To Succeed in the 21st Century We Need To Learn, Unlearn and Re-learn

Below is my full interview with Czech Leaders Magazine appearing in the January – March 2017 issue.

Imagine the atmosphere of a school where there is a palpable sense of creative thinking, where one can see the arts, choirs, music and film production, and at the same time a clear focus on scientific experimentation. Imagine life as a student being able to experiment, design and then print out your blueprint on a 3D printer or a laser cutter as part of the school curriculum. Imagine that a student can take part in an international robotics competition hosted at his school by day and being on stage singing blues in a Cabaret performance involving students, staff, parents and friends of the school by night.

I was not touring a school in Finland or Singapore, the two countries currently recognized as having the world’s the best educational systems. These were, rather, my immediate impressions after visiting the International School of Prague, which overlooks the Prague Šárka valley nature reserve.

Interviewing Dr. Arnie Bieber, ISP Director, turned from a traditional question and answer format into a lively discussion.

As Arnie truly lives and breathes the ISP mission “Inspiring Learners for Life”, I could sense his passion for an inspiring, engaging and empowering education organically engrained into every activity, including proud presentation of the school to visitors, talking about current and potential partnerships as well as embedding school activities within the local community. The last element is very important for ISP, as both private and international schools are often judged as being too distant and dislocated from the local environment.

Arnie, today’s world is changing rapidly. In fact, uncertainty is perhaps the only certain element. How do you prepare students for the future to succeed in professions and disciplines that might not even exist today?

We truly regard ourselves as a future-focused school, and we aim to be preparing future citizens of the world. If you look at our mission, which you can see all around the school, you will notice three key elements: Inspire, Engage and Empower. Our core purpose is to “Inspire learners to lead healthy, fulfilling and purposeful lives” and we know that we are successful when our graduates live their lives in this manner.

The element of our mission linked to facing an uncertain future is addressed in the second part of the mission, “preparing students to adapt and contribute responsibly to our changing world”. However, the ability to change and to adapt is not enough without a moral compass. The world may have very many smart people but do they have integrity and act ethically? No learning institution should stress one while neglecting the other. The ISP experience revolves around “engaging our diverse community in authentic global education within a nurturing student-centred environment”. Diversity is very important. Our student body, comprised of 60 different nationalities, brings a multitude of different religions and cultures to our campus. To interact and learn with such diversity is very powerful because it allows for an appreciation of our differences. Future successful leaders need to understand and respect differences, such as those based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, belief or culture.

What would your argument be for the adults who went to traditional schools in the Czech Republic who cannot imagine a serious and enjoyable education at the same time?

The distinction between something being relevant and something being rigorous or challenging is a false one. We believe that the best path to learning which is not superficial and meaningful is often through relevance. We can all remember our high school algebra, trigonometry and advanced calculus, but did what we learn have relevance to our lives? How much do we even actually remember? It is not that these subjects are not important, but they should be taught so that students understand how it is personally relevant to them. Otherwise, you only play the game of school. The rules go like this – you memorize all you can, you pass a test and then you go on and often forget most of what you had to memorize. Such an approach does not support learning of relevant skills for the future.

So let us be more specific, what are the competencies that future citizens should have?

They are addressed in our mission as well. They include the ability to: Think Critically and Creatively, Work Cooperatively and Independently and Listen and Communicate Effectively. Notice the element of effective listening, not only speaking, as is often stressed. When it comes to our central values, notice the verb to act. At ISP, the expectation is that we act with compassion, integrity, respect and intercultural understanding in school and throughout our lives. To sum up all that we have discussed so far, we care deeply about the foundational literacies such as reading, writing, arithmetic etc. However if this is primarily what a student has attained, we have failed as a school in this day and age. Students need so much more to succeed, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills and well as collaborating well with others. Furthermore, as a school, staying current with how the world is changing is more important than ever. If you look at successful companies, they are changing all the time, they expect innovation but in the school environment, such an approach is not always considered important.

We discussed skills. However, the newest approach to adult learning is focused more on talents. So should we develop what we are not good at to become mediocre, or rather concentrate on what goes easy for us to become excellent?

I do not think the debate should be either talent or skills. Being an effective listener is not necessarily a talent. If you are not an effective listener, should you be one? And how can you become one? Perhaps you do not work well with other people. Well, you can work alone but you cannot be very successful unless you learn to work with others. But the answer to your question lies in personalized learning. Education should not be one size fits all. We are all unique human beings with unique talents. The best schools help students to follow both their talents and their passions. Sometimes your passions do not necessarily need to be your talents. The idea is for each learner to discover who they are and for to help them to discover that and develop further. That is why we talk about being purposeful, since you cannot be fulfilled in your life without being purposeful, and you cannot be purposeful unless you are self-aware of your abilities.

Following on the importance of science, there is currently a heated debate in the Czech Republic without giving priority to mathematics and technical subjects to the detriment of humanities, arts not being even mentioned a relevant part of the curriculum. What is your view?

