focusing on the new ways I could impact kids’ lives on a systems scale was essential to my mental health.  Realizing you have the opportunity to impact faculty lives as well as kids is also a part of the journey.  Grieve the classroom connections with kids you’ve left behind, but embrace the new landscape of relationships that have opened to you as a school administrator.


The other thing to realize is that, as an administrator, you see everything that is broken or in need of improvement on the macro level, so it is easy to feel like things are going poorly.  The reality, however, is that as you and your team address issues and head off problems proactively, you often find teachers saying things like, “That was a really great start of the year.”  And you probably think, “Wow, it felt really rough to me.”  This is because you are dealing with all the rough edges so teachers can feel like it went smoothly.  Administrators are the ultimate cat herders, Jello nailers, plate spinners – often feeling like you have a target on your front and tire tracks on your back – but if you lean into this and take on a servant-leader attitude, you can become the force that frees teachers up to teach and makes the whole school work.  Roll up your sleeves, embrace the new chaos, and roll around in the messy, joy of school administration.  And remember to give yourself some grace.  As a school administrator, there will always be more to do than can possibly be done.  Eat this elephant one bite at a time.


The other thing I learned to adjust to was the different type of stress.  As a teacher, I experienced “Head cold stress.”  You know, that constant, congestion-type of stress, like there is always something weighing on you, always papers to grade, projects to complete, lessons to plan – like a too-heavy backpack that you can’t take off even though the straps are digging into your shoulders, and your feet are getting harder and harder to lift.  As an administrator, I experience “River-rafting stress.”  There are periods of really intense, white-water, waterfall, I’m-gonna’-hurl stress, but it is interspersed with some relatively calm, just keep paddling stretches.  I realized each day was an unpredictable adventure full of interesting challenges.  There was still plenty to keep me awake at night, thinking about, problem-solving, etc., but I actually experienced less of the debilitating, constant feeling of being hopelessly behind and overwhelmed with school work (grading, planning, etc.).  Try to remember this as you paddle consistently and steadily in the calm stretches, it will help you find the strength to dig deep and courageously through the turbulent white water when everything feels like it’s trying to flip your raft.  You can give that superhuman effort when you remember that the rapids only go on so far, and there will be calm waters on the other side.


Finally, as I made the adjustment to the new frontier of school administration, I found I had to resist the tyranny of the urgent’s power to derail a people-centered approach.  In my classroom, the nature of the work was intrinsically human.  No matter what other interests or tasks competed for my attention, every day the door to my classroom would open and the real reason I was an educator would walk into my world, full of joys and hurts, and mischief, and wonder.  As an administrator, you have to make a conscious effort to keep the focus on relationships.  No matter what was on the plate, I committed to make, time for people – for real human connection each day.  I made it a priority to stop to talk to kids each day no matter how busy I was.  I kept the open door to teachers and staff as much as possible, even if it meant I had to do some of “My Work” after school let out.  After all, as an educator, we are in the business of impacting peoples’ lives, not simply running a school.  Lots of people can run a school.  It takes someone special to keep a school thriving and focused on making a difference in the lives of kids and all who work there.  If you’ve made the jump from the classroom to administration, you have once again answered a high calling.  Life will be decidedly different, but the mission is the same – to make a difference in the lives of kids.

grad jump

Risky Play, Curiosity, & Emotional Health

The USS Midway slowly came into view around the bend in the creek behind my best friend’s orchard.  After weeks of construction amidst the methyl-acetone dizziness, we had carefully assembled the “Revell” plastic model of one of the last WWII class aircraft carriers, and we were now watching it undertake its maiden voyage.  Secreted within the 21.5 inch-long plastic model were a series of Black Cat fire crackers, and about five or six unlit wooden matches were affixed at strategic points along the deck.  Just before we set her sail, my buddy drizzled generous lines of fresh model glue up and down the deck as well.

