Skill Acquisition: Does it just happen?

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 4.39.47 PMOver the past two years, I have had the honor of piloting and driving, along with  my amazing students, the Primary Innovation Studio. This experience has been the fuel for many a reflective moment, many a debate, and many a conversation. The transformative gift from the Morgridge Family Foundation has been a test ground for other teachers who have felt an itch to make things new and different in their classrooms. Has this been easy? Hell no. Have I learned things about today’s learner? Hell yes. As I reflect upon the last 24 months of journeying, I am inclined to call the endeavor a great success; however, a success tempered by mistakes and changes of mind along the way. As I try to extrapolate the good from the bad in this space, I feel a hearty dose of responsibility to lift up primary teachers in general as it is my conclusion that WE have been doing things that link perfectly with 21st Century Education already. Ouch, this could get touchy as I tiptoe (or collide) into our indoctrinated beliefs about instruction and what is best for children. I can say with no hesitation, that the advance of technology, that sea of continuous and instant information, has impacted the relevance of some of those coveted classroom rituals.

It. is. hard. to. let. go. of the stuff of the past.

I have struggled with that; however, changing with the pace to today’s learner has many benefits.

We teachers are in love with our content as it has driven planning and classroom pedagogy for decades. I remember pulling out my pumpkin unit file as a kindergarten teacher, tried and true activities, bulletin board fader, and much, much more. This folder, with it’s creased edges and yellowing copies inside, was as expected as the first cool breeze of fall. Letting it go was scary; however, replacing it with explicitly modeled and supported problem solving exercises, passion driven curious investigations, and authentic inquiries roused such engagement…the pumpkin folder was soon forgotten and thrown away. Teaching students, primary even, through recipe driven outcome units does not instill the skills in which they need for today’s world. The art of complex communication is one of skill, and that is a literacy skill that young students need to learn, practice and be assessed on. Complex skills of today are those such as persuading, explaining, negotiating, gaining trust, and building understanding. Although foundational skills (reading, writing, mathematics, history, language) remain essential, a more complex set of competencies are required today.

The mantra of today’s primary classroom is still the literacy rich environment; moreover, students are learning and practicing literacy skills, everyday. But, there is a New Literacy, one coined by the National Council of Teachers of English within the past 2 years.

Twenty-first century readers and writers need to:

And as I think of my evolving classroom over the past 3 decades, these are the changing paradigm pieces. These are not skills that were explicitly taught or even acknowledged, as content drove my planning. This is today’s content. The stuff of life, student interest, community causes/problems, 21st Century Skills (such as: resiliency, problem solving, financial literacy, global awareness, systems thinking, health and wellness, and civic responsibility) along with an environment (rich with a culture of creativity, communication, critical thinking and communication). These are the tools in which we use to reach students’ new literacy needs. This moves me past the folders that I used for decades. There is no way that I can prepare my students without making shifts in my classroom environment and teaching craft.  Rather than just learning to read, 21st century literacy is about reading to learn and developing the capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate knowledge. Only a few countries promote such a broad concept of literacy in their instructional practices and assessments, but more will surely follow.

One’s next concern could be accountability. How are these kids accountable and for and to what? Of course in the apron of every great teacher is the test, the quiz, the grades, the reporting. Assessment is not going away in the primary classroom. It is the vehicle that guides community decisions, teacher moves and student goal setting.

—I am used to the assessment being written for me, by a publisher or some grand teacher in district offices; furthermore, I am not trained to be writing assessments!-

evanWell, er, I must admit, that was my song a few years ago. Now I have a new found love of figuring out the best assessment for MY group of students. Assessment is a body of evidence, a collection of observations (pictures, notes, videos) and products from students. This collection is accessible to the student and parents, connected to solid goals and objectives for next steps. Even at the young age of 7, students need to learn how to work toward a personal goal, find information and communicate their thinking and their success. Do some kids struggle with the self monitoring demands of a performance assessment? Of course, and that is when the teacher swoops in to assist, problem solve and support. Through the performance assessment, higher level skills (as mentioned above) are assessed and reached.

In closing, I shall ask myself some questions about primary classrooms and today.

Do students need to practice the skills of reading, writing and math? YES

Do some students need remedial instruction? YES

Do students need to have opportunities to communicate and demonstrate their skills as they increase? YES

Do students need to create products that are dictated by the teacher as a recipe? NO

Do students need to work within an environment of collaboration and civic learning? YES

Do students need to be taught technology applications and programs in isolation? NO

Do students need hands on technology devices in their classrooms? YES

Do students need access to technology as a tool anytime? YES

Do the ‘New Literacy’ components, mentioned above, need to be explicitly taught and modeled? YES

Does literacy instruction look like it looked 10 years ago? NO

Do students need to learn how to critique, recieve and give feedback? YES

Is the teacher’s ‘grade’ and opinion all that matters? NO

Is assessment authentic and contained in a body of evidence? YES

In closing, I would like to express my sincere learner mentality as I continue to find articles and conversations that push my thinking in this fast changing world of education. Hold on tight, this ride is accelerating, and if you can consider the gains and new horizons, it will be worth the ride.

Schools and classrooms must be transformed from being storehouses of knowledge to being more like portable tents providing a shelter and a gathering place for students as they go out to explore, to question, to experiment, to discover!


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