3 big shifts


Trying to keep things conceptually simple, I see schools needing to make 3 big shifts:

  1. From Low-Level Thinking to High-Level Thinking. From an overwhelming emphasis on students doing lower-level thinking tasks (factual recall, procedural regurgitation) to students more often engaging in tasks of greater cognitive complexity (creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication).
  2. From Analog to Digital. From local classrooms that are largely based on pens/pencils, notebook paper, ring binders, and printed textbooks to local and global learning spaces that are deeply and richly technology-infused (devices + Internet).
  3. From Teacher-Directed to Student-Directed. From classrooms that are overwhelmingly teacher-controlled to learning environments that enable greater student agency (ownership and control of what, how, when, where, who with, and why they learn).

I think the third one’s going to be most difficult. As educators we are not ready to give up control…

How is your school doing with these 3 big shifts?

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Image credit: 3Brittney Bush Bollay

27 Responses to “3 big shifts”

  1. I’m a teacher and just now taking driving lessons. I for one am very glad I don’t have to worry about what the next skill I learn should be. The optimal sequencing of content is an expert skill, especially in subjects like math and science. It’s not a control thing, it’s about how students learn best.

    • If the environment for your driving lessons was adapted to explorative learning (means: specific driving learning areas)you would not need the control of the teacher.

      I think it is a question about how safe you (and other stakeholders) feel in the learning environement and that you have a certain level of orientation within the topic.

      Imagine yourself having the freedom to discover all functionalities of the car on your own, try it out and then get more and more external factors involved – when you have the feeling that you want to go further and not when the driving teacher decides you have to learn something new.

      • The theory sounds great but in this example it would be entirely possible to learn all the functions of the car that interest you and you find exciting and then at the end of it you feel ready to go on the roads but you never had to bother learning to use the indicators or how to give way on a roundabout.

        The skill of a good teacher is to be able to push their students in the right direction towards the right skill at the right time.

        I understand the power of child lead learning but the truth of it is there are things that need to be learned that kids, left to themselves will never learn.

  2. I think a 4th shift is a movement away from “everybody learns the same thing at the same time” to more individualized learning. Possibly the first four years (K-3) could be devoted to helping all students develop the basic reading and math skills, but starting in 4th grade, which is where we tend to loose students and they start to “hate” school, we need to let them follow their passions. It’s “amazing” how much more kids can learn when they actually have an interest in what they’re studying.

    • I agree that the pace of learning needs to be far more variable and allow for the fact that not all kids, or human beings, learn at exactly the same rate, especially in the elementary years. Certainly there are some basic skills that need to be developed early but that doesn’t mean that the concept of a “3rd grade reading level” makes any sense.

      I taught high school math for many years and we were always told that every student needed to complete Algebra I in their first year (now that’s been pushed down to 8th grade). Why? Kids need a good understanding of the concepts of mathematics and where they apply in various fields but not all need to follow the path to Calculus that is the standard in most high school programs. We need to develop more options.

    • I agree that personalized learning will be an important component of all of this:


      I see this as a natural outcome of learning being more student-directed. It will be made possible and amplified by the shift from analog to digital…

      FYI, I use the term ‘personalized’ rather than ‘individualized.’ Here’s why:


    • I enjoy the thought of being able to cater to each student’s individual needs and learning styles. As a student, I have seen both the benefits and negatives of a teacher trying to teach for the different learning styles. However, there will always be that one student who does not enjoy a specific project or lesson. Therefore, I wonder if teachers could begin to incorporate more “individual learning” into the classroom, but still continue to engage and excite every student. If the teacher is truly passionate and excited about what they are teaching, no matter what it is or how they are teaching, students notice and will catch on.

  3. I agree with all 3 Scott.

    You’re right, my experience has been that the third one (student directed) is the hardest, both for teachers and students. I’m in the midst of trying a 3 block UDL approach with my grade 10 English class, which is overwhelmingly student directed (to the point where it is entirely up to students how they demonstrate their learning)… Many of them are so used to assignments with due dates that they need to do to get marks and so they are caught up and have no missing work… Asking them to think about their LEARNING and how they will demonstrate it is a big mindframe shift!