We hurriedly ran along the creek bank to get ahead of the majestic vessel and positioned ourselves on a fallen log that reached out over the water in a deep, slow-moving eddy where the creek bent sharply to the North.  From this vantage point we readied ourselves, each armed with a fresh box of wooden matches.  As the USS Midway approached the ambush, each of us began furiously lighting matches and flicking them through the air at the advancing warship.  The first volley either blew out as the matches flew through the air or landed with a quiet hiss, in the water around the ship.  As the Midway grew near enough our flaming missiles began to hit their mark, igniting the model glue along the deck.

By the time she sailed under our log and made the turn down-creek, the Midway was fully engulfed in the blazing glory of a hard-fought sea battle.  We trotted along the bank expectantly watching as one by one the matches on the deck sprang to life with bright phosphorous intensity.  Another ten yards or so down the creek flames finally found the fuse to the Black Cat fire cracker we had attached to the underneath side of the deck at the stern, and a thunderous explosion blew the upper-back section of the ship into tiny bits.   Crippled, but still sailing, the Midway continued another 30 seconds or so before the other fire crackers began to explode in quick succession, effectively splitting the mighty vessel in three pieces and sending her to a watery grave.  My buddy and I high fived, and began wading and clambering along the shore in search of mangled bits and pieces of our sunken foe.   It was a glorious afternoon.

Such adventures were a normal part of my childhood in the late 1970’s, and while there were occasional mishaps that resulted in burnt fingers, a few cuts and bruises, or an occasional call to emergency services, most of us came through ok.  Childhood wasn’t quite as choreographed and monitored as it is today.  One of the benefits of this was the ability for children to explore the world, stimulate their natural curiosity, and learn from the natural consequences of their mistakes.  I was reminded of this as I read through an article from The Atlantic. In it, the author refers to research conducted by Ellen Sandseter:


Ellen Sandseter began observing and interviewing children on playgrounds in Norway, and in 2011, she published her results in a paper called “Children’s Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.” she concluded that “children, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear.”   In the paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play:

1) Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.”

2) Handling dangerous tools—using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master.

3) Being near dangerous elements—playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby.

4) Rough-and-tumble play—wrestling, play-fighting—so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation.

5) Speed—cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast.

6) Exploring on one’s own.

When I look back on my childhood, I remember a landscape filled with all six elements.  We built tree forts using dangerous tools, often near creeks or high up on hillsides.  We played outside employing our young imaginations to adventures that included a fair degree of wrestling or hurling objects at each other, and we went through a long Evel Knievel phase where we jumped Tonka Trucks on our bicycles.  We built sled runs in the winter, and rolled down hills inside tractor tires, and we packed sack lunches and explored the woods behind my house for hours on end.

These loosely-supervised opportunities of my childhood stimulated my imagination to soar, and provided chances for me to learn from natural consequences.  I also learned that many childhood fears could be overcome if I faced them and gave it a go.  There’s a growing body of research that supports this as well.  In a University of British Columbia in Vancouver review of 2,100 relevant studies, researchers identified 21 good-quality studies. Overall, none found negative effects of risky play, and most found evidence that kids who engaged in these “risky” adventures were more active, more confident or more psychologically healthy, according to the new analysis, which was published in the June issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Beyond the developmental and educational benefits of growing up with the space to engage in such “Risky play,” I now hold a million warm-wind memories of a childhood well-spent.

Perhaps You’ve Been There Too

                                       By Scott Paulin

The dirt is red in my childhood.

Tall, wild oats brush little faded blue jeans,

Running to the oaks on one more adventure.

The air is clean, each day is new, and

The seasons last forever.

Perhaps you’ve been there too.


Perhaps you’ve hitched up baggy pants

And tumbled, feet and arms flailing down grassy hillsides,

Or waded, wide-eyed and knee-deep

Into cool, clear creeks searching for treasures.

Perhaps you’ve been there too.

