Think Different: Beyond the Three R’s in the 21st Century

At the recent NAIS Annual Conference in Seattle, Pat Bassett, the President of NAIS, shared the following ten trends for schools to remain competitive and fulfill their mission promise in the 21st century:

  1. Adopting backward design and mapping of curriculum around skills rather than subjects
  2. Documenting student outcomes via formative assessments and “demonstrations of learning”
  3. Connecting AI, the strengths approach, and growth mindsets – all subsets of the positivist psychology movement
  4. Globalizing independent schools
  5. Stage II greening of independent schools
  6. STEM and beyond signature programming
  7. Professionalizing the profession
  8. Public purpose of private education
  9. Online learning consortia for independent school-branded courses
  10. Design thinking- incorporating MIT and Stanford Design Labs
Bassett ended with a quotation from Bill Gates’ annual letter for his foundation: “Innovation is the means, and equity is the end goal.”

These trends (and that quote) have remained with me over the last several weeks since the conference ended, and at a faculty meeting last Wednesday, I shared them with my teachers. One of the central themes and messages from Bassett’s trends reflect the ubiquity of technology in our lives and need to integrate tech-literacy into our curricula in authentic, real-world ways. 1:1 laptop or iPad initiatives that simply replace the paper planner or similar physical tool are failing our children and the skills they will need both today and tomorrow.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently on “Open Computer” or “Open Network” testing – a concept pioneered by St. Gregory’s Prep in Tucson, AZ where Jonathan Martin is the head of school. The skills of gather, evaluate, and analyze information are authentically tested when students are given access to the internet and any other resource at their disposal. Martin notes that teachers have to think differently about the questions they ask and the preparation and review for the test. Yes/No, True/False answers are no longer acceptable as evidence of mastery.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic – the traditional three R’s – have occupied a central perch in educational literature and curriculum development, however, the 21st century demands that schools go beyond these three R’s to include an Information Communication Literacy (ICL) program. The ICL team at our school currently consists of the director of technology, technology integration specialist, and our library media specialist. Together, they are promoting and integrating 21st century skills into our existing curricula. My message to the teachers last Wednesday was short and simple: technology is no longer a secondary consideration or simply meant as a support to enhance curriculum, but is as necessary a skill as the three R’s. Students are going to use the technologies at their fingertips with or without our support, and yet the conservative streak that pervades many institutions shun its use beyond simple internet research on Google or Wikipedia. It’s no longer considered innovative for schools to use the internet, but how it’s used to analyze information and assess students on their application can be considered innovative.**

I look forward to continuing this conversation with my faculty at future meetings. Please use the comments section to add your own two cents on this topic!


**Check out my school’s own initial foray into innovative practices at; we now need to push the assessment piece. Also check out these authentic assessment ideas from Steve Taffee that are just as exciting and inspiring for the creative educator:

  • “include the perspective from two personal contacts living in other countries (or representing different age groups, ethnicities, different schools, et al.)
  • include links to primary documents to support your argument.
  • create a multimedia mashup of text, video, sound and animation to prove your thesis.
  • summarize your argument in several different media: a 140 character Twitter post, a Wordle page, a one stanza original music composition, or a ten second animation.
  • post your idea to three selected blogs or web sites and summarize and critique the response you receive.”

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