Join the conversation
view comments|add yours


K–12 education

By Alexandra Moses


I t’s only 6:45 a.m., but a group of seventh graders at one Washington, D.C., school are in the classroom, video chatting with students in Thailand about water quality. In an Illinois elementary school, kids in a science lab critique classmates’ abilities to get along. And near Albany, New York, high school students use technology to create solar ovens for rural Haiti. Welcome to 21st century learning environments.

At a time when education is at a critical point—with everyone from parents to policymakers pushing to boost test scores, improve high school graduation rates and get more kids off to college—the road to higher academic achievement is about giving kids the skills to thrive in the workforce and society of the future. “We’re preparing (students) for a world that’s rapidly changing. The jobs they’re going to have don’t even exist yet,” says Billie McConnell, director of the K-12 Digital Learning Institute at Abilene Christian University. Getting information from the teacher and being able to recite it back correctly is a thing of the past, he adds.

Students now must be able to collaborate in groups, clearly communicating their ideas and opinions. They also have to think critically about the information they give and receive, accepting that others may have a different perspective. “It’s not just someone who’s going to graduate 12th grade and be able to write comprehensively,” says Jeanne Osgood, with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an Illinois-based research, practice and advocacy group. “We’re teaching the whole child.”

The programs featured in this article show real promise for doing just this by shaping students’ social and emotional skills, infusing global awareness into the curriculum and using technology to enhance project-based learning.

We’re preparing (students) for a world that’s rapidly changing. The jobs they’re going to have don’t even exist yet. -Billie McConnell, director of the K-12 Digital Learning Institute at Abilene Christian University

Social and emotional learning—building problem solvers in Illinois

At Cossitt Elementary School in La Grange, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, science teachers want to know what students working with partners found out in a lab assignment—not just the science they learned, but whether their partner was a good one.

This social objective is part of the school’s overarching philosophy to build the children’s social and emotional skills. “They might say ‘it really worked well when we did this.’ They’re learning from their experiences how to get along with one another,” Principal Mary Tavegia says of the lab.

In fact, it’s much more than learning to get along. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a strategy infused into the curriculum that teaches students how to communicate with one another, persist in completing a task, manage their emotions and solve problems. Proponents say it helps create a positive school climate, which in turn keeps more students engaged in school and gives students the tools that will help boost their grades.

Cossitt teachers incorporate communication skills into the little things, such as the daily morning meeting they have with students. Children can give their opinion about a lesson, tell a story about themselves or work through a problem the class has been having, Tavegia says. It provokes students to think and communicate on a deeper level and fosters a better sense of community. “The kids get to have a voice,” Tavegia says, and by keeping communication lines open, “they have an awareness of how their actions impact others.”

Illinois is the only state that has social and emotional learning as part of the curriculum standards, but it’s getting more interest, as extreme bullying makes headlines across the country. SEL is increasingly considered as a way to create a better school atmosphere. Studies also support this: A February report in the journal Child Development shows that students receiving social and emotional instruction have fewer emotional problems and better academic performance.

An overarching tenet of SEL instruction is working with students, rather than lecturing to them or doing things for them. This “gives kids a process to work through solutions,” says CASEL’s Osgood. In schools that turn to SEL to help curb discipline problems, for example, students still face consequences for bad behavior, but rather than reactive punishment, all the parties involved work together to discuss what happened, why and what should be done.

That will ultimately translate into the workplace, which is increasingly a collaborative, problem-solving environment. Kids will need to know, “how do I work with that person I don’t really like,” says Abilene Christian’s McConnell.

Global competence—becoming globally aware in Washington, D.C.

On a field trip at the Washington International School (WIS), in Washington, D.C., seventh graders collect water samples from the Potomac River, measuring water quality and examining the fish. Back at school, students test the water quality of their local stream, which makes its way out to the Potomac River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

The intention of the lesson isn’t just to meet a science standard, but to get kids interested in what’s going on in the larger community. “They see the connection that whatever goes down their drain eventually lands in the Potomac River and from there on to the Chesapeake Bay,” says teacher
Kusum Waglé.

The lesson is a stepping stone to make students aware that small actions can have big consequences and to illustrate the interconnected nature of their world. This type of lesson is at the core of global competence: teaching students to investigate their local environment and the world to consider multiple perspectives, to communicate their ideas with different people and to take action to make change.