Incubators of Wonder


7 wonders

I thought I would begin this post by sharing a few of my favorite riddles.  I hope you enjoy:

  1. Only me
  2. Today and Tomorrow
  3. Your Name
  4. A coffin

The question in number 1, is, “On my way to St. Ives I saw a man with 7 wives. Each wife had 7 sacks. Each sack had 7 cats. Each cat had 7 kittens. Kitten, cats, sacks, wives. How many were going to St. Ives?”

The question in number 2 is, “There are four days which start with the letter ‘T’.
Two of them are “Tuesday, Thursday, what are the other two?”

The question in number 3 is, “What belongs to you but other people use it more than you?”

The question in number 4 is, “The man who invented it doesn’t want it. The man who bought it doesn’t need it. The man who needs it doesn’t know it. What is it?”

Most of us enjoy a good riddle now and then.  Sometimes, no matter how hard we analyze it or how long we think about it, we still can’t figure out the answer and end up asking for a clue or giving up altogether and asking for the answer.  It’s both maddening and somehow satisfying when we finally figure it out or are eventually given the solution.  I know I’ve had that experience where the answer is so simple once I’m told, but even then, the revealing of the answer makes me smile and somehow feel victorious.  But I am guessing you didn’t feel that same exhilarating rush of discovery when you read my riddles above.

You see, when we start out with the answer, the riddle loses its magic.  We have still learned a fun, new riddle to tell others, but the fun of trying to solve it has been taken from us, rendering the whole process a bit stale and uninteresting.  We do this all the time as teachers, though.  Conventional wisdom and many of our teacher education programs actually promote the idea that we have to first “Teach” content and then let students use it or manipulate it and apply the things we have given them through lecture or readings, etc.  While there is a time and place for this, I think we tend to overuse this and, unintentionally, steal the wonder from our students.

I can explain how a plant grows, have students read about it in their textbooks, and watch a film about it, and my students may indeed learn about the science behind how a tiny seed can become a large plant.  But I’m not sure how interested most of them would be throughout the course of the lesson.  What if, instead, I set a tiny mustard seed out on the table next to a large mustard bush, and asked students where the mass of the large mustard plant came from?  My guess is this puzzling question as an opener would generate much greater interest in the lesson.  From this starting place, we can then guide students through the thinking practices necessary to answer the puzzling question.  These thinking practices, in most cases, are actually far more valuable to the student in the long term than the actual knowledge or specific content being taught.

Stimulating curiosity and developing effective thinking practices in our students pays dividends across the board.  Critical thinking skills and curiosity are transferrable traits that will help students succeed in all subjects and in the workplace later in life.  Knowing how a seed can produce the mass we see in a full-grown plant may be interesting to some, but is probably information that few of us really need to lead successful lives or even successfully keep our garden alive.

We live in a day and age when the wealth of information that is accessible at the touch of a finger is both a blessing and a curse.  I love the ability we have to get answers to our questions in seconds on the internet.  But I also think we are losing a bit of the wonder in the world.  When we spoon-feed students information, they have a tendency to get intellectually lazy.  When we focus on lessons with information-heavy, pre-determined outcomes, it shouldn’t surprise us if students lose interest or give the bare minimum effort it takes to regurgitate that information on a test.  If, on the other hand, we build a practice of asking students big, open-ended questions that require them to ponder, analyze, ask their own questions, carry out investigations, interpret data, engage in constructive argument, etc. we begin to equip them for the challenges they encounter in life.  And . . . I think we find our students much more curious and engaged.   Our classrooms should not be stale repositories of knowledge, they should be incubators of wonder.

The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.
– Pearl S. Buck

Soft-skills and the Future of Work

soft-skills 1

Blockbuster, MySpace, Borders Books, Blackberry, Kodak. 

These are just a few, high profile names of companies whose failure to innovate and adapt to changing times or anticipate the future resulted in their demise.  In the case of each of these companies, there was a critical time when they could have embraced the innovations disrupting the market, or even purchased the disrupters for a fraction of what those companies are now worth.  Instead, these companies clung to their market strategy and operational models until they were no longer viable, and the company died.