  4. Thanks for this Scott, as usual, a nicely summarized treatment of a huge set of issues…

  5. One size will never “fit all” in education. Like therapy, people are at different “levels” and “lessons”.. Education needs to be about empowerment, insight-development, practical skills application and Androgogal teaching (drawing the wisdom from within each student)!!

  6. You may have weighed on this before, but I don’t recall seeing it: how does the Common Core interact with your top 3?

    • The rhetoric of the Common Core is that it is supposed to facilitate the shift to higher-level thinking tasks. The proof largely will be in the implementation and the assessments. If we simply subsume Common Core into what we’re already doing and say ‘oh, we already do this’ (which I’ve heard many educators say, then it won’t change a thing. Similarly, if the assessments look substantially the same as what we’ve done before, then our rhetoric is meaningless. Will we change our practices? If so, it will be a long slog…

      • Common Core is supposed to be curriculum, not assessment, so in fact it will be assessed exactly the same (they will just claim that the multiple choice questions are now testing higher order skills)

  7. Thank you for a concise summary of the important shifts needed in education.

    I agree that the third shift is the most difficult as I can attest to from experience at my school. It seems that once we are able to make the first two shifts, the third shift should come a bit more smoothly. One of the big hurdles is to not only train teachers for a student-directed classroom but also give students skills so that they can make most of a student-directed classroom. By developing higher order thinking skills, students will be more prepared for a more student-centered learning environment. As one commenter mentioned above, it will take a “mind frame shift.” However, I do think the students are more ready for it than we may give them credit for. As digital natives, they have been solving problems, creating social network and collaborating on their own for a while.
    As we shift to a digital learning environment, this will also give teachers an opportunity to adapt to a more student-centered environment. Once teachers are able to make the first two shifts, I think the third shift will come more naturally.

  8. My kids’ Montessori elementary school absolutely nails 1 and 3. Any Montessori teachers out there want to weigh in?

  9. I agree with 1 and 3. As for 2 I think the emphasis on digital is misplaced. I don’t think exposure to computing necessarily leads to improved learning skills. Education systems in other countries bears this out. Children will pick up digital skills whether they get it at school or not and, frankly, will be swamped by information and distraction but it does not teach them how to work with others and how to think critically.

    • I could hardly disagree more…in-fact, the only change I would entertain to Mr. McLeod’s list would be to move 2 to the first position. You are exactly correct in that students will be swamped by information and distractions…unless we teach them how to deal with it. I see Information Management (similar to a concept known as Library Management) as a critical skill for the 21st century school…there is far more to research today than Google!

      My other reason for moving 2 to 1 would be my belief that the technology facilitates higher order cognition. Why memorize something of a lesser value, ie the date Columbus discovered America, when you can go find it when you need it…and thanks to digital technology, you can find it in seconds!

      No, I see 2 is a central and absolutely required shift.

  10. These ideas have been in circulation for many years, but the people who make educational policy are not educators and see rote learning and anything that is measurable as the only material worth learning.

  11. I’m embarrassed by how ignorant this is, and I’m frightened of any group of lemmings who will follow such nonsense. Collaboration IS NOT LEARNING. The tool (paper/pencil vs computer) IS NOT LEARNING. Textbooks are textbooks and recall is vital to learning. If you don’t think so, let’s engage in a 365 day experiment where there are NO COMPUTER APPLICATIONS whatsoever. Whoever survives obviously knows something — probably not what you get from an app.

    I’m not a Luddite, but only a fool would promote one tool over the countless others that can and should be used for problem solving. Only a fool would discount the importance of recall and lower “functioning” learning (like, I don’t know, reading) as a precursor to higher learning.

    This sounds WAY TOO MUCH like pandering to the technology industry who, by the way, are still giving us subpar apps with a standard yes/no algorithm and no direct teaching. Seriously?

    Dump the $$ for the TOYS and start investing in some TEACHERS. THAT will make the difference.

    PS I’m 47 years old, and my education consisted greatly of collaboration, communication (we WROTE ALL THE GOD-DAMNED TIME!!!), research, verification, and problem solving. These are NOT new. They were just out of vogue while we pandered to the lowest common denominator.

  12. Cindy Friday Beeman Reply October 1, 2013 at 12:49 am

    We don’t have the technology yet to move away from paper and pencil. Also, there is a place for direct instruction, and the NY CC online stuff we are using now has in microscopic print to teach necessary vocabulary first; at the same time, students are supposed to as a group go thru text looking for words they don’t know, and trying to figure out the meaning. So which is it? I hope when we have curriculum, they will let me decide — not them.

