Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

21st Century Learning

Chris Lehman is the principal of a public high school in Philadelphia called the Science Leadership Academy. It's a brand new progressive school that just opened its doors to 110 ninth graders in September. What's so progressive about it? For starters, each kid gets a laptop -- but no textbooks to take home. And even more important, says Chris, who writes the respected blog Practical Theory, is the guiding philosophy of the school: Something he calls "21st century learning." Chris explains:

VT: What do you mean by "21st century learning?"

Chris: Education theory used to be that if we could cram as many facts as possible into our students' heads and give them some skills along the way, they'd be literate citizens. That's a vast overgeneralization of the pedagogy of the last 100 years, of course. But we now live in a new world. We live in the Information Age, where there's a blizzard of information available to us -- some good, some less than good. The most important thing kids can do is learn how to synthesize all this information at their disposal, judge it and become critical thinkers about it. We also have become not only consumers of content but, in ways greater than ever in the history of the written word, creators and producers of it as well. Think of the rise of the blog, the rise of the podcast, the rise of personal publishing. As these tools become more powerful and easier to use, more people are taking advantage of them.

VT: How does this translate to the classroom?

Chris: While we don't give kids textbooks, we have textbooks in the classroom that we use from time to time. But the textbook is not the curricular "bible." One some level, the textbook has been replaced by the moodle page for every class, open-source software that allows us to create wonderful online spaces for our kids. Every single class has this kind of space so the kids can interact online. We want them to learn how to critically analyze information on the web, judge what they're seeing, make decisions for themselves and co-create "meaning," essentially, through class wikis, class forums and peer review. We really want them to start making "meaning" together.

VT: But if kids aren't using textbooks like they once did, how do you know they're getting the right information?

Chris: It's important, even when we look at 21st century schools, that we don't lose what was good about the 20th century. There are times when a textbook is a perfectly good resource. But what's wonderful now is that it's not a bible. So yes, we have a chemistry textbook, for example, in our chemistry classrooms and the kids might grab it. But they also might go to Wikipedia and go to the web. It's a question of how you assimilate mostly the same, but slightly different, definitions to create your own meaning. You're also now doing it with three other kids and you're posting it on a page that all your classmates are going to share -- and when it's edited and revised and changed by your classmates and teachers, it becomes the agreed-upon meaning for the class.

VT: How about parents? Was it hard to sell this idea of education to parents?

Chris: One of the beautiful things about being in an urban setting is that kids have choices; kids can go to a lot of different public schools. We speak about education in a certain way. Some people were really excited about it, some weren't. But we had 1,000 kids apply for 100 spots, so clearly there was interest.

VT: Does your approach work for teaching the language arts, too?

Chris: The five core values of our school are inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. These core values derive from the notion of what makes good science learning, but they're applicable across all disciplines. And that's key here at the Science Leadership Academy. While we think our science program is pretty amazing, we're a school where the pedagogy is inquiry driven and project based. This cuts across history, English -- all disciplines.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 3rd 2006, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Brian R.
For another school similar to this one, you can check out Napa New Technology High School (NTHS) which opened in 1996.

Monday July 16th 2007, 6:30 PM
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Thursday January 29th 2009, 9:04 PM
Comment by: Ruth H. (Hobart Australia)
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