Unfortunately, much of institutional education in the U.S. is following this same pathway, clinging to a structure developed during the Industrial Revolution. Schools during that time were fairly focused on reading, writing and arithmetic to prepare students for factory and clerical jobs. Soft skills such as empathy, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity were not necessarily seen as crucial.  Unfortunately, these soft skills may be the one thing our technology cannot deliver, the one skill that differentiates a human worker from an Artificial Intelligence solution. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States is in the back half of OECD nations when it comes to soft skill proficiency. And 44% of U.S. executives say lack of soft skills is the biggest gap in the U.S. workforce.

PayScale, a workforce data company, surveyed business managers to try to identify skills college graduates who are new entrants to the white collar workforce are missing today. They surveyed 63,924 managers and 14,167 recent graduates during the study conducted in 2016.

The study identified some deficiencies in “Hard skills” such as writing proficiency, public speaking, and data analysis, but when surveyed regarding “soft skills,” managers were even more united in their opinions. According to PayScale’s survey, 60% of managers claim the new graduates they see taking jobs within their organizations do not have the critical thinking and problem solving skills they feel are necessary for the job, and 36% reported lower-than-needed interpersonal and teamwork skills.  This comes at a time when the world of work is rapidly changing, commerce is more and more global and collaborative, and technology solutions are replacing humans for many routine activities.

Added to the problem of school systems entrenched in Industrial-age models of education are the challenges of societal change.  Belinda Parmar writes in Global Agenda:

“When our powers to engage with others could make the difference between ourselves and our automated counterparts, we are allowing our empathy muscles to atrophy. We are, to put it simply, disengaging.

Some 87% of millennials admitted to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by their phone. Ironically, in a world that is increasingly connected, we as individuals, as families, as a society, are becoming less connected. A Gallup poll shows that families eat together less and less, while 51% of teens would rather communicate digitally than in person (even with friends). And 43% of 18-24 year-olds say that texting is just as meaningful as an actual conversation with someone over the phone.”

I experience this in my own life as well, even though I am far from the hip Millennial, sipping an IPA while I work remotely on my laptop.  Eight years ago if my wife and I found ourselves waiting in line at the grocery store we had a conversation.  Now we are more likely to both pull out our smart phones and check our email or social media in silence, somewhat oblivious to the people and things transpiring around us.  This is the new normal for our kids, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we find them lacking in the areas of empathy and real human interaction.

Education researcher Ellen Galinsky identified seven essential life skills that encompass most of the soft skills necessary for the future or work. They are:

  • Focus and self-control
  • Perspective taking
  • Communicating
  • Making connections
  • Critical thinking
  • Taking on challenges
  • Self-directed, engaged learning

If our schools are going to truly close the achievement gap and prepare our students for the future, we need to continue our efforts to increase literacy and mathematical reasoning, but we must also attend to these soft skills that are so crucial to success.  We can intentionally plan instructional activities that require students to focus for incrementally increasing amounts of time and exercise self-control in the area of digital connectivity.  We can help them seek out varied perspectives instead of blindly consuming the highly curated information that social media algorithms feed them based on their natural interests or bias.  We can develop projects that require students to collaborate and connect with a variety of people and communicate effectively in a variety of ways (face to face, digitally, graphically, etc).  These activities need to include instruction in communication skills such as giving and receiving constructive feedback, how body language and tone impacts your message, how to ask clarifying questions and paraphrase to check understanding, etc.  We also need to plan projects so that students feel safe taking on challenging work that pushes their limits without fear of failure.  Finally, as much as possible we need to tap into student interest and authentic projects, giving them the opportunity to be more self-directed and develop the mindset that learning is useful and interesting rather than just a hoop to jump through.

We have a choice to either continue on with the status quo, or make changes that better prepare our kids for the world of work they will soon enter.  Businesses can come and go, but we cannot afford to let education fail our kids.

