Learning by Doing: Pathways to High Performance Students

By Edward J. Barboni
Senior Advisor,
Council of Independent Colleges,
and Independent Consultant

I was re-reading “Learning for the 21st Century” the other day as background material on a forthcoming undergraduate teacher preparation project. I was struck by how well the report navigates the political waters of educational reform, so decided to use this Viewpoint to bring this report to the attention of those who have not yet read it. It deserves widespread attention, particularly among those of us engaged in improving undergraduate teacher preparation programs.

The report gives due respect to standardized testing, disciplinary content coverage, and other traditional concerns of the educational enterprise. However, it positively and constructively moves the reader toward best practices in designing active learning environments for students of all ages, and toward authentic assessment tools that may be used to progress toward reaching the goal of each student achieving high standards of performance associated with meaningful learning outcomes.

Upon reflection, this isn’t surprising because the report was commissioned by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.21stcenturyskills.org/), a public-private organization formed in 2002 to create a successful model of learning for this millennium that incorporates 21st Century skills into the nation’s system of education. Its members are the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Inc., Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Inc., Dell Computer Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, the National Education Association, and SAP. The corporate members of this partnership are truly “learning organizations” whose employees must continuously improve their ability to collaboratively create knowledge and to design products and services that provide solutions to their customers’ needs. In turn, these customers must collaboratively create knowledge to design products and services that will provide solutions to their customers’ needs; and the chain continues. It also reaches back to the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities to provide the knowledge industry with the employees called upon to continuously learn. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is not satisfied with our performance both with respect to the graduates they hire and the future teachers we send into the nation’s schools each year to prepare the knowledge workers of the future. But their dissatisfaction, adroitly articulated in their report, moves the reader to a practical solution.

Before sharing their answer with you, allow me to share some experiences which create a context for it. One experience was having lunch for the first time in one of Microsoft’s cafeterias at their Redmond, Washington campus. It was like being at the United Nations! The experience was a tangible reminder of the importance of ensuring that undergraduate students develop the capacity to learn and work in teams of people whose backgrounds are quite different from their own. This is not an option at Microsoft, it is a requirement, and Microsoft and other knowledge organizations want to take for granted that the nation’s college graduates have these abilities and have had these earlier experiences.

Another, very different, experience was a tour I took of the Masterfoods, USA factory in Hackettstown, NJ where they make M&M candies. The contrast between the old world of the “automation worker” on the line and the new world of the “knowledge worker” was stark and inescapable. Wherever we walked in the plant, machines from the industrial age outfitted with devices from the information age (computer screens) surrounded us. The image brought to life the findings of the SCANS report published in 1992 (wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS/). For workers in this plant (mostly high school graduates) to think critically, communicate effectively, reason quantitatively, and engage routinely in information based decision-making are now required– and these are the higher order competencies identified in the SCANS report. Masterfoods and other knowledge organizations want the high schools where they have plants to produce graduates with the skills identified in the SCANS report.

So, whether it’s Microsoft, Masterfoods, or any of the thousands of other corporations in the country, the challenge they face is that the nation’s high schools don’t produce enough graduates with 21st Century skills, our nation’s teacher preparation programs don’t produce enough new teachers who know how to ensure that high school graduates have these skills, and our nation’s undergraduate programs don’t produce enough graduates with these skills at high standards of performance. In response to this challenge, many corporations are taking steps of their own, e.g., they are building their own corporate universities and educational programs with essentially the same learning outcomes as the ones you can find at the beginning of any college or university catalogue. The only difference is they need to produce “graduates” of their programs who can perform to high standards in the real world of work, not just pass tests. It’s performance that counts. Or, put another way, it’s not what you know; it’s what you can do with what you know that matters.

What the Partnership has done in “Learning for the 21st Century” is a remarkable job of building bridges among the various constituencies and knowledge bases that need to be brought together to “finally get the job done.” But, at its core, what Learning for the 21st Century d'es best is focus upon the nature of the work of learning in the 21st Century and the “learning by doing” assignments and assessments that lead to high performing students. The readers of Technology Enabled Teaching know about these issues already, but this report’s framework d'es the best job I’ve seen of navigating the political waters of the behaviorist and standardized testing camps to perhaps finally create a context in which the constructivists and authentic assessment camps can get more room in which to do their work.

To further engage this readership and to offer another model for transformation, I’d like to recommend another resource. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), a strategic partner of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, has developed an extremely good set of exemplars of effective practice assignments, assessments, and profiles of pre-service teachers who have demonstrated mastery of the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for Teachers. If you are in the constructivist/authentic assessment camps, I would urge you to explore ISTE’s work at cnets.iste.org/teachers/t_book.html.

It has been 13 years since the SCANS report was published, and 16 years since the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published their first version of the NCTM Standards. Perhaps we finally have reached the time when teacher preparation programs will act on the truism that “teachers teach how they are taught, not how they are taught to teach.” The resources are there; it’s time for us to put them into authentic learning experiences.

Edward J. Barboni (ebarboni@msn.com) is an independent consultant and a Senior Advisor to the Council of Independent Colleges (www.cic.edu) on ICT-related teaching and learning projects.

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