Well, there has been a distinction made between ‘STEM’ and ‘STEAM’ subjects (‘STEAM’ stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) while ‘STEM’ is missing the arts. We are more inline with the ‘STEAM’ approach. As a school we of course offer the traditional sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology and environmental science as well as design thinking, and extensive technology such as programing, computer science and robotics. In fact we have just hosted an international robotics competition where students from around the world have competed in designing, creating, programming and running their own robots. These are the 21st century skills and I would argue that the arts play as an important role as the “hard sciences.” Whether or not you become an artist, the arts, visual arts, drama or music will afford you many skills and understandings that will serve you well in life. Acting, improvising, making music etc – these skills do not take away from the sciences, they enhance them. We want our students to be whole human beings, not partial human beings and so the education is based on an holistic approach.

How do the two major opposing trends – globalization and localization – translate into education?

There is a famous quote by Comenius, which is cherished and displayed at the entrance to ISP, which says: “We are all citizens of the world. To dislike a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly. Let us have but one end in view, welfare of humanity.”

So we celebrate our diversity and take advantage of the fact that we are in the heart of Europe in the Czech Republic and in Prague, surrounded by a rich and vibrant culture. It is very important to be part of that culture. We study both the Velvet Revolution and the Holocaust, we take advantage of the beautiful surrounding countryside as an amazing resource for all subject areas. Children study and meet artists and experts in the city and much more. “The curator project” for the middle school is run in co-operation with the Lobkowicz family and students learn, discover and present their research of artefacts from the Lobkowicz Museum’s rich collections. As you can see, the local and global elements are intertwined. We are very much of the opinion that “local is global and global is local.” As for the Czech educational community, we are always looking for partnering opportunities with Czech educators and Czech schools. Given our strong technological background for example, we annually host a conference for Czech educators addressing the issue of how to best to utilise technology in teaching. Furthermore ISP students have many opportunities to interact with students from local schools as well as their peers from sister schools from around the world.

What are your final words for Czech and Slovak Leaders readers?

I would say that leaders should always value and yes, embrace diversity. The tapestry of cultures and backgrounds we have at ISP is undoubtedly a key strength of our school. I firmly believe that the case for diversity is also the case for business. Diversity allows for fresh and varied perspectives in any organization, and is certainly a crucial ingredient to preparing children for their futures in a diverse and globalized world.

By Linda Štucbartová

Did you know?

ISP in facts and figures: 860 students, 120 teachers and counsellors from over 20 countries, 60 nationalities. Founded in 1948.

The school is for all intents and purposes full, but due to the number of expat families arriving and leaving at various times throughout the year, families interested in ISP are encouraged to contact the school anytime during a school year.

Arnie Bieber was appointed Director of ISP in 2008. Arnie has trodden a diverse path leading to his life in Prague. His background combines a wealth of educational, as well as entrepreneurial experience. Although he much more prefers to talk about the school rather than himself, his story is nonetheless very interesting and inspiring.

Arnie Bieber was born in Brooklyn, New York. His mother is a holocaust survivor, originally from Romania who is still going strong at 92 years old back in New York City. Prior to attaining two MAs in teaching and educational leadership, Arnie successfully ran several businesses and even had a stint as a New York taxi driver to put himself through university. He later gained a Doctorate of Education from Columbia University and began his teaching career in public schools in his native New York. Prior to coming to Prague, he lived and worked in Munich, Caracas and Bucharest. His wife is British and he has two children, who were both born in Caracas, Venezuela. Besides pursuing his passion for education, Arnie continues to follow his life-long interest in making music by regularly playing guitar and singing in the ISP Community Choir.

An important influencer in the international educational scene, Arnie is the Chair-elect of the Board of Trustees of Educational Collaborative of International Schools (ECIS), a non-profit global membership organisation of 400 international schools, that provides professional learning, research and advocacy for its member schools. Arnie previously served as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) and the ECIS Board. He also writes articles and has a blog about twenty first century educational issues called school21c.org, and regularly shares his thoughts with his legion of over 1000 twitter followers.

The most important message. Dr. Jane Goodall at the International School of Prague

Jane Goodall at ISP

Jane Goodall at ISP

“We have harmed your future. If you believe that, you’re absolutely right. And you may have heard it said, ‘We haven’t inherited our planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children.’ If you’ve heard that, it’s not true. We haven’t borrowed your future, we’ve stolen it. And we’re still stealing it.

Do not believe that it’s too late. I believe there’s a window of time. I believe if we all get together and do our part that we can slow down climate change, that we can begin to restore the environment.” — Jane Goodall speaking to students at the International School of Prague

Four years ago I posted a blog about my first personal encounter with Dr. Jane Goodall during a teacher’s conference in Warsaw, Poland, In The Presence of Greatness.

It was moving to see Dr. Goodall lovingly interact with students from the American School of Warsaw, treating each child with genuine patience, kindness and care. Dr. Goodall expressed her belief, that the environmental damage our generation and previous generations have caused, could still be undone, and that we adults have an obligation to return to the next generation their rightful heritage, a pristine planet. Dr. Jane Goodall’s uplifting message, that each individual can make a difference and that our hopes for the future lie with the children of the world, reminds us of how every teacher can make a profound difference.

