Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Connecting: Rigor and Relevance

By Paige Kuni Johnson

Past Chair, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

K-12 Education Manager, Intel Corporation

Recently, at a conference on education reform, I heard a state superintendent from one of the country’s highest performing states share a comment I found concerning. He said he believed there would be a tension between meeting more rigorous common core standards and personalizing learning for students to make schools relevant and engaging to learners.

While I have a lot of personal respect for this man, I think his comment reflects a common misperception that our country has to overcome in order for school improvement to succeed. As I sat in the conference room, looking around at a sizeable crowd of over-40-somethings, it occurred to me that educational, corporate and government leaders need to be promoting exactly the opposite message. I think the only way we will have all students meet rigorous standards is to make the learning completely personal, relevant and engaging.

At a time when an overwhelming number of students feel disconnected from school – according to a recent Time Magazine article, the national high school dropout rate currently exceeds 30 percent – we need to find a way to connect with students, to engage them and keep them in the classroom. Technology will be a critical component of this endeavor.

In this digital era, students are connected as individuals through cell phones, the internet and many participate in large virtual on social networking sites. Technology is so integrated in their lives that, according to a recent factoid, nine out of ten students no longer wear wristwatches as timepieces because they can now access the time through a plethora of other technological devices close at hand. Content is available online, critical analysis and application of content has become more important than content itself as the body of published work available online doubles seemingly overnight. If students check in online but checkout at school-, why are we not doing a better job at using these tools to motivate students in rigorous learning experiences?

Intel is investing in helping teachers become better at technology integration for learning. We offer free professional development to states and districts all over the country. We also have supported the development of technology standards for students, teachers and administrators in the US. Our most recent project is collaboration with Intel, Microsoft and Cisco on how to