Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Perfect Storm: Creating a 21st Century Learning Environment

Over a decade has passed in the 21st  Century and technology continues to advance at an unpredictable rate. Conversations are occurring everyday regarding ideas, strategies and theoretical approaches for teaching and learning as we move forward in this digital age.  But the challenge is trying to keep up with and integrate all the amazing approaches for creating a student-centered learning environment.  

Back in June 2011, Ann Ottmar and I took on an exhilarating task: create a 3/4/5 Multiage Program that meshed our school district endeavors, PLC Goals, and 21 st Century Skills.  We worked together closely over the summer and thought deeply on how to communicate our research and perspective with our students, parents, colleagues, and community members.   Clearly we understood that visuals would be the way to go, but we took it one step further to create a 3D model within our classroom.  This giant display explains how we merge expected state standards, higher-level thinking, and the affective domain within our multiage community.  Our over-arching goal is to essentially empower students by providing them with a direct role in the learning process and explaining to them the key elements in education.  And so begins our metaphor of “The Perfect Storm,” a synthesis of elements for student success. 

Our students’ needs and development have guided us on the path through this storm, allowing us to add elements along the way and describe the development of our Student Learning Community.  We have pieced our metaphor into stages to explain “The Perfect Storm,” essentially creating a plan for developing a 21st Century Learning Environment.  Each stage was introduced to our classroom as the “Storm” developed through the progression of the school year.  Here are the “sketched” stages:
Stage 1:  The Social Foundation
The soil resembles the environments (physical, social/emotional, and cognitive) that the seeds (students) are planted into in the fall.  These environments are necessary to develop our Student Learning Community.  Thinking of Maslow’s Hierarchy and the work of Marilee Sprenger, we were strategic with the time set aside to create this foundation to ensure meeting the needs of each student.
Stage 2:  The Content Foundation

The sun resembles the literature/text that surrounds us on a daily basis, as with every corner we turn there is a variety of media shining upon us.  The clouds remind us of the content areas [Science (Health), Social Studies (Economics, History, Geography, Civics), and Mathematics], as they can sometimes be cloudy and vague.  As they overlap and integration occurs, the 21st Century Interdisciplinary Themes can be addressed.  The sun is always attempting to break through the clouds to offer sources of information to support the content skills.
Stage 3:  The Cognitive Foundation

The umbrella in the metaphor represents the imperative use of Thinking Strategies throughout the day.  The umbrella helps to reduce excessive amounts of sun (text) and prepares for the potential of rain (content).  Using the thinking strategies allow students to process the literature and content information they are exposed to.  The sun and rain must “interact” with the umbrella as the thinking takes place, and the hook at the bottom of the umbrellas catches these powerful ideas.    
Stage 4:  The Learning Processes                                                                                       

During learning there are a variety of active processes that occur.  The raindrops represent the active processes of reading, writing, using technology, listening to music, creating art, and physical activity.  The lightning bolts represent the abstract processes of critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration (the  4Cs from the Framework for 21st Century Learning).  The rain breaks free from the clouds as active learning occurs and the lightning bolts are the sparks of magic as the clouds bump together and cross-content connections are made.
Stage 5:  Student Empowerment

For us, this is the key stage.  We take the approach of personalized learning within our classroom, but that requires students to understand themselves as learners and citizens within the learning community.  The rainbow appears during the storm once the student feels secure in the environment.  The rainbow represents the Whole Child Tenets.  The pot of gold represents individual goals, and each student has their very own pot of gold.  Goals can be reached in a safe environment, when the child is healthy, engaged, challenged and supported.
Stage 6:  Levels of Learning