Dr Jane Goodall at CEESA Conference in Warsaw Photo by Matt Kollasch

Dr Goodall at CEESA Conference in Warsaw. Photo by Matt Kollasch

Since 1986, Dr. Goodall has travelled nearly 300 days a year on a perpetual world speaking tour, visiting over 30 countries just last year alone. She is a United Nations Messenger of Peace and Dame of the British Empire with innumerable awards and honors to her credit. Dr. Goodall’s work and her unique vision has been an inspiration to thousands of young people around the world. This past December, we had the honor to host Dr. Goodall at our school, the International School of Prague.

At ISP, Dr. Goodall, brought her message of environmental responsibility, the need to care for the animals of the world, as well as for each other, to all ISP community members. She of course spent most of her time with our young people, who represent the future of our planet, urging them to get involved with important causes and with her signature program Roots and Shoots. This year Roots & Shoots is celebrating its 25th anniversary, with more than 150,000 members in over 130 countries, all working on local and global service projects.

Here’s how Dr. Goodall described the Root and Shoots philosophy to our students:

“Young people themselves will decide what they want to do to make the world a better place. Each group will choose three projects, one to help people, one to help animals, and one to help the environment we all share.”

Dr. Goodall at ISP

Dr. Goodall at ISP

Below is the video of her full address to ISP students as well as answering questions from the students:

Ultimately Dr. Goodall’s message is a message of hope. Her message is that if we are not apathetic and are willing to take action, we can make a positive difference in the world.

“When hundreds and thousands and then billions are making ethical choices it does start to make a big difference. The most important message, is every single one of us makes a difference every single day.”


We look forward to supporting “Dr. Jane’s” mission which aligns with ISP’s mission, “to contribute responsibly to our changing world”, by developing a vibrant Roots and Shoots movement at ISP.

The Nature of Nurture

RSA Journal Issue 1 2016 Cover

I was recently invited to write an article for the RSA Journal on the topic of school change, innovation and creativity. The resulting article, The Nature of Nurture (RSA Journal, Issue 1, 2016) talks about the importance of bringing all stakeholders; teachers, students, parents and the broader community, into the school change process as well as present some of the concrete steps ISP is taking to move the school closer to its mission of Inspiring, Engaging and Empowering Learners for Life. 

“A key step towards meaningful school transformation is a concerted effort to educate, not only teachers, but also parents and students, about why creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and life-worthy learning must be an integral part of a child’s education. Beyond enlightening all stakeholders about why change is necessary, schools must find ways for interested individuals to try things out without, in the process, draining human and financial resources. “

To read the entire article, click here: The Nature of Nurture

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)  is a dynamic world-wide organization with a network of 27,000 fellows. Many have had their first contact with the RSA through their ubiquitous “RSA Animate,” series, “conceived as an innovative, accessible and unique way of illustrating and sharing world-changing ideas.

Established in 1754, the RSA’s mission is “to enrich society through ideas and action.”

We serve this mission by acting as a global hub, by enabling millions of people to access the most creative ideas, by nurturing networks of innovators, and through researching, testing and sharing practical interventions.

Click below to learn more about RSA’s history and the influential role it plays on bringing about innovative change.



“The Shadow Knows”… a day in the life of a student

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 11.24.13

As Director of the International School of Prague (ISP), I like to believe that I work hard every day, but yesterday I gained a new perspective on hard work, having “shadowed” Grace, a grade 9 student at ISP, for a day.

While I often visit classrooms and observe kids learning and teachers teaching, spending a full day shadowing one student, from class to class, as well as lunch, is a very different experience and one I highly recommend, especially to other school decision makers.

I decided to shadow Grace as part of an initiative called Shadow a Student Challenge sponsored by SchoolRetool. Here’s how they describe what shadowing is: “Just like it sounds, shadowing a student is the process of following a student to gain empathy and insight into their experience. ” And that’s just what the day of shadowing gave me, some unique insights into the life of one of our students, as well as some real empathy for their experience.

Our day started at 8 am for an 80 minute block of Mathematics. The focus of this class was on factoring and I was impressed with the focused yet caring tone set by their teacher, Mr. Rops, and how physically active the class was. For the first 20 minutes, enthusiastic students worked on a variety of warm-ups and problems, standing throughout the room and writing on the various white walls, desks and even windows. There was a lot of cross discussion and kids checking and helping each other out throughout the class.

Maths in action!

Maths in action

Grace and friends problem solving

Grace and friends problem solving

After Math, things really got physical, as I participated in a PE class in the school fitness center. While I didn’t come dressed or prepared for a work-out, I decided to join in at the invitation of PE teacher, Ms. Shaw. I think I got more than I bargained for! After some strenuous warm-ups, the students were given the task of creating their own workout regimen based on exercises they have been using over the past few weeks. I buddied up with another student,  Alisa, who really took us through our paces with a regimen of plank walks, crunches, side squats, bicep curls and something I think was called the Bulgarian squat! Suffice it to say, I learned a lot through the pain, but felt kind of virtuous, if exhausted by the end of class. Again I was struck by hands on learning taking place and the willingness of our students to help each other throughout our time together.

