In my post, Curriculum Design 7: Designing within the Context of a School Culture, I made the following statement in reference to how we teach skills in our schools:

“I know that most of what we teach is best learned in reflection after an experience than it is in front end lectures.  I know that more gets accomplished over the course of a full year when we build debrief time into the learning process. I know that we will have more success if we work from real learning experiences as they are lived and then ‘back’ into the grand language of our curricular documents. I know that this is doable.”

My intention in this post is not just to state abstractly that this can be done but to illustrate how it might be done in practical terms. In order to do this, I will begin the post in a very concrete and personal way. Then, I am going to make a connection to the Critical Thinking and Problem Solving outcome as it is presented in the P21 Framework ( ). I use this outcome as an an example, but what is said is also true for the remaining skill outcomes as well.

I realize that, while the United States is focusing on 21st Century Skills in our reform efforts, other countries may have different mandates specific to them. Nevertheless, I think that this post is relevant enough to have some connection to teachers anywhere.  The learning issues involved transcend national boundaries.

~  A Real Life Context for Learning ~

Last August, Hurricane Irene devastated our section of New York State and flooded several towns in our school district. The destruction was enormous. The passage below was written by Riley Young, a 10 year old boy in our school. The picture at the end of the story is the house that the boy describes. Please forget about teaching skills for the moment, and just read what this boy has to say.

When that flood ended, we had a number of students in our school who had experiences just like Riley’s. Many of our children were displaced and had virtually nothing left except for the clothes they were wearing when the flood hit. Some were living in tents and travel trailers, while others were living with relatives and neighbors. We lost roads and bridges and communication infrastructure. Somehow school and academic work was just not as important as the fundamental survival issues that we needed to address.

It really was the case that we could not open our school in a business as usual way. We had to address the human needs of our students, and our teachers were put into a situation that teachers everywhere understand all too well: when crises hit, it is often the teachers in a school who help children survive the unpleasant or tragic present in order to take their next steps forward into an uncertain future. It is a job that the overwhelming majority of teachers do straight from their hearts. They put aside schedules and lesson plans and tests, and they just do for children. Most of the time teachers are guided by the same intuitions that made a teaching career appeal to them in the first place.

In the months following that flood, we did not run out to spend thousands of dollars that we did not have on a “flood survival” or “flood recovery” curriculum. We did not look to publishers to give us neat little curricular packages that could help us guide our students through a difficult time. We did it ourselves, and we did it because we cared and because we could.

We immersed our children in important projects. Some were academic challenges, but others were more community based and very much geared to an “out of school” focus. We did, however, make an effort to connect those experiences to the knowledge and skills we needed to teach within the context of our school curriculum. We embedded those projects in beliefs and values that were central to our overall school culture. We helped our children to collaborate so that we could solve problems that were bigger than any of us could solve as individuals. We taught them to think critically, write creatively and to believe that, even if a problem could not be immediately solved, it could be whittled down into smaller successes that mattered.

One such project turned into one of our end of the year assessments, but it did not come by way of a test. It came by way of a celebration for the publication of a book called The Eyes of the Storm.  Our art teacher, Mrs. Sue Kliza, collected the art that the children created as well as the stories and poems that they had written after the flood, and turned all of that into a book. Riley’s story above was just one of those stories.

I have been an advocate of project based learning for many years, but my observations of our post-flood experiences convince me that the best way to approach the teaching of skills that transfer to life long learning is by embedding those skills in real contexts that students can understand and invest in. They do not need to be terribly creative or cute projects. They can be designed as individual or group activities, and they can be directly tied to the content that we have to teach. The important bit is that students are presented with a real challenge that they have the opportunity to solve and have teachers willing to guide them through their learning process. The expectation must be that skills will evolve over time, and central to the design is the expectation that students will be able to reflect honestly on their learning after the event.

That is what the remainder of this post will be about.

It can be a daunting task to look at the documents that seek to flesh out educational reforms. What we often see is an endless linear sequence of things we have to do, and, since we cannot seem to “nest” those activities so that we can accomplish multiple objectives or outcomes simultaneously, we tend to become a bit edgy. We worry about both the breadth and depth of our curriculum, and we see our time as being too short to do it all. We examine the present “here” of where our students are, and we are worried about getting them to the “there” of where they need to be by the end of the year.

In my view, the place to begin our planning is with the contexts for learning that we establish as part of our designs. Learning contexts are essential to what we want to accomplish. When we try to teach children how to swim, we put them in water. We do not lay them on sand and tell them to flap their arms and legs about until they get it. When we want to teach them to eat, we give them food. We do not spend endless hours reading nutritional labels to them. I think it is time to stop rubbing salt on children’s lips and saying, “Some day, I will take you to the ocean!”