Soft skills

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Great little article with specific ideas for assessing student learning through student-directed projects 



SCUBA and the Art of Academic Risk-taking

A week ago, my wife did something I don’t think either of us thought she would ever do; she went scuba diving.  As the designated risk taker in the family, I tend to give just about anything a go – skydiving, rock climbing, dodgy food stalls in the alleys of Bangkok, but my wife has, let’s call it, a more well-developed sense of risk/reward analysis.  Since I love to try new things, she got me PADI dive certificate training for Christmas a year or so ago.  My friend signed up too and we took the course together.  Between the poor weather, rough seas, and a crowded class, it ended up being a less than pleasant experience.  We spent nine hours in the water on a Saturday, and then fought really rough seas for our boat dive the next day.  By the time we finished, we were both certified divers, but neither of us was in a hurry to dive again.

So, when my wife and I vacationed in Fiji this summer I signed up for a one-tank dive at a little island we were spending the day at.  When we arrived, the young lady running the dive shack handed us both release forms.  She assured my wife what a great experience it would be to go with her, and told her how much she loved guiding people through their first dive experience.  From there, she sat with my wife and told her she always started by having a new diver share a little about their life and then she would share about hers, so they would kind of know each other before they went in the water.  Then she carefully explained how the equipment worked, let my wife look it over and try it on and try breathing through the respirator, etc.  Then they waded into the gentle surf, and she took my wife by the arm, pulled her close, and they were off on her first dive.  I was so proud of her for taking the risk and giving it a try.  And it went great.  She excitedly told me about the fish she saw, and how her dive lady held her arm close and made sure she was comfortable the whole way.  It was a chance for her to push her boundaries a little and experience something more wonderful than she imagined.  My dive went amazingly well too, by the way.

Risk is an interesting thing.  If we are too risk averse we can miss out on things, too afraid to give it a try.  Too daring, on the other hand, and we can end up suffering the consequences of unnecessary, and foolish risks.  This is where a good guide can make all the difference.  In my wife’s case, her dive guide took care of her, making sure she was able to get outside her comfort zone but still maintain the level of comfort necessary to enjoy the experience – much different from my certification course.  As teachers, we have the chance to do this with students too.  We have the opportunity to push them outside their comfort zones and experience things they might never try on their own.  It is so important for us to manage these experiences by providing the appropriate level of support.  This doesn’t mean we have to ensure everything is fun, comfortable, and successful, but it does mean we are there to provide the appropriate encouragement and feedback and support students need to either be successful or deal with a lack of success.  We need to encourage them to learn from failure and try again.  We need to build an environment where students know it is safe to take a few educational risks in order to experience new success.

I think we can learn a lot from my wife’s first dive experience.  If we want our students to take academic risks they need to feel like they know their teachers and are known by them.  They need to know their classroom and school community supports them.  It is also important for us to model how to approach risk-taking in the classroom.  Sharing personal stories and continually reinforcing that making mistakes is part of the learning process can help students see that it is ok to take risks of their own.  It is also important to allocate some time to make sure our students understand the tools they will need to access academic content and further develop academic skills.  If we skip this step and dive right into content learning, some students may not really be armed with the use of the very tools they need to be successful. Finally, throughout the learning process, our students need to see us and feel us there beside them as supporting guides intent on their growth and success, not distant judges waiting to catch them when they mess up.  When we attend to these things, we begin to build classrooms where students are willing to wade into deep water and take the necessary academic risks to really grow and experience exciting new frontiers.

Innovation as a measure of school success

In 1983 the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report titled A Nation at Risk sounding an alarm that U.S. education was falling behind compared to international systems and our children were at risk of losing out to competitors throughout the world.  Thirty-five years and numerous education reform movements later, many still echo the same alarmist rhetoric that U.S. schools continue to lag behind international competitors and most are doing little to bring about meaningful change or produce measurable educational gains.