PE Fitness class

PE Fitness class

Feeling tired and virtuous with Ms. Shaw

After fitness workout with Ms. Shaw’s PE class

After PE it was off to lunch with Grace and her friends. This was a chance to unwind, chat and laugh while enjoying some great food. I appreciated how Grace and her peers included me in the lunchtime conversation and banter.

After lunch and some welcome down time, it was back to it with social studies. This is a class in which lots of different things were happening at the same time. Students were working on their presentations, others went off to prepare for a theater production while others were involved in leading an activity with grade 3 students. Grace worked on her presentation whose topic focused on the impact of  oil on WWII.  During the class, students conferred with each other and social studies teacher, Ms. Fleming, about their individual presentations.

Grace working on her presentation

Grace working on her presentation in Social Studies

The final class of the day was grade 9 science with Mr. Morrison. We started off with an active warm-up, followed by a short lab experiment in which we explored the “specific heat capacity” of various metals. “The specific heat is the amount of heat per unit mass required to raise the temperature by one degree Celsius.” By placing a metal in boiling water, measuring the temperature with a probe and then placing the hot metal in room temperature water and recording the water temperature increase we used the data to apply the appropriate formula and compare our results for various metals.

Understanding heat capacity

Understanding heat capacity

As you can imagine, my retelling of my day of shadowing and the classes I attended only skim the surface, but I truly did come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation of what a school day is like for a grade 9 student. The life of a high school student is chock full every day and the range of learning activities required from students as they move from class to class is considerable. It’s also important to bear in mind, that while the school day schedule goes from 8 am to 3 pm, most students have after school activities and homework to contend with before their day is truly over.

What impressed me the most about our school was the overall welcoming and nurturing learning environment, how supportive our students are of each other and the way our teachers are able to develop an ethos, where students feel highly supported and safe to take risks, can work independently or collaboratively and truly have the opportunity to learn by doing.

I want to thank Grace for her willingness to share her day of learning with me, and I certainly plan on making shadowing a regular feature of my work in the future. I may have ended the school day a bit sore, but I learned a lot, and it was fun too!

Thanks Grace!

Thanks Grace!

Knowledge isn’t Power

“Knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is something you Google” – Danny Gregory

In order to include parents in crucial conversations about how schools are changing to meet the needs of today’s student, the International School of Prague engages parents in a regular series of thought-provoking workshops called, The Edge in Education. The Edge is an opportunity to discuss current and future trends in education and to engage parents in dialogue  about how to best support their children. Previous topics addressed in Edge workshops include:

Creative thinking with Danny Gregory

Artist, author, creative director, blogger, teacher and speaker, Danny Gregory, was our guest speaker for the latest edition of Edge in Education series.

Danny also spent a week at ISP as an “artist in residence”, working with students and teachers alike, helping them  sharpen their creativity skills and teaching them how to better understand the world around them through the lens of keen observation and sketching.

Danny at ISP

Danny Gregory at ISP

As an introduction to the topic of creativity before Danny’s presentation to parents, two quotes were highlighted:

“The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”                                                     Dan Pink

Creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy, and I actually think people understand that creativity is important – they just don’t understand what it is.”                   Sir Ken Robinson

Through the lens of his own fascinating and, at times, tragic personal journey, Danny Gregory eloquently presented his strong point of view about how creativity is not a frill, but an essential part of our lives. Through it all Danny revealed to us the power of creativity; how it enabled him to bring greater clarity to his own life and reconnect to the world around him.

Danny’s message is that everyone can make art; that we can all be artists with “a small ‘a’.” Like cooking, art should not be reserved only for those with a professional skill.

“Imagine if we thought that to be able to cook you have to have a four-star restaurant, to be able to cook you have to go to a culinary institute and spend years as an apprentice working for a master chef and eventually you would be able to cook and open a restaurant. We don’t though; we think of cooking as I can make a grilled cheese sandwich, I can make an omelette, I can make a burger. Why can’t we think of art… being the equivalent of heating up a can of soup?”

So Danny challenges us to think of art as  an essentially innate human trait that we all have and can bring into our lives. It’s a skill like driving or cooking which we learn and do regularly until it becomes second nature. But more than that, as Danny points out, creativity is really an essential twenty first century skill.

“We think it’s really nice to have art. It’s so great when we have art in schools or we have music in school. That’s so nice because then we’re cultured. We don’t want our kids growing up and not being cultured and just thinking about work, but the fact is creative skills, and it’s fantastic that it’s a key part of your mission here, because creative skills are what you need to proceed in life.”
If you’d like to learn more about Danny Gregory’s compelling story and artistic journey, you can view the full Edge in Education video here:

The Fourth “I”

ISP Graduation, Palac Zofin, Prague

ISP Graduation, Palac Zofin, Prague

Each year, at graduation time we ask ourselves, “How well have we prepared our students for the future?” Given the unprecedented rate of change in the world, this is a question with no easy answer. My graduation address to the class of 2015, at the stunning Palac Zofin in Prague, was an attempt to perhaps point them in the right direction:

Every parent wants their child to be happy and successful, or as we say at ISP to “lead healthy, fulfilling and purposeful lives.” Each year when graduation time comes around, we consider how well we’ve been able to prepare our children and our students for the future. These days we may also wonder, “What does it take to live a successful life in the twenty-first century?”

