According to Elizabeth Rich of EdWeek, the term "21st-century skills" is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today's world. In a broader sense, however, the idea of what learning in the 21st-century should look like is open to interpretation--and controversy.
I had a chance to chat with Michael Toth, CEO of Learning Sciences International, about his thoughts on 21st-century learning, education reform, the loss of passion in the classroom, and a much needed paradigm shift in the teaching and learning process.
1. Michael, please tell us about yourself and your journey into the field of education. Anything special you'd like to share that perhaps not many people know?
My own journey since starting LSI has been this relentless focus on how we help teachers become more effective, and how we can help students to be more effective. At first, we approached these questions like traditional researchers. But once we started to ask the question: What would make education a more joyful experience for everyone, once we started to ask ourselves about what was really possible if we took a different approach--only then did things really start to click. We were co-discovering this approach with our research and development schools and classrooms. We did have the original vision, but as we worked with teachers and students, they took that original vision to places that we could not have predicted, beautiful places. And the students have flourished in ways that we could not have predicted. When we saw the power of unleashing the potential of teachers and kids through this new methodology, and when we saw the results in student achievement scores on state tests, it confirmed that this could be one of the most powerful reforms that is within the domain of teachers and principals to control. This shift is not something that can be legislated or regulated. This is something that as educators, we can do.
2. Please tell us about Learning Sciences International. How was it founded and what are three strategic goals for the company?
We founded the company as a spinout from a university position where I was a faculty grant director, and our research and development team at the university came with me to become the foundation for LSI. We've had a research and implementation objective from the very beginning, really studying professional development for educators, best implementation of practice, and issues around effectiveness at the teacher and leadership levels. With that as our core, we really tried to study this concept of transfer of professional development into practice, how teachers can become more effective in professional practices more quickly, and how to make sure those improvements in professional practice turn into positive results for students.
As we studied this, we saw that we had to envision teaching differently. We collected a great deal of data on teaching practices--we have one of the nation's largest databases of encoded teaching practices, and we also developed instruments to collect data as we walk schools and visit classrooms. These tools have allowed us to develop a national profile of teaching practices. We've been charting teacher instructional behaviors for five years now. And what we've seen is that teaching practice has not changed much. It is largely a direct-instruction, lecture-based, traditional teaching profile. The problem now is that teachers are very fatigued and stressed; they feel like they have to teach harder and cover more content with increasingly rigorous standards and more rigorous assessments. They have to push the kids very hard to learn this rigorous content, and it's creating teacher fatigue and burnout unlike anything we've experienced before in education. Increasing numbers of teachers are leaving the field. They are reporting very low job satisfaction. They tell us they feel that their original passion for the profession, the reason they became teachers, is not being fulfilled.
3. Can you give us an overview of your book, Who Moved my Standards?
Nationally, states have adopted more rigorous standards. Teachers are teaching very hard, but teaching harder is not resulting in student achievement gains, so teachers and principals are under incredible pressure. It's become clear that our mental model of effective teaching isn't adequate to meet the challenges anymore. Most people share a handed-down notion of effective teaching: a charismatic teacher holding kids in rapt attention in a well-ordered classroom. But I would argue that this is no longer a useful model or vision of effective teaching, because it's focused on the teacher working hard, and the students as passive recipients of knowledge.
At LSI, in working with our research and development schools, we experimented with a new mental model of instruction. In that new model, the students are working harder than the teacher. So for example, in these classrooms you'll see students visibly engaged in productive struggle in their learning. The teacher sets up an environment where there are fewer lectures, and more student-centered work, where students are working on more challenging group tasks, where there's cognitive engagement. In these classrooms, the teacher does not have to "perform" to keep kids engaged. The kids are engaged in working with their student teammates. When this shift happens, we see greater increases in student achievement and positive changes. We work with teachers in a variety of circumstances, from Title 1, and 98 percent poverty, to affluent schools. With a single year of training, teachers are able to fully make this shift. At the end of the year, they report to us overwhelmingly that the joy of teaching has come back to them. Sure, they're still tired at the end of the day, but they feel energized. They all report to us that they will never go back to teaching in the old way.
