Also posted as a guest blogger on Dangerously Irrelevant

Yesterday, Justin and I wrote about our efforts to broaden the conversation that we had been having within our department with our wider school and the leaders within it. It became very clear to us early on that unless there was a shared understanding of concepts like “21st century literacy” and why our classrooms needed to educate for it, then we would be stuck in a curricular holding pattern.

There is lots of talk about the need to broaden student literacy to encompass and address the skills needed to navigate the new visual and information landscape, but what does that look like in practice and how do you write it into the K-12 curriculum in a way that is manageable and meaningful?

Our initial work led us to form five essential questions that we felt met the needs of a 21st century learner. It was our feeling that a curriculum focused on just five questions would be much more manageable for the average teacher. These questions speak to thinking, critically evaluating, analyzing, and communicating. They value responsible behavior and knowing yourself as a learner. In a world in which it is impossible to predict what technology children will be using as adults, it is the “answers” to these five questions that will provide students the opportunity to succeed and thrive in the 21st Century.

The power of these Essential Questions, lie in their applicability to all ages and to discussion more important and broad than technology standing alone.

A grade 1 teacher can and should have valuable discussions with students about being safe or recognizing truthful information. Who are the people you trust? What about them makes you believe what they say? What makes one “source” more valuable than another? Those same questions can be asked throughout a child’s schooling, but the answers begin to include more sources and more critical examination of their world. And eventually, they begin to include technology. If experimentation and data analysis is a way to know something is true, then you will have to learn how to use the technology needed to analyze that data. If being safe is valued, then learning about responsible use of social networking sites, issues of privacy, and web 2.0 technologies inevitably will be discussed at a time appropriate to students’ use.

It was our feeling that the broad nature of these questions makes them accessible to teachers whose responsibility it is to embed this curriculum into their students’ learning.

Teachers believe that they can teach effective communication.

They don’t believe they know much about PowerPoint.

Nor should effective communication be limited to a software title anyway. The answers to these Essential Questions are higher-order thinking skills and issues of global citizenship. These are the skills we NEED students to have and the ones that will serve them well once they leave the arena of formal education.

These were our beliefs and they had come from hours of conversation and reading about the subject. If we wanted to move our ideas forward others would have to own them as well. So we got some key players and leadership from around the school to come together on a number of different occasions to bring some different experience sets to table to refine our idea.

Our google collaborative document was the perfect venue to allow this to happen. It was fascinating to watch as 12 people debate and edit the same at the same time. What a powerful tool!

Our first challenge was to answer the question “What do we want our students to learn?” Our framework provided much of this information but it was also important to try and outline what we wanted our student to be able to do once they were finished at ISB. From the perspective of this framework we all agreed that the ideas could be synthesized down to three areas.

We wanted out students to be:

Effective Learners

Effective Communicators

Effective Collaborators


From this starting point and as a result of much discussion and collaboration, we all agreed that our ideas and five essential questions could be refined further down to three new questions.

How do I responsibly use information and communication to positively contribute to my world?

How do I effectively communicate?

How do I find and use information to construct meaning and solve problems?

With these questions we then proceeded to flesh out the enduring understandings that went with them. It was our feeling that these should always be evolving to address the changing face of communication, collaboration and information. The curriculum would be in constant beta. A testament to the ever expanding nature of the skills it was attempting to map.


What do you think?

  • Do the 3 questions miss anything?
  • Is this accessible to the classroom teacher?
  • Could you sell this to your admin?
  • What barriers do you see?

with Justin Medved

Cross Posted at: Medagogy and Dangerously Irrelevant

Tomorrow’s post: Part 5 – Moving forward – from rhetoric to reality.

5 Responses to “Refining the idea and creating understanding”
  1. I am a secondary school administrator from the states and i think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I have a building full of excellent teachers who are intimidated by technology. We are pushing and pushing for them to use blogs, wikis, and the world wide web to add depth, perspective, and richness to their teaching strategy. Essentially we are shifting from teacher centered education to student and learning focused education. Technology helps make that shift. Your guidelines are great.

  2. dharter says:

    Thanks! Ultimately we are trying to get students to a place where they are prepared for their futures (which we can’t predict). Focusing on the thinking that they’ll need for this allows us to do this.

    The big part of getting teachers on board with these web 2.0 tools is to first convince them that there is educational benefit. Initially, that involves showing them how kids will learn the subject matter better with these tools (whether it’s collaborating on knowledge building with a wiki or whether it’s discussion literature with a blog).

    But ultimately, and more importantly, teachers will have to be convinced that the needs of the students are greater than only subject matter learning. That these 21st Century Skills that we describe are in fact the true educational goals that will provide students with opportunities to succeed. Effective communication, collaboration, and use of information have always been valued in schools, but seemed to have always taken a back seat to content knowledge.

    This same knowledge is mostly available at the click of a mouse now, so how do we shift teacher understanding to the now greater value of these skills?

  3. It just came to me. I wonder if one powerful way to demonstrate to teachers that education’s current focus on teaching must shift to be learner centered with 21st century skills could be proved with the following exercise. Ask a teacher to bring to a faculty meeting a copy of their latest test or assessment. Take the questions and google the answers and use the web to find everything you need. It would probably take only a few minutes. If someone by just using the web for a few minutes could answer the questions I believe it would demonstrate quite clearly to teachers that their role as the sacred giver of content has been eclipsed.

    Maybe it would work. Maybe not.

  4. Jenny Luca says:

    Hi Dennis and Justin,
    I think the document you created on Google Docs is excellent. It”s clarified for me the approach I need to be taking with the staff at my school as to why they need to be adopting the ICT skills I’ve been assaulting them with. We’re getting a really good take-up with Wiki adoption, but I realise I need to couch my selling of this and other tools in these three questions to framework the importance of trying out new things that are going to underpin how our students communicate in the world of today and the future. Can I use the document in my school? Thanks for all of your hard work – it’s what I love about the network – people willing to share their ideas and not work in isolation.

  5. dharter says:

    I love that idea…now I am just trying to work out a way to make it happen at a team meeting without offending the teachers (don’t mean to imply that their test being too content based and not thinking based means that they are not good teachers). Very cool. I think it could work.

    I love the sharing too. It constantly amazes me that I now collaborate better than I ever did only it’s with a world-wide team! Interestingly, a lot of the tools that we espouse AREN’T being used by kids, yet. We often assume that digital natives means expertise, but in fact, it doesn’t mean they know how to use all these tools. The learn quickly though! And they will need to know how to adapt, unlearn and relearn constantly. It would be best if we teachers learned to do that as well. Thanks for your continued support!!!

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