While schools can certainly improve and there are important shifts that need to be enacted to better meet the needs of students in the 21st Century, I think the doom and gloom has to be taken with a grain of salt and mitigated by a bit of perspective.  Having spent the past 7 years in Asia, an area often held up as academically superior, I have observed more impact from a cultural emphasis on education than any specific instructional practice or model of schooling.  Additionally, I think it is important to consider what data is being referenced to support the claim that other countries’ students are outperforming U.S. students, or more importantly, what data is not being referenced.  It may be true that many countries outperform the U.S. on standardized tests, but these tests only measure a finite set of academic skills and content.  It is no surprise that students working through school systems that place incredibly high value on passing standardized tests outperform students in school systems and cultures that value a more well-rounded approach to educating the whole child.

So how does the U.S. stack up in terms of actual progress and innovation compared to the rest of the world?  According to Patent Cooperation Treaty data, in 2017 the United States still ranked number one in the world in total new international patents filed.  While a number of other countries outrank the U.S. when figures are adjusted to indicate patents filed per capita, the fact remains that U.S schools are still producing a population of innovators who are creating more new things than any other country on the planet.  Likewise, the U.S. leads most of the world in research & development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (see graphic below).  The USA also does well on scientists and engineers per capita and led the world in total research and development spending.

R and D graphic

When factoring multiple measures such as per capita patents, and the political, business and regulatory environment of a country, Switzerland, the UK, and Sweden have retained their positions as the top three most innovative countries for the past three years; however when it comes to innovation quality, which measures university performance, the reach of scholarly articles and the international dimension of patent applications, the US holds the top place within high-income groups, followed by the UK, Japan, Germany, and Switzerland.

Innovation graphic

So, what’s my point?  Education is a messy business.  As much as we would like to organize it, systematize it, and find a way to easily measure the outcome, no national or international testing data gives the whole picture.  After all, what is more important to an employer, your student’s test score or their ability to think critically and creatively to solve the real and complex problems they have hired your student to tackle?  Beyond this, have our educational institutions helped students develop ethics and the perseverance to stick with difficult jobs?  Are we graduating students who value others and are able to work well in teams?  It is only when we combine these soft skills with meaningful, rigorous academics that we provide our students the competitive advantage to succeed in an increasingly global workforce.

The University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute explores the necessary requirements to achieve a prosperous future for all.  They write:

As America loses its vast stable of routine high-paying manufacturing jobs, two worlds are emerging: the small faction of creative class workers whose work offers autonomy, creativity, and high wages and a much larger group of routine service-industry workers facing disruption, disengagement, and economic decline. To improve our existing system, we must turn routine, replaceable, and low-paid work into creative, engaging, secure, and well-paid “good jobs.” This shift benefits workers, the system and, notably, business. Sources once integral to success –access to financial resources, product and process technology, market regulation, and economies of scale – are no longer as influential as they once were. The employers who maximize the skills and creativity of their workers, while still achieving the scale and efficiency of the old model, will win.

If our schools are looking to improve, they shouldn’t place too much focus on test scores, but instead, need to develop instructional models that value deeper learning and the ability to creatively apply learning in meaningful contexts.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  We need students with strong academic skills, but we also need students who have the innovative spark to succeed in a global workforce that is continually and rapidly changing.  It is this creative spark that has fueled the U.S economy for the past 200 years, and if valued and encouraged, will continue to give our children a competitive edge.

Tech Boundaries for Healthier Kids

We live in a world of techno-media inundation.  There is no turning back the clock on this one, and to be honest, there are significant advantages and improvements to life that have been made possible by the break-neck pace of technological advances we are currently experiencing.  As an educator, there are so many tools available to help individualize instruction, facilitate collaboration, and streamline feedback.  Students have access to resources and information I could not have dreamed of as a child.  But as it is with all things, balance is important.  How do we help our children develop a healthy balance between the plugged and unplugged world?  The following article by Becky Mansfield provides a solid discussion on both the issues and some concrete things parents can do to help their children develop a healthy balance and avoid the negative impacts of becoming too emersed in the ever-increasing number of tech tools and gadgets they have access to today.