If we want to teach children to think (creatively or critically), we ought to begin with what they are thinking about or we ought to provide them with something that is worth thinking about. If we want to teach them to work with others or to be able to collaborate, then we need to put them in situations where they get a chance to do that. If we want children to solve problems, then we need to give them honest problems for which we will accept the solution arrived at by the children. We need to have them stop flapping around on the sand and put them in the water.

At this point, I am going to narrow the focus and just look at the components of the Critical Thinking and Problem Solving outcome in the 21st Century Skills initiative as it is presented in the P21 Framework ( ). Here is an excerpt from that document:

I suppose that one salient feature of critical thinking and problem solving is that, in real life, it is very hard to isolate the little “bullet point” refinements in the processes we use. The bullet points do not happen in sequence no matter how neat and logical they might appear in a curricular document. Sometimes they might all occur, and yet, in other situations, they might cluster themselves in a different way. Sometimes, there might even be something not on that list that has to be included as an integral part of the process because it was a function of life as lived.

When it comes to designing a curriculum to teach critical thinking and problem solving, teachers need to make some choices. One early choice is how specifically they need (or want) to plan. They might select a specific outcome to target (like the one excerpted above), and they might even attempt to parse that outcome down into its component parts. For example, with the Critical Thinking and Problem Solving outcome, they might want to design a lesson around how students might “analyze and evaluate major alternative points of view” or how they might “solve different kinds of problems in both conventional and innovative ways”. This would be a neat piece of design work if it could be done effectively. Certainly, that is what seems to be done on some of the slick commercial products that schools purchase. We have a tidy little package of isolated worksheets or sequentially designed computer scripts, and we are told to walk the students through it. These activities are loosely connected to larger units we teach and we can devote instructional time to them, but the artificiality of parsing the process in this way seems to me to be a bit like rubbing salt on child lips and saying, “Some day I will take you to the ocean!”

Before we simply accept this very precise and specific kind of component design as the teacher’s lot, let’s do two things: first, let’s consider this approach from an intellectual perspective; and, second, let’s consider it from a practical perspective.

Intellectually, the effectiveness of a problem solving experience centers on their being a real problem in the first place. It ought to be a messy problem without a clear solution. If what we are doing is presenting a challenge to students and there is only one correct choice to make, then it is not really a problem at all and no ownership is really being transferred to the students. We are simply trying to manipulate them into accepting a pre-determined choice that we have already made for them. We are working with “puzzle solving” and what we are really teaching is “puzzle assembly”.  If it is a real problem and the students have ownership of it, then a range of potential solutions opens up and choices are made. In that situation, problem solving can occur but, by definition, the process is mostly out of the teacher’s control and in the control of the problem solvers themselves — namely, the students. They might demonstrate some of the bullet points in the Critical Thinking and Problem Solving outcome list, but perhaps not all of them. Have they succeeded or failed? How do we assess that?  Would an authentic problem solving process allow for that? Is it responsible for a teacher to structure such a lesson? Is doing this good teaching or bad teaching? Can a learning intention evolve as learning occurs, or do they all have to be rubbed into children’s lips at the start of the lesson?

Then, too, there are practical considerations. How does Critical Thinking and Problem Solving work in the real world? The reason I began with Riley Young’s story is because I think it illustrates the point that I knew I wanted to make by the end of this post. Just consider Riley’s story as you read it. There is much in Riley’s real life experience that connects to this Critical Thinking and Problem Solving outcome. We can trace the “various types of reasoning” behind the family’s actions as the flooding worsened. We can see how details supported the decisions made, how alternatives were explored as the situation became more dire, how the “best analysis” got revised, how “non-familiar problems” were solved in innovative ways, how “points of view” varied with time and circumstances, and how inter-dependent the problem solving process became. Look at the 21st Century excerpt again now from the perspective of Riley Young. What do you think that ten year old can tell us about this outcome? What has he already told us in his story?

If you look at this document in the context of Riley’s essay and in the context of Riley’s needs, it is pretty clear that he needed an opportunity to say what was on his mind. He needed his teacher to be a compassionate listener. He need her to give him the opportunity to write his story and to read it to his classmates. In reality, those activities were part of his debriefing process and his reflection upon those experiences. Such events can become a context for the teaching of 21st Century Skills. It is possible to work backwards from that experience and that story into a pretty effective “lesson” on Critical Thinking and Problem Solving as a 21st Century Skill, and I suspect that such a lesson would at least be the equivalent of anything we might have purchased from a publisher.


It seems to me that, as we develop curricular designs for the teaching of 21st Century Skills, we might consider spending less time planning to micro-manage every aspect of skill acquisition and more time on the actual development of skills in real contexts. Maybe we need a little bit less of “teacher as teller” and a little more of “teacher as listener” and “teacher as guide”.

We also ought to worry less about “covering our content” and spend more time developing contexts in which we can recast our curriculum as problems for students to solve.

Finally, although it may be counterintuitive, perhaps students would have better performances on the end of year summative assessments that we worry about if we spent more time during the year on formative assessment.