Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Might a 21st Century School Look Like

Editor’s Note: This post was written in response to a job interview question and is the topic of a brainstorming session I am partaking in today. I thought it was a relevant, thought-provoking question and a great interview exercise. This is some of my thinking on the topic.

As innovative educator Peggy Sheehy’s students recently explained in their video, No Future Left Behind, “Education really needs an upgrade!” A 21st Century school, unlike other schools wouldn’t be a place Rip Van Winkle would recognize after his 100 year slumber. Sheehy’s students complain, “I can't create my future with the tools of your past.” “The future is trying to get in, but you’ve blocked it.” “Let the future in. We want to talk to the world.” Marc Prensky of “Engage Me or Enrage Me! ” fame would applaud these students for so articulately sharing the concerns of others around the world. An evangelist of student-centered instruction and decision making Prensky advises, that we should accept “the students, not the teachers, should be leading the charge with using technology.” As I think about the advice of my personal learning network, what I take from this is that we are moving toward a time when the teacher’s role will become more of a personal learning facilitator who’s role is to help students exist in what Sir Ken Robinson refers to as their “Element,” a place where natural talent meets personal passion.

So, how does this take place? In Disrupting Class, the authors share that 50% of all high school classes will be delivered online by the year 2019. The expansion of this type of alternative delivery of instruction provides unique opportunities not previously available to students. For instance online delivery of instruction could enable students to access less popular or more advanced areas of study then would be possible at a single school campus. It provides opportunities for students who may not be able to participate in school due to illness, familial obligations or pregnancy. It allows students to connect with others in a niche area of study.

Teachers at a 21st Century school would all have laptops, projectors, and video recorders and would engage in innovative practices like Richard Buckland who teachers a regular class to students, but also tapes all of his classes and allows students who are not physically present to receive credit upon watching the video and completing assignments. His students have the added bonus of being able to rate and comment on his lectures giving their teacher and each other feedback that is currently not existent in most classrooms. They can also watch segments of the class over if there is something they missed or skip past information they already know. This addresses an area Sir Kenneth Robinson recently spoke about when he asked, “If everyone agrees we learn at different paces, why in school are we expected to teach everyone at the same pace?” He adds, “Why is the date of manufacture the single most important thing educators think kids have in common?” Digital learning opportunities could allow students who are having difficulty in a subject to spend more time in areas of need, and those who are advanced to continue on. The students mentioned above in Richard Buckland’s college class by the way are high school students hungry for more challenging coursework not available to them at their school site. That said, it should be a given that students attending a 21st Century school would have the basic technology necessary to succeed in the social or professional connected world in which they live which includes having a reliable internet connection, a keyboard enabled device in which to access it, and an onsite student support team to ensure it’s effective and efficient use.

Peggy Sheehy’s students also hit upon another important ingredient lacking in many schools when they complained, “You don’t know me. You don’t trust me. You don’t believe in me.” The 21st Century school would be created as an environment for personal success. Every student in a 21st Century school would have a personal learning profile and plan for student success using tools like the Renzulli Learning System and Personal Success Plan. At many schools teachers don’t really know the whole child, so it is difficult to teach the whole child and nearly impossible to group students for instruction or provide truly customized, personalized instruction. If all students are profiled, they become more than just a name but rather teachers can instantly find out information like the following and align the work they do to their unique interests, learning styles, abilities, and expression styles.

Here is an excerpt from my learning profile:

Lisa has specific preferred instructional styles. Learning or instructional styles are the ways students like to learn and the strategies parents and teachers use to help them learn. Lisa has very clearly defined learning preferences. Her preferred instructional style is through technology. Her second choice of learning style is discussions that happen when two or more students talk with their teacher or in small groups about issues and topics by discussing facts and opinions and discussing them. Lisa also enjoys learning games that enable her to learn content by playing games or participating in activities with cards, board games, or even electronic games.

If only my teachers had let me learn based on this information, education would have been a much more valuable experience for me. However, it is not only important to be in touch with students interests while they are students in the 21st Century school. As Geoffrey Canada founder of the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone recently shared, “I refuse to let kids disappear into the abyss after they leave me.” This would not be a possibility for 21st Century school students who would be involved not only in the school’s instructional online network, but would also have the opportunity to stay in touch with their 21st Century school teachers and classmates through the Facebook accounts and groups they safely, appropriately, and responsibly participated in with their teachers. It is through these types of connected learning environments that educators and classmates would continue to support and share successes with one another.


To join the Classroom 2.0 conversation click here.

Read student's Vision of What School Should Look Like from Chris Lehmann's Modern Theory of Education at the Science Leadership Academy's class.


  1. Lisa,

    Great post!

    Prensky, Robinson, Sheehy, Runzulli all of whom are talking/researching about what it takes to make it happen with our students and assist them to find their talents and opportunities in life.

    Thank you for your insightful comments.


  2. Thanks for sharing this great post. I completely agree that a 21st Century School promotes learning both within the classroom and outside the classroom, a kind of learning that meets the needs of individual students. I also agree that the teacher-student relationship is one that begins but never ends. I'd add that in time the teacher/student roles can shift and adapt as warranted.

  3. Great! I just read this from an e-mail I got from my husband some months ago. I had decided to postpone it. And just today, in just another day in which I find myself fighting against the education system surrounding me and trying not to let it in my students' classroom, I find myself with this post. I recently posted something about letting students find the way they like to learn the most, just after watching a talk in TED by Sir Ken Robinson. So, this seems a great post that comes in the right moment just to find more inspiration to continue to try my lessons (my STUDENTS' lessons) more "theirs"...

    So let's keep on working hard! ;)