The kids get to have a voice, and by keeping communication lines open, they have an awareness of how their actions impact others.—Mary Tavegia, principal of Cossitt Elementary School,La Grange, Illinois

The goal is to get students to “view themselves as players in the world,” says Jessica Keyahes, director of education for the Asia Society, a nonprofit that champions global competence. “This is something that is necessary, not just in terms of getting a job, but as global citizens, as peers and as participants in their local community.”

At WIS, the water lesson doesn’t stop with their local system. Students get to school early to video conference with students at a sister school in Bangkok and compare water quality notes—and cultural notes, with conversations about music and the weather. “The kids get a bit of a feel for a place halfway across the world,” Waglé says.

WIS, which is a private school with an international population, pushes global competence at every turn. Students in humanities classes study medieval times and the Arab world and include a discussion about stereotypes and how they happen. Another teacher uses food to teach his French humanities students about connections, taking an ingredient commonly associated with one culture’s cuisine, such as the tomato and Italy, and showing students that its origins were actually quite different—it didn’t come to Italy until the 1600s.

“It is important for us as teachers to guide our kids toward global competency as we have seen how globalization and the digital age have taken over our planet,” Waglé says. “For our kids to be adept at 21st century skills such as collaboration and communication, they will have to be globally competent and appreciate different cultures and languages.”

Digital literacy—high-tech projects in New York and Texas

Freshmen in an environmental studies course at Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer, New York, arrive at class with laptops in hand, form teams and get their task: Find the right “shape for a parabolic trough solar cooker” for rural Haiti, which suffers from deforestation and a lack of electricity.

Students casually consult laptops and present design schemes to fellow students using an interactive whiteboard while coming up with plans to create their solar ovens using recycled materials, and a budget of about $15.

At Manor New Tech High School in Manor, Texas, students in digital media courses post their creative projects on the “digital dojo,” an online, interactive site filled with student-made films, digitally manipulated photographs and other projects created with digital media. The interactive site even invites feedback on the posted projects from fellow students and the public, and features a Twitter feed to keep followers updated.

Tech Valley and Manor New Tech are two of 62 New Technology Network schools across the country—public schools that take on a model of project-based learning heavily infused with technology. Students each have their own laptops and have 24/7 access to software programs, applications and files stored in a computing cloud.

Using digital tools gives students an understanding of how to navigate a system and a unique way to express their knowledge of core content, whether that’s via a website, a claymation video or a music presentation, says Tim Presiado, senior director of new school development with the New Tech Network. It also fuels the projects that are the heart of the New Tech model: Students spend more time working in groups than alone. If a student is sick, or a group wants to work after school hours, they can connect digitally via an online community or using a document-sharing site such as Google docs.

The goal is to get students to “view themselves as players in the world. —Jessica Keyahes, director of education for the Asia Society,  a nonprofit that champions global competence
With continuous access to programs and the Web throughout the day via their laptops, students also get a front-seat role in their own education. When students can get information anywhere, the power dynamic in the classroom shifts away from having the teacher at center stage lecturing from the textbook, Presiado says. Technology helps move the teacher to a coaching role, he says, and “allows you to create a space where you can help students find information through more than just a textbook.”

And 21st century skills, such as social competency and digital literacy, are at the heart of assessments at New Tech schools: Students are graded on the content of their project and their knowledge, as well as on how well they collaborate, communicate, think critically, use technology and set goals.

Preparing the next generation

Using technology for projects, chatting with students across the globe and learning how to get along offers critical lessons for this next generation of workers. What students need now is “a totally different skill set from the industrial age, where you got information and repeated it back,” says McConnell. “That world is gone.”

With these new approaches at the forefront, education is shifting away from that old world and recognizing that students need to be conscientious consumers of information, effective communicators and good digital citizens to succeed in the workforce and to expand their knowledge now.

In other words, McConnell says, these students get “thinking skills, creative skills and 21st century skills.”

Alexandra Moses is an education writer, specializing in K-12. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.


Technology helps move the teacher to a coaching role and “allows you to create a space where you can help students find information through more than just a textbook. Tim Presiado, senior director of new school development with the New Tech Network

Users of this site agree to the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy (updated September 10, 2010)