K–12 leaders are facing a turning point in teaching and learning. The details of the New Media Consortium (NMC)/Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Horizon Report: 2017 K–12 Edition make that clear.
Most education leaders are likely already familiar with the report, which comes out annually, and tracks emerging technologies for their potential impact on schools. Real systemic transformations are underway in the K–12 system, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, says Natalie Abel, program manager for the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). “Anytime, anywhere” environments are expected—and education must answer the need, particularly with personalized learning.
The report also points to cultural transformation that districts must undergo, Abel says. The K–12 system needs to evolve into a culture whereby leaders, teachers, and students can feel comfortable in exploring new ideas and can even fail—without fear of reprimand—and learn from such mistakes.
“It begins with culture—cultivating a growth mindset in the leaders and teachers and the students. It’s okay to try something,” Abel says. “You innovate and you’re continuously improving.”
CoSN CEO Keith Krueger says the true value of the report comes in the ability to spark conversation. Key questions that leaders must answer are: What are we trying to do at our school? and How do we solve the big problems in learning?
Joseph South, chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), adds that the Horizon report highlights the need for whole-school approaches to accomplish goals. Students must not only be consumers of information but also creators of information.
“To accomplish this, you need an active learning environment,” South says. What learning looks like will change, how schools are configured will change, and on what lessons teachers should spend their time will change, he adds.
1) Expanding Access and Convenience
While mobile and digital learning strategies have increased over time, disparities in high-speed broadband connectivity and in engagement between different student groups is prompting school leaders to evaluate affordability, access, and quality of their learning content.
2) Spurring Innovation
Schools can be incubators of inventions and developments that foster positive trends. And they must prepare student graduates for college and evolving job market needs. K–12 must advance cultures of entrepreneurial thinking and designing new forms of artificial intelligence.
3) Fostering Authentic Learning
The maker culture has made students active contributors to the knowledge ecosystem. They learn by experiencing, doing, and creating, demonstrating newly acquired skills in more concrete and creative ways.
4) Tracking and Evaluating Evidence
Better data-driven decision-making is fueling more personalized learning experiences through adaptive learning tools. So leaders must consider how to scale the data in a way that presents a more holistic picture of student success.
5) Improving the Teaching Profession
Teachers need to act more as mentors and coaches as students work through complex problems to explore new frontiers and gain concrete skills. As student-led class discussions delve deeper into the material, teachers must balance the student-centered approach with subtle but effective facilitation.
6) Spreading Digital Fluency
Teachers, staff, and students must make connections between digital tools and the intended outcomes, leveraging technology in creative ways that allow stakeholders to more intuitively adapt from one context to another.
Advancing Cultures of Innovation
Innovation in schools has sparked a trend toward learner-centered paradigms in which students build critical thinking skills in environments that mimic the real world, the report states. Entrepreneurship, collaboration, project-based learning, and creativity are hallmarks, including models that uphold grit and character development and private-public partnerships to engage learners in authentic experiences.
It’s estimated that up to 10 percent of districts in the U.S. have begun using this competency-based education model, Abel says. Lindsay Unified School District in California is a success story.
“Superintendent Tom Rooney is a visionary and he gets this,” Abel says. “He built an entire culture around this, and his students are constantly growing and learning. It’s also a challenging demographic of students, including children of migrant workers and ELLs.”
(Read more on Lindsay Unified School District’s success.)
In addition, K–12 teaching and learning needs to start from a human-centered approach, South says, starting with what the student needs to learn—it might be collaboration or self-sufficiency, for example. And in part, it means principals could give teachers more flexibility, for example, to do more integrated projects that cover multiple disciplines, South says. More time will allow teachers opportunity for professional learning and collaboration with other teachers.
South points to Genius Hour, based on Google’s idea of “20 percent time,” as a good example of this approach, wherein students are given an hour per week to learn something they care about—which could be unrelated to curriculum and standards.
South recalls an innovative, low-income school in Baltimore where a principal told teachers that he was open to their ideas to improve learning. One teacher wanted to introduce yoga balls to second-graders to potentially help some fidgeting students become focused. “It didn’t work for every student, but it did for some,” South says. “Had the principals shut down the idea, it would have killed the culture” and inadvertently closed off any innovative ideas from surfacing, he says.
Authentic Learning Experiences
Policy constraints, a heavy focus on end-of-year exams, bell schedules, and bus schedules all play a role in blocking authentic learning, says Abel of iNACOL. But she points to the Big Picture Learning schools, which do put students at the center of learning. The first Big Picture school was “the Met,” the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Rhode Island. Students benefit in part from personalized learning and internships to gain real-world skills and learn about careers they might enjoy.
But authentic learning requires more from the student—to be more self-directed in solving problems and thinking critically, and requires more from teachers, South says. Leaders, including the superintendent, CIO, and chief academic officer, must first figure out what they want to accomplish. The pedagogical goals must be determined before bringing in technology and other tools to uphold those goals, South says.
