What’s the holdup?

Image from Canva

What’s the holdup of widespread innovation in education?

In the past, schools were designed to support growing factories, favoring rote working tasks over creative thinking. Even today, as times have drastically changed, some schools still reflect this “factory model”. Jobs are evolving, and students’ ability to gain independent access to information has substantially increased with the availability of technology. With these changes, organizations, government, and school districts have been working to predict the future job market for current school-age students.

We’ve all heard it — the hype around 21st-century skills. These skills refer to the importance of deeper learning as well as the development of social skills and emotional intelligence. While they are part of the conversation, it’s often difficult to balance the integration meaningfully within schools. Since the early 2000s, there has been widespread research around the need for change in the classroom when integrating technology. To this day, however, widespread changes cannot be seen. So, what’s the holdup in supporting schools to make the shifts necessary for our 21st-century learner?

The jobs of the future are different than the jobs of today. Image from Creative Commons

What’s the research saying?

There are many articles, blog posts, and books at our fingertips about the need to shift toward 21st-century skills. For the purpose of this post, I will explore the article “Students, Not Stuff” (Will Richardson, 2013) and the book, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills (Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, et al., 2013). Though both were published almost six years ago, the issues and findings they point out are still relevant.

“Students, Not Stuff” addresses how we often limit our students’ experiences in schools. Richardson goes on to say that integrating technology into the classroom can allow them to engage in things they are interested in or passionate about. The article also addresses the need for expanding the way schools select technology to support student learning experiences. And it discusses the need for making decisions about learning and technology beyond the test. Richardson says:

[W]e must be willing to consider that in a world full of access to knowledge and information, it may be more important to develop students who can take advantage of that knowledge when they need it than to develop students who memorize a slice of information that schools offer in case they might need it someday.

In this age of technology, it doesn’t make sense to assess students on their ability to memorize information. Instead, we should assess them on their ability to apply their knowledge to new situations.

Students must now be able to apply what they have learned to a variety of situations. Image from Creative Commons

Education for Life and Work expands on this idea, outlining research conducted by the National Research Committee and other groups to define and make recommendations on 21st-century skills. When discussing their recommendations they outlined some challenges. One was how assessments were not shifting to meet the needs of the 21st-century student. They recognized that developing assessments and aligning curriculum would take research, investment, and time. Additionally, teachers would need training to build capacity. In the book, Recommendation 9 states: “As states and test developers begin to create new assessment systems…they should devote significant attention to 21st-century competencies…”

The need for a shift in assessment strategies stood out to me as being a systemic holdup in making changes in the classroom. School leaders and districts are reluctant to make the instructional development shifts needed, because the current tests are not aligned to the new skills. Schools are often tied to test scores as being the greatest indicator of success, so they tend to focus on teaching to the test, instead of innovating.

Pockets of Innovation

Despite this holdup for a more wide-scale, systematic shift in education, there are changes happening! At Educate, we are fostering pockets of innovation, supporting those schools and teachers in developing meaningful and relevant learning experiences for students. The teachers we work with understand that innovation is important to student success and they want to support students in meeting the demands beyond K–12. When asked, 87% of our teachers said they felt innovation would support their students, more than what is currently happening in the classroom. And 94% of our teachers say that Educate coaches support them in reaching rigorous goals for their students. Across schools, Educate coaches are helping teachers get more creative with assessments, like this Middle School ELA class from the Notre Dame School in Manhattan. Coaches are bringing other innovative ideas with them, such as how project-based learning can promote authentic engagement, and how promoting active learning in the classroom can get students closer to the 21st century skills.

The time is now. Students are quickly adapting to meet the changes of their environment, whether we as educators keep up with their needs or not. We have the opportunity to partner and open the doors to deeper learning and thinking by leveraging technology in exciting ways. Join our community to see how others are making changes in their classroom. Let’s learn and grow together.


Students First, Stuff Second by Will Richardson. Educational Leadership March 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 6

Technology-Rich Learning Pages 10–14

Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, Center for Education, Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. 2013. Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13398.