10 years ago, two books which became international bestsellers, attempted to articulate how the world had changed, as well as identify the skills necessary to navigate today’s new world. In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Friedman argued that the twenty-first century is more than an evolved twentieth century, but is a world transformed.

 medieval depiction of the Ecumene (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver)

A medieval depiction of the Ecumene (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver)

Friedman begins his book with a sense of discovery:

Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery. I returned home and shared my discovery only with my wife, and only in a whisper. “Honey,” I confided, “I think the world is flat.”

Friedman goes on to explain:

“It is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing, than at any previous time in the history of the world.”

In other words, how we interact and how we work has turned each of us into global neighbors and has irrevocably altered how we communicate and how we relate to one another.

Roughly at the same time that The World is Flat was published, Dan Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, set out to articulate the new 21st Century skills that are required to function in the flat world.

Here’s how Pink put it:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

The Human Body and Health 1908

The Human Body and Health 1908

Pink challenged us to question whether the traditional paths to success are still viable. He challenged us to question whether today’s graduates can really map out and predetermine their future paths.

What does this mean to you, our graduates? You have a better grasp of the world you are entering than any generation before you. You are tech savvy and well-connected to the digital world and to each other. You are interconnected in ways we could only dream of just a short decade ago, when the World is Flat was written. But the world requires more than technologists and well-connected digital citizens, and it also requires more than the 3Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, that were considered crucial when my generation went to school.

France 1901

School of the Future, France 1901

To be clear, I still believe that the traditional literacies are important. But I would argue, that in today’s world where change is the new normal, what you might call the 3I’s, Imagination, Innovation and Initiative, is imperative.

  1. Imagination, to foresee and dream about what might be and to think creatively
  2. Innovation, to prototype and take risks with new ideas
  3. Initiative,taking an entrepreneurial approach to one’s endeavors.

Now more than ever, the new literacies such as the 3I’s can open new pathways to not only how we work but even how we live our lives. Over 50 years ago futurist Alvin Toffler foresaw the new literacies when he said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

 Gary Waters/Getty

Gary Waters/Getty

But dear graduates, there is a critical 4th “I” which I believes carries even greater weight, and that is Integrity, or as the dictionary defines it, “the adherence to moral and ethical principles.” Of course maintaining a moral compass is not a new concept, in fact it is as old as humanity. But while change is everywhere, a consistent set of values and principles, will not only keep you afloat, but like a ship’s rudder will help guide you and truly serve you well in good times and in bad.


Graduates, in the rush and excitement to get on with your lives and succeed, don’t lose sight of your values. Know what they are and hold them dear like a precious jewel, especially when you are challenged with the inevitable moral dilemmas that you will face in the future. This I believe is the main ingredient of a healthy, fulfilling and purposeful life.

Guiding Light Lost – Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

I was saddened to learn that a great leading light in the world of progressive education had passed away, Grant Wiggins. Although I had the opportunity to meet Grant on a few occasions, I did not know him well. Nonetheless, his work had a profound impact on me and my work and the work of thousands of educators from around the world. Grant was an educational leader who was willing to “tell it like it is.” Among many other important contributions, Grant was a highly respected expert on learning assessment and with his colleague Jay McTighe originated the concept of backward design in teaching and learning — Understanding by Design, as they called it, an approach to learning design used by thousands of schools around the world.

My major impressions of Grant came primarily from his writings. Grant and Jay’s Schooling By Design had a profound impact on my thinking especially around the concept of the mission-driven school. When our school, the International School of Prague, embarked on creating a new mission, I recalled Grant’s words about most school missions being as a collection of “vapid platitudes.” This simple phrase steered us away from a generic mission towards one which we could truly use as a standard by which we would measure our school. It motivated us to create a mission which would hold us accountable and compel us to “walk the talk.”

Moving Toward Mission: How to Design Schooling to Make It More Coherent, Engaging, and Effective

Moving Toward Mission: How to Design Schooling to Make It More Coherent, Engaging, and Effective

I was also greatly influenced by Grant’s article A Diploma Worth Having, in which he challenged us to transform our concept of the high school curriculum and the purpose of the high school diploma. The article begins with the following provocative statement:

“I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it.”


March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn Pages 28-33

Grant Wiggins

There’s only one valid measure of the high school curriculum: How well does it prepare students for their adult lives?

I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it. In a modern, unpredictable, and pluralistic world, it makes no sense to demand that every 18-year-old pass the same collection of traditional courses to graduate.

Instead, we should do away with most course requirements, make all courses rigorous, and simply report what students have accomplished from year to year. Students should prepare for adult life by studying subjects that suit their talents, passions, and aspirations as well as needs. They should leave when they are judged to be ready for whatever next challenge they take on—whether it be college, trade school, the military, or playing in a band. Let’s therefore abolish the diploma, if by diploma we mean that all students must graduate as though they were heading for the same 20th-century future.

This plan would enable us to finally deal with the key weakness of high school, summarized in that term virtually all students and adults use to describe it: bor-ing. High school is boring in part because diploma requirements crowd out personalized and engaged learning. It is also boring because our graduation requirements have been produced the way our worst laws are; they are crude compromises, based on inadequate debate. Because of arbitrary policies that define preparation in terms of content instead of useful abilities, schools focus on “coverage,” not meaningful learning.