I wrote the book, basically an easy fable about little squirrels and birds having to learn how to fly, to illustrate how teaching harder in a lecture-based, teacher-centered environment, is no longer a useful model--and to show teachers that there is an alternative. We included lots of advice and tips at the end to help teachers make the shift.
The biggest challenge for teachers is changing their habits. They need a compelling reason to change to this new mental model of effective teaching. They have never seen what it actually looks like to teach this way--student centered classrooms with rigor are extremely rare in most schools. So the idea behind the book was to have a conversation with teachers. Not to tell them, "you're doing this wrong," but to convey that there is a better way that will help them be more joyful, that will engage their students and generate much better learning outcomes. They can get greater student results by making this shift. Teachers report to us that their jobs have gotten easier. Not because they're working less, but because it takes the stress off them. Students are able to engage with their own learning and pull with the teachers to meet their learning targets.
4. Who Moved My Standards is a quick read written in a light and fun storytelling format; can you tell us why you wrote the book in this manner and how has it resonated with your readers?
Teachers are already under enough pressure, so I wanted to give them something they could grasp easily, perhaps at the beginning of the school year as they met together to read quickly and discuss, to start them off on a positive and inspiring note, to help them really "soar." We all love stories, our brains are wired for narrative. While the ideas in the book are based in research, stories are sticky in a way that perhaps heavy research isn't.
5. As we look at 21st-century learning, we still see a tremendous amount of pressure on teachers to "teach to the test." How do we align your book with educators who feel stuck by regulations and the production of high-test scores? What is your advice for those teachers?
If we leave things the way they are, teachers will have to continue to try to teach harder to get students to the higher test scores. But our experience shows us that when teachers make this change in their methodology they have also seen higher test scores. On new state tests, we see higher-order thinking questions. And the fact is, you can't lecture kids to critical thinking. They have to experience it, and they have to develop it. So the change we're seeking is for teachers to create the conditions for students to develop higher-order critical thinking skills. And students with critical thinking skills are better test takers.
6. According to NEA Today, in a 2016 national survey of college freshmen, the number of students who say they will major in education has reached its lowest point in 45 years. Obviously, this is highly concerning for our nation. What do you think we can do as a country to improve these statistics?
If I'm a student in K-12, and I see teachers increasingly stressed and frustrated, not as joyful in their jobs, why would I want to become a teacher? Kids are smart; they pick up on these things. I don't think teachers go into this profession to make a lot of money; they get into it because they want to make a difference. And when they don't feel they're making that difference, it's going to be hard to attract more people into the profession. The best way to turn that around is to turn around the way students experience education--so that they're experiencing a more productive, engaging, critical thinking classroom, where they have some personal responsibility for their learning, and also a structure that allows them to thrive in that environment. As they see connections to the real world--they're more likely to want to become teachers. I truly believe that making the shift to this mental model of teaching will bring more respect and joy to educators--and as we see that, a lot of these issues with teacher hiring and retention will begin to self correct.
7. What is something memorable you have heard from your readers and fans about the book?
One of our Florida districts took the book's vision and really made it their own: They kicked off the school year with a "Soaring in the South" theme and dedicated themselves to supporting every teacher in every classroom to make the shift to rigorous student-centered instruction.
8. What book has been most influential to you as a reader in the education field?
Dr. Robert Marzano's, District Leadership that Works.
9. Please tell us where we can find your book and the best way for educators to reach out to you.
Educators are welcome to reach out to me and our staff of researchers and practitioners on our website.
About Michael Toth
Formerly the president of the National Center for the Profession of Teaching, a university faculty member, and director of research and development grants, Mr. Toth transformed his university research and development team into a company that is focused on leadership and teacher professional growth and instructional effectiveness correlated to student achievement gains.
Mr. Toth is actively involved in research and development, gives public presentations, and advises education leaders on issues of leadership and teacher effectiveness, school improvement, and professional development systems. He is author of Who Moved My Standards.