  13. All three steps are great and is in great need to make our schools better and improve overall education of our students. However, the question is, how? This is not something that can happen overnight.

    While many teachers and schools are already changing their teaching methods from low-level thinking to high-level thinking and analog to digital, there are some challenges to these both. Changing from Analog to Digital is already a challenge as not all schools have funding or expertise in this area. In this case, how are schools going to change from Analog to Digital if they cannot afford to have computers in the classroom.

    As with the with changing from Teacher-directed to Student-direct learning, even though some teachers already try to implement this in their classroom, the administrators and parents have a hard time accepting this. They need someone to blame when their child does not do well, someone has to be the scapegoat, even though it is already the childs fault when they do not do well.

  14. I run my English class entirely online using a laptop cart. Our school district has provided carts to almost all schools in the district, and our turnaround school is lucky enough to have enough for teachers to use them daily if desired. Unfortunately, our district has cut back on tech personnel and has strict standards regarding allowing teachers to update and fix computer problems (they won’t give out administrator passwords, etc.). The laptops have so many problems that I essentially spend all my planning and many hours outside of school trying to make sure laptops are functional for instruction. In order to accomplish the second big shift, schools need to take a serious look at upgrading tech support. Ideally, providing a tech person at each school with the sole purpose of troubleshooting and handling tech issues would be a huge step forward.

  15. Balance is necessary when shifting in these areas. Both recalling of facts and “procedural regurgitation” have their places in the foundational phases of certain subjects. The key, as an educator, is to recognize when to make the shift from lower to higher thinking.

    Likewise, the shift from digital/student-based classrooms should be made after careful consideration of students’ needs and identifying the best practices and tools to meet them. Educators must be sure that the focus on conveying content knowledge doesn’t get lost while using the technology.

    • I completely agree. We would be at a loss if our students couldn’t regurgitate math facts. At some point, there is a procedure for completing basic math problems as well. On the other hand, if our students can’t critically think to apply these facts and procedures, then they might as well not learn them. As long as teachers have enough time in the curriculum to focus on both the procedure and application, then I wholeheartedly believe this shift is beneficial for our students.

      Similarly, we should not incorporate digital technology just for the sake of being digital. This could be a distraction to our students. However, the benefits of student engagement and individualized learning as a result of internet & device resources indicates that digital learning is often beneficial.

      • Thanks to both of you for your comments here. A few thoughts in return…

        1. We are in no danger of walking away from recall and regurgitation any time soon. The research shows that 85% of students’ day-to-day work is focused on lower-level thinking tasks, exactly the kind of stuff they can find in 5 seconds using Google. Neither is anyone making the straw man argument that we don’t need factual and procedural knowledge at all. After all, it’s impossible to think critically about anything if you don’t anything about it. BUT… we do need kids doing deeper, higher-level thinking work more often. And that’s the shift I’m highlighting here. We can afford to – and should – spend less time on lower-level stuff.

        2. Digital technologies are not engaging in and of themselves. Meaningful work is engaging: http://bit.ly/QOFPOq We need to give kids authentic, relevant, meaningful, purposeful work instead of decontextualized fact nuggets and procedures.

        3. Lisa, with due respect, your statement that the classroom focus should be on ‘conveying content knowledge’ is exactly what we need to reconsider with shifts 1 & 3.

  16. I absolutely agree with the three shifts you mention. I also believe that the shift from Analog to Digital is far overdue. I believe we have done a disservice to students over the past ten-15 years who have struggled with written assignments and paperback novels, as the world they grew up in turned more and more to screens. You are correct that digital technology is not engaging in and of itself, and I do think that educators should include technology in lessons just for technology’s sake. However, students need to become tech literate much faster nowadays, as jobs in most fields require some level of technological literacy.

    • I find it difficult to believe that an assigned novel is distributed on paper rather than a Nook/Kindle/Fire/whatever is an issue in education. It’s that sort of statement that makes people not take Education Technology seriously.
      If you wanted to make a point about communication and discussion about the assignment outside of class using Moodles, discussion boards, collaborative projects, or other tasks which are appropriate uses of technology, then you would have a point.

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