A Historical Perspective

Our belief in lockstep adherence to rigid curriculum requirements appears especially myopic and misguided if we look through the lens of the fundamental question, How well does the high school curriculum prepare all students for their adult lives? The Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education thought that asking this question was not only sensible but sorely needed—in 1918! Its report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, yielded a sound set of criteria by which to rationally judge the high school curriculum. The commission underscored that these criteria must flow from the mission of schooling:

Education in a democracy, both within and without the school, should develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends. (p. 9)

The Cardinal Principles were a deliberate counterbalance to the policies that had arisen from the work of the Committee of Ten in 1892. That group had famously argued that a college-prep education, including multiple years of Latin and Greek, was appropriate for all students—even though fewer than 10 percent of high school students went to college. Chaired by the president of Harvard, the Committee of Ten was organized into subject-area groups and staffed by professors and teachers of those subjects. (Our current system, with its attention to a narrow collection of “traditional” academic subjects, still embodies the worst consequences of the work of this group.)

The Cardinal Principles, in contrast, were intentionally external to the traditional subjects and were based on an understanding of the broad mission of schooling as enabling individuals to better themselves and society. They proposed the following “main objectives of education”: (1) health; (2) command of fundamental processes (reading, writing, arithmetical computations, and the elements of oral and written expression); (3) worthy home membership; (4) vocation; (5) citizenship; (6) worthy use of leisure; and (7) ethical character.

It’s a bit startling to see health first in the list, ahead of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic,” isn’t it? But that shock is also a helpful reminder of how much schools have lost their way. What could be more important in moving into adulthood than learning how to lead a healthy life, in the broadest sense?

This idea actually has much older roots. Herbert Spencer arguably wrote the first modern critique of out-of-touch college-prep education in his famous essay, “What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” Spencer (1861) asserts that school exists to help us answer the essential question of how to live. Under this vision of education, health as an area of study rises to the top. Spencer writes that

as vigorous health and its accompanying high spirits are larger elements of happiness than any other things whatever, then teaching how to maintain them is a teaching that yields in moment to no other whatever. (p. 13)

Spencer anticipates the protests with rapier wit:

Strange that the assertion should need making! Stranger still that it should need defending! Yet are there not a few by whom such a proposition will be received with something approaching to derision. Men who would blush if caught saying Iphigénia instead of Iphigenía … show not the slightest shame in confessing that they do not know where the Eustachian tubes are, what are the actions of the spinal cord, what is the normal rate of pulsation, or how the lungs are inflated. … So overwhelming is the influence of established routine! So terribly in our education does the ornamental over-ride the useful! (p. 14)

But Spencer saves his greatest scorn for the failure to make child-rearing a core subject:

If by some strange chance not a vestige of us descended to the remote future save a pile of our school-books or some college examination papers, we may imagine how puzzled an antiquary of the period would be on finding in them no sign that the learners were ever likely to be parents. “This must have been the curriculum for their celibates,” we may fancy him concluding. (p. 20)

Spencer wisely notes that every subject will, of course, make a plea for its importance. Therefore, a curriculum can only be fairly justified using criteria about the purpose of schooling that are outside all “content.”

In other words, we need to decide to include or exclude, emphasize or deemphasize any subject based on criteria related to school mission— a mission centered on improving the behavior and lives of students. Otherwise, our curricular decisions are arbitrary and school is aimless. Indeed, when we fail to seriously question the inclusion of algebra or the exclusion of ethics from graduation requirements, we can only fall back on custom: “We’ve always done it this way.” But if that were the only real argument, we would still be requiring Greek of all graduates, as the Committee of Ten recommended.

The Unwitting Harm of the Standards Movement

Our current situation is no better than when the Committee of Ten did its work. Think about it: We are on the verge of requiring every student in the United States to learn two years of algebra that they will likely never use, but no one is required to learn wellness or parenting.

The current standards movement, for all its good intentions, is perilously narrowing our definition of education, to the great harm of not only students but also entire fields of study: the arts, the technical arts and trades, and the social sciences. Gone are excellent vocational programs—as powerfully described by Matthew Crawford in Shop Class as Soul Craft (Penguin, 2010), arguably the best book on education in the last five years. (See the review on page 92 of this issue of Educational Leadership.) Threatened are visual arts, theater, music, and dance programs despite their obvious value. Indeed, there are more musicians in this country than mathematicians, but you would never know it from the work of standards committees.

Not Which Standards, but Whose Standards

At a meeting many years ago, I heard Ted Sizer respond to a proponent of national standards, “It’s notwhich standards, it’s whose standards!” In other words, don’t make this sound so objective. It’s a political determination, made by whoever has a seat at the table.

And who sits at the table? Representatives of all the traditional academic subjects. When have standards committees included working artists, journalists, web designers, or doctors who could critique the usefulness or uselessness of traditional content standards? When have professors of bioethics, anthropology, or law been invited to critique content standards? Rather, the people who care most about their little corner of the traditional content world dictate that it is required.