Click on the title below to give it a read:

Why Children are more entitled than generations before

Why Children are less patient & more lonely than ever before

Of Dinosaurs and Dioramas


Volcanoes and dinosaurs are pretty cool.  I remember learning about them in elementary school.  My dad helped me make a really cool diorama in an old apple box that had both.  The plastic dinosaurs grazed happily amidst the trees, but dangerously near the paper mache volcano looming in the background.  We had a piece of tubing that ran inside the volcano and out the back to a turkey baster filled with a gooey cornstarch and water mix dyed with red and orange food coloring to make it look like hot lava.  On one hand, my teacher certainly succeeded in capturing my attention and stimulating my creative side.  On the other hand, I’m not sure what I actually learned regarding either volcanoes or dinosaurs over the course of the project.  Likewise, I had a grand time building a sugar cube model of a California mission in 4th grade, but am not sure what I was supposed to take away from the experience.

The best project-based learning results in a product with purpose.  Project-based learning presses students beyond knowledge acquisition and requires critical thinking and application of learning in order to solve a problem that matters or to create something with real value outside the classroom.  In the process of solving the problem, students also meet required academic standards, but this work is integrated into the project, not separate from it.  The more we can connect academic content to activities or contexts students will actually use in life, the better.  Ioannis Mioulis, president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, and former dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University writes, “Students can spend weeks learning how a volcano works, and no time understanding how a car works.  How often will they find themselves in a volcano?”

At the same time, it is important that we do not ignore or neglect academic learning goals.  When I was a young teacher I can remember spending considerable time in our Social Studies department meetings trying to come up with a body of knowledge or “Intellectual Capital” we felt was truly important for our students to know in order to effectively think about and analyze the world.  Principal Richard Coote, of Birkdale Intermediate School in Auckland New Zealand, points out, “You can’t underestimate the content.  Knowledge is what we use to think with.  The thinking process is what students will take into the world.  So you have to do both at once – content and process.”

In a brief authored for The Southern Regional Education Board titled, Using Real-World Projects to Help Students Meet High Standards in Education and the Workplace, Jobs for the Future writes: “Project-based learning complements and connects two important trends in education:

  • the use of external standards to guide changes in curriculum, instruction and organization; and
  • the creation of community- and school-based opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the adult world of work and learning.

Adria Steinberg of Jobs for the Future suggests the following “Six A’s” criteria for quality project-based learning:

Authenticity — Projects use the context of the workplace and the community to teach academic and technical skills.

Academic rigor — Projects require higher-order thinking skills and research methods from academic and technical fields.

Applied learning — Projects require students to use academic and technical knowledge in acquiring the problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills they will need in the workplace.

Active exploration — Projects extend beyond the classroom to involve work-based learning, community-based activities and technical labs.

Adult relationships — Projects involve adult mentors from the school and the community.

Assessment — Projects include exhibitions and assessments of students’ work according to personal standards and performance standards set by the school and the community.

Steinberg writes: “The six A’s apply to all projects, regardless of whether they originate inside or outside the classroom. Projects that originate from academic content can extend into the workplace, the community and technical labs. Projects that originate from real-life problems can connect back to academic and technical studies and let students practice using these vital skills.”

My dinosaur diorama was still a nice art project with some cross-curricular connections.  I’m not suggesting we throw out such things completely.  I had fun making it, and probably enjoyed people ooing and ahhing over it on parent-teacher night, but if we never move beyond this sort of thing, we aren’t really implementing project-based learning – we just include some projects in our learning.  The emphasis in every subject has to be a blend of knowing and doing, learning and demonstrating.  It is through this application of knowledge that we best prepare our students for success, inside or outside of school.


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