CoSN’s Krueger points to the value of a 3D printer and inspiration as an authentic learning experience. A teacher at CrossRoads Intermediate School in South Carolina led students on a project to create prosthetic hands using their 3D printer. It turned into a Prosthetic Kids Hands Challenge, which Discovery Education and ISTE helped fund. “That’s an authentic, real-life learning experience,” Krueger says. “And it’s also helping students learn how to be empathetic and gain a greater understanding of the world around them.”
David Ross, chief executive officer at Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), points to foreign nations, such as Korea, that combine career/vocational learning with academics. Teaching entrepreneurship is something that the U.S. educational system needs to stress more so high school graduates are ready for future work, Ross says.
The good news is that PISA is cultivating 21st century skills. First administered to assess the quality of education systems worldwide, PISA, or the Program for International Student Assessment, covers math and science, and recently started testing collaboration, critical thinking, and global competency skills.
“Business is saying, ‘We need to hire people who collaborate and are creative and innovative,’ ” Ross says. He adds that districts should be able to measure or assess such 21st century skills. Some states and organizations are already working on creating such assessments, according to Ross.
Preparing teachers for this kind of teaching is still a great undertaking. Some teaching colleges are doing a good job preparing new teachers, and High Tech High in San Diego is growing its own teachers, with its own graduate school of education, Ross points out. “I don’t see it happening anywhere near the scale it needs to be,” he says. “But it’s building more now than at any other time.”
Deeper Learning Approaches
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defines deeper learning as mastering content that engages students in critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-directed learning.
To remain motivated, students need to grasp how existing knowledge and new skills can impact the world around them. Pedagogical approaches that shift the paradigm from passive to active learning help students develop original ideas, improve information retention, and build higher-order thinking skills.
South says that if leaders want deeper learning and greater student engagement, then projects need to last longer, crossing over various periods during the school day to cover more than one content standard and provide in-depth experiences for students.
Tabor Academy in Massachusetts is an example of a school experimenting with rethinking how to operate to enhance deeper learning, the report points out. The academy started a new schedule this year with a seven-day rotation, featuring an 8:30 a.m. start time and four 75-minute classes. The dean of studies said the school considered sleep patterns, workload, and stress levels to develop the schedule, which reduces the number of transitions required in a given school day.
And P21 plans to release a map of hundreds of schools that are already using deeper learning tools and lessons in classrooms.
The Horizon report reveals a growing focus on measuring learning in K–12. “Data to inform instruction has to be the new frontier,” Krueger says. Seeing patterns for why some students struggle, for example, is still out of reach for many educators, he adds.
Vendors and publishers could provide systems that measure learning in real time and that are capable of disaggregating different competencies, South says. Some programs are starting to emerge and more are coming.
The report points to the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL), which ESSA requires, and measuring it. The fairly new focus on SEL has come about as a result of business leaders pointing to the skills gap they see in new workers, P21’s Ross says. “No state tries to measure those things yet, but everyone is cognizant of it,” he says.
Ross says teachers and administrators need vendors or nonprofits to provide filtering tools to curate valuable resources from a “tsunami” of resources available to help create authentic, real-world learning that aligns to curricula and strategic plans. And teachers need to be the project managers and facilitators to help students figure out what knowledge they need to know and how to use that knowledge to fulfill a goal, Ross says.
Rethinking Teacher Roles
Along with being project managers, teachers need to do a lot more. A years-long challenge for K–12 leaders is rethinking the roles of teachers. “Education in particular is much more conservative and institutionally conservative [than the private sector] and teachers have less experience with new and emerging technology,” Krueger says.
The solution is ensuring that less-than-tech-savvy teachers can “see the power of making kids authentic learners and global citizens and solving a problem,” Krueger adds.
The report is clear: there is no replacement for good teachers, says iNACOL’s Abel. Teachers can guide learning for students and need to shift their mindset—for example, to be okay with not knowing every answer to every student’s question—and school leaders need to lead the way. “We’re seeing the shift to adaptive leadership,” Abel says. “If the leaders are not okay with failing and trying again and improving, then teachers are never going to be okay with trying this either. Leaders need to stand behind those teachers and support them through this change.”
Lindsay USD’s Innovation
For the past decade, Lindsay United School District in California has worked out the kinks and challenges of a districtwide personalized learning plan.
Transforming the traditional, time-based system to the performance-based system meant shattering old structures and replacing them with learner-centered ones, says Barry Sommer, director of advancement at Lindsay USD. And it brought shifts in teaching and learning, assessment, grading, and reporting.
A strategic element of the design described a 24/7 learning goal. “Providing a device for each learner for home and school was not an insurmountable obstacle,” Sommer recalls. However, only a few students had home connectivity because they couldn’t afford internet, he adds.
It took several years until the district devised and implemented it’s very own “community Wi-Fi” program to ensure all learners were connected to the district server and internet. “It took creative, courageous leadership, excellent communication, and collaboration to establish our own Internet Service Provider and link all learners to the Internet,” Sommer adds.
It also required much training, coaching, and PD, Sommer says. The district is using a team-building initiative called Organization Health, and a new federal grant, Teacher School Leaders, to build certificate and microcredential opportunities for staff, for example.