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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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To Inspire Students, Aim for the Goldilocks Zone

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Earlier this month, NASA announced the exciting discovery of 54 planets within the so-called "Goldilocks zone." This is where planetary conditions are not too hot, not too cold, so that liquid water can remain on the surface. Scientists, aided by the Kepler space telescope, have been able to locate these "just right" planets where we're most likely to find conditions that can support life.

Around the same time as the NASA announcement, I happened to hear about another research effort that's happening much closer to home. The Innovative Teaching and Learning Project (ITL) is a global study sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning and managed by SRI International and Langworthy Research. The goal is to investigate, across a broad range of countries, the factors that promote the transformation of teaching practices and the impact those changes have on student learning. The study began in Finland, Russia, Indonesia, and Senegal. Year two also includes the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Mexico, with UNESCO and local ministries of education involved as partners.

I can't help but wonder if we're on the verge of discovering a Goldilocks zone for the classroom. Are there conditions that are "just right" to help students get ready for the future? Are there tools that can help us find these conditions in practice -- the equivalent of a Kepler telescope to search for hotspots of optimal teaching and learning?

An Emerging Picture

ITL starts with a research-based definition of "innovative teaching practices," including these three practices that earlier studies have shown to improve student outcomes:

  • Student-centered methods, including project-based learning, collaboration, and personalized instruction
  • Learning that extends beyond the traditional classroom to promote global awareness and real-world exploration
  • Technology integrated to encourage deep student learning

The new research question is whether these practices can also lead to 21st-century learning outcomes, such as students being able to solve problems creatively or collaborate effectively. These are the goals many policymakers consider essential if today's students are going to be ready for college and careers.

To find out what's happening with 21st-century skills at the classroom level, ITL researchers are employing a variety of tools, including surveys, classroom observations, and analysis of student work samples.

Research is still underway, but one finding from the pilot year report jumps out: The quality of an assignment strongly predicts the quality of student work. It turns out that if you want students to innovate, collaborate, or think critically, you need to emphasize these 21st-century skills in what you ask them to do.

Sound familiar? Anyone who teaches with project-based learning methods will be familiar with the PBL refrain: "begin with the end in mind." You start with the important learning goals you hope to achieve, and then work backwards to define what students will know and be able to do to show that they have reached them.

When it comes to 21st-century skills, apparently, the "end in mind" gets a little fuzzy. Researchers have found a gap between "rhetoric and reality," or what policymakers say is important and what happens in practice in the classroom. A Russian school leader, quoted in the pilot year summary, puts it this way: "The education system cannot clearly answer the question: What should the 21st-century school leaver look like?"

Tools for Focusing

How can schools put this international research to practical use?

The survey tools that the ITL team developed are now available for any school to use for self-assessment. This can be a practical step to develop a common vocabulary for what innovative teaching and learning looks like in your learning community. It's also an opportunity for teachers and school leaders to come together around a research question -- something that ITL researchers see as potentially powerful professional development.

Jon Perera, general manager for Microsoft Education, acknowledges that teachers and school leaders don't always share the same definition of 21st-century skills. "There can be a mismatch. This tool provides 360-degree feedback mechanism," he suggests, so that everyone's view is considered. "There's no right or wrong answer. Using the tool can be a catalyst for a school to talk about, what's our plan to embrace 21st-century skills?"

Because the quality of an assignment turns out to be so critical for determining what students actually learn and do, researchers suggest that teachers need to see more examples of work products that ask students to put 21st-century skills to use. Analyzing student work samples together is another good strategy for shared professional learning. Researchers have found that teacher collaboration is one of the key conditions that supports classroom-level innovation.

And that brings us back to exploring and describing the Goldilocks zone. What sorts of projects are "just right" for encouraging your students to use 21st-century skills? Which ones fall short? How could assignments be improved if you had more opportunities for feedback and collaboration with teaching colleagues?

Please share your examples of "just right" projects. What do they ask of students? How do students respond to the challenge?

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