In our classroom we do not use letter grades or points to score student work.  Students actually self-assess their own learning, but they also receive descriptive feedback from their teachers and peers.  We focus on the academic standards based on readiness. Standards Based Grading (our district’s grading system) is used to guide students to understand where they are on the learning continuum with specific content standards.  So in continuing with the metaphor, a Level 1 would represent the roots of the plant, anchoring itself within the environment.   A Level 2 would be the stem, gaining enough knowledge to begin to establish self-support.  The bud of the plant would be a Level 3, ready to BLOOM! And finally a Level 4 would be the flower displaying its prominent beauty. We also connected these levels to Bloom’s Taxonomy, explaining to the students that when you are at a Level 1 or Level 2 you are in the "Understanding" Phase of a concept- which we relate to the bottom 2 tiers of the Bloom’s Pyramid.  Level 3 would be the “Doing” phase, or the middle 2 tiers of Bloom’s Pyramid. 
The top 2 tiers represent the “Making it Your Own” phase, or a Level 4. We use these resources so students never feel that being a Level 1 or 2 is a negative thing; it is just the beginning of the learning process. But it also gives them a concrete way to self-assess their progress.
Stage 7: Cultivation of the Five Minds
The petals on the flower represent each of Gardner’s Five Minds: Disciplined, Synthesizing, Creating, Respectful, and Ethical. As the foundation for these is being built through the development of the Perfect Storm, we did not make it a part of the metaphor until the end.  As Ann and I agree that these minds are required in order to be successful in the 21st century, we could not find a way to explain them to students until the other stages were understood.   Students will now have an anchor to reflect upon as we move forward to this stage.  They will be able to connect the respectful mind to the soil and the rainbow, the disciplined mind to the clouds and sun, the synthesizing mind to the umbrella, and the creative mind to the rain and lightning.  And as Gardner (2008) discusses one not being able to conceptualize the ethical mind until adulthood, we have laid the groundwork through our work regarding citizenship and global awareness (p. 162).
As the students are the flowers within this metaphor, you may be asking what the teachers are?  Well as we facilitate the learning process within our classroom we take on a variety of roles.  We become Mother Nature and attempt to balance the elements.  We act as the gardeners tilling up the soil, planting the seeds, pulling the weeds, and providing resources as necessary.  We are also the leprechaun pointing to the pot of gold available. 
Where are we in this process? As you can see in the photos, the flower (Stage 6) is not yet a part of our 3D model.  Thus, it is the stage we are currently developing.  Students have been using this language during discussion since the beginning of the year, but they are finally to a place where they can articulate their goals, learning, and progress in a way that is concise and spot on!  They know who they are as learners, and now have the skills to map their way through their learning journey.  To us it is essential that they go into the world with more than just content understanding, but rather the ability to thrive on their own and brave the future storms that will come their way.
Ann and I have realized through the school year that there are ways to expand this metaphor in all directions.  In fact, our students add to it often in ways that inspire them during learning moments throughout the day.  We are in a place where we recognize the importance of each piece of this puzzle.  The effect this process has had on student learning is astonishing.  We marvel at what they are able to create and the level of their thinking that occurs in this personalized learning environment.
I think it is important to add that “The Perfect Storm” is a model for all classrooms and all students.  It is certainly not inclusive to multiage, but relevant for the present and the future of education.  Within this framework, students are given the opportunity to reside within a structure that allows them to bloom at their own rate.  And as the storm passes and the sunset appears on the horizon, students will soar to new heights and celebrate the growth they have accomplished.
Gardner, H.  (2008).  5 minds for the future.  Boston, MA:  Harvard Business Press.


  1. You know, what you 2 accomplish and what you bring to life is a true testament to the power of team teaching. What does your blog name mean anyway? :) I LOVE metaphor- The Perfect Storm...

    My students drew picture metaphors of reading skills once and made comprehension the sun...interesting that this idea of literature carries through in yours!

  2. Thank you for acknowledging the team-teaching aspect!! That is SUCH a true statement. We wish everyone had this opportunity.

    Our blog name comes from our classroom pledge. As a class we chant it every morning, stacking our forearms with each phrase and then throwing our arms in the air, shouting HIZZAH!!

    The Perfect Storm is an Anchor within our classroom... absolutely student owned :)

    Have you read 'Metaphors and Analogies" by Rick Wormeli? This book was a game changer for us this year. We incorporated Metaphors into our weekly learning. Very empowering for students!

    Thanks for the comment,