True story: When I did a workshop as part of a standards-writing project in a large eastern state, I mentioned the problem of arcane elements in the history standards, in particular a mention of an obscure Chinese dynasty. A gentleman cried out, “But that was my dissertation topic, and it is important for students to know!” Worse: The speaker was the social studies coordinator for the state and had made sure to put this topic in the previous version of the standards.

Having worked with three different states on their standards writing and revision process, I can say with confidence that the way we organize standards-based work at the state and national levels dooms it from the start. The committees reflect typical people with typical backgrounds in education, charged to tinker with, but not radically overhaul, typical schooling; no criteria for choices are ever put forward to weed the document of pet topics. In short, these committees merely rearrange the furniture of the traditional core content areas; they replicate the past that they feel comfortable with rather than face the future that is on its annoying but inexorable way.

A Case in Point: Mathematics

For proof of the lack of forward thinking, look at the Common Core math standards. The recommended high school mathematics is unchanged from when I was a kid in prep school 45 years ago: four years of conventional topics in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. The only improvement is greater emphasis on modeling and statistics. But the laying out of the standards in isolated lists of content (as opposed to summarizing the kinds of performance standards student work must meet) undercuts the likelihood of vital reform to make mathematics more engaging and useful to the majority of students.

Consider this dreary summary of a high school strand from the Common Core:

Trigonometric Functions

  • Extend the domain of trigonometric functions using the unit circle.
  • Model periodic phenomena with trigonometric functions.
  • Prove and apply trigonometric identities.

This is a standard? With what justification? It almost goes without saying (but in the current myopia, it needs to be said): Few people need to know this.

Today, algebra is the new Greek that “all educated persons” supposedly need. This is clear from the work of the American Diploma Project (2004), launched a few years ago by Achieve, a group created by governors and corporate leaders. Achieve deserves credit for taking the idea of “backward design” of high school requirements from college and workplace readiness seriously, buttressed by research and analysis. But we should be cautious about accepting its narrow view of the high school curriculum, especially its claim that advanced algebra should be a universal requirement (Achieve, 2008). The data Achieve cites to justify this claim include the following:

  • Completing advanced math courses in high school has a greater influence on whether students will graduate from college than any other factor—including family background. Students who take math beyond Algebra II double their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Through 2016, professional occupations are expected to add more new jobs—at least 5 million—than any other sector; within that category, computer and mathematical occupations will grow the fastest.
  • Simply taking advanced math has a direct impact on future earnings, apart from any other factors. Students who take advanced math have higher incomes 10 years after graduating— regardless of family background, grades, and college degrees.

But hold on: All that this really says is that people who take advanced math courses are more likely to do well in college and be prepared for jobs that involve advanced math. But that doesn’t mean that broad success in life depends on those courses. I have no doubt, for example, that most students who study Greek or astrophysics also end up in satisfying careers. Algebra is not the cause of adult success any more than Greek is. It is most likely the reverse: Those who take advanced courses are smart, motivated students who will succeed in any career they choose. As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra II in their work (Handel, 2007).

Much the same criticism was made by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2010), whose critique of the draft Common Core math standards asserted that the standards should include more emphasis on practical mathematical application (for example, analyzing financial data); include statistics and probability in the elementary grades and emphasize these areas more in the secondary grades; and focus less on factual content mastery in favor of better integrating higher-order thinking skills throughout the curriculum.

Lerman and Packer (2010) remind us that employers tend to call for something far more general and useful than advanced algebra skills:

Every study of employer needs made over the past 20 years … has come up with the same answers. Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems such as those concerning financial or health literacy. Employers never mention polynomial factoring. (p. 31)

For a more enlightened approach to mathematics instruction, there is a fine body of work developed over the past 15 years under the heading of Quantitative Literacy (or Quantitative Reasoning). The Quantitative Literacy Manifesto (National Council on Education and the Disciplines, 2001) shares the concern of organizations like Achieve that most U.S. students leave high school without the math skills they need to succeed in either college or employment. But this report proposes a different solution—one better suited to the goal of universal education in a modern society:

Common responses to this well-known problem are either to demand more years of high school mathematics or more rigorous standards for graduation. Yet even individuals who have studied trigonometry and calculus often remain largely ignorant of common abuses of data and all too often find themselves unable to comprehend (much less to articulate) the nuances of quantitative inferences. As it turns out, it is not calculus but numeracy that is the key to understanding our data-drenched society. (p. 2)

The Quantitative Literacy Manifesto calls for developing in students

a predisposition to look at the world through mathematical eyes, to see the benefits (and risks) of thinking quantitatively about commonplace issues, and to approach complex problems with confidence in the value of careful reasoning. (p. 22)

Alas, the Quantitative Literacy movement simply has less political clout than Achieve does. Again we see: It’s not which standards, but whose standards.

Revisiting High School Requirements

Mindful of the mission of schooling to prepare students to prosper in and contribute to a pluralistic and everchanging democracy, I humbly offer my own update of Spencer’s proposal and the work of the Cardinal Principles group. I think that if we consider future usefulness in a changing world as the key criterion, the following subjects represent more plausible candidates for key high school courses in the 21st century than those on the Achieve list:

  • Philosophy, including critical thinking and ethics.
  • Psychology, with special emphasis on mental health, child development, and family relations.
  • Economics and business, with an emphasis on market forces, entrepreneurship, saving, borrowing and investing, and business start-ups.
  • Woodworking or its equivalent; you should have to make something to graduate.
  • Mathematics, focusing primarily on probability and statistics and math modeling.
  • Language arts, with a major focus on oral proficiency (as well as the reading and writing of nonfiction).
  • Multimedia, including game and web design.
  • Science: human biology, anatomy, physiology (health-related content), and earth science (ecology).
  • Civics, with an emphasis on civic action and how a bill really becomes law; lobbying.
  • Modern U.S. and world history, taught backward chronologically from the most pressing current issues.

Instead of designing backward from the traditions of college admission or the technical demands of currently “hot” jobs, this list designs backward from the vital human capacities needed for a successful adulthood regardless of school or job. How odd, for example, that our current requirements do not include oral proficiency when all graduates will need this ability in their personal, civic, social, and professional lives. How unfortunate for us personally, professionally, and socially that all high school and college students are not required to study ethics.

The financial meltdown of recent years underscores a related point: Understanding our economic system is far more important than learning textbook chemistry. In science, how sad that physics is viewed as more important than psychology and human development, as parents struggle to raise children wisely and families work hard to understand one another. (The principle of inertia from physics may explain it!)

Do not misunderstand my complaints as somehow too utilitarian or opposed to the liberal arts and higher math. I was educated in the classic tradition at St. John’s College. I learned physics and calculus through Newton’s Principia and geometry through Euclid and Lobachevski—in a college program with no electives—all based on the Great Books. I had arguably the best undergraduate education in the United States, if the aim is intellectual power. But would I mandate that all colleges look like St. John’s? Absolutely not, any more than I would mandate that all schools adopt my proposed course list as graduation requirements. On the contrary, my advocacy for injecting philosophy, economics, and human development into the terribly narrow conventional curriculum is a call to bring a richer array of options to students.

Everyone agrees that high school needs to be more rigorous. No one wants to perpetuate inequity of opportunity. But can’t there be greater student choice that opens up rather than closes off opportunities? Can’t vocational courses and courses in the arts be as demanding as upper-level courses in math or chemistry?

Setting standards in the way we do—mandating requirements for all by looking at our own generation’s academic experience rather than forward to the developmental needs of all students— impedes progress rather than advancing it. Then, we add insult to injury: a one-size-fits-all diploma. In sum, it seems to me that we still do not have a clue about how to make education modern: forward-looking, client-centered, and flexible; adapted to an era where the future, not the past, determines the curriculum.

What Do Our Students Need from School?

I am not arguing for throwing out the Common Core Standards. At least they will impose reason on the current absurd patchwork of state standards and finally make it possible for authors, software designers, test makers, and textbook publishers to provide the most resources at the least expense. But let’s not treat these standards as anything more than a timid rearrangement of previous state standards, promulgated by people familiar only with traditional courses and requirements.

Instead, let us face the future by pausing to consider anew the wisdom of Herbert Spencer and the authors of the Cardinal Principles. Let us begin a serious national conversation (all of us, not just the policy wonks, selected employers, and college admissions officers) about the questions, What is the point of high school? What do our society and our students need from school, regardless of hidebound tradition or current policy fads?

Then we might finally have a diploma worth giving and receiving in the modern age.

Editor’s note: The print edition of this article contained an error in the following sentence on page 31: “As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra in their work (Handel, 2007).” This statistic has been amended in the online version as follows: “As a recent study pointed out, only about 5 percent of the population actually need algebra II in their work (Handel, 2007).”


Achieve. (2008). Math works: All students need advanced math. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.achieve.org/files/Achieve-MathWorks-FactSheet-All%20StudentsNeedAdvancedMath.pdf

American Diploma Project. (2004). Ready or not: Creating a high school diploma that counts. Washington, DC: Achieve.

Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. (1918). Cardinal principles of secondary education: A report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, appointed by the National Education Association. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior.

Handel, M. J. (2007, May 23). A new survey of workplace skills, technology, and management practices (STAMP): Background and descriptive statistics. Boston: Department of Sociology, Northeastern University.

Lerman, R. I., & Packer, A. (2010, April 21). Will we ever learn? What’s wrong with the common-standards project. Education Week, 29(29), 30–31.

National Council on Education and the Disciplines. (2001). Mathematics and democracy: The case for quantitative literacy. Princeton, NJ: Author. Retrieved from Mathematical Association of America at www.maa.org/ql/mathanddemocracy.html

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). P21 comments on Common Core state standards initiative—mathematics. Retrieved fromwww.p21.org/documents/P21_CCSSI_Comments_MATH_%20040210.pdf

Spencer, H. (1861). What knowledge is of most worth? In H. Spencer, Essays on education and kindred subjects (pp. 1–44). London: Author.

Grant Wiggins is the coauthor with Jay McTighe of Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005) and Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement (ASCD, 2007). He is president of Authentic Education in Hopewell, New Jersey; grant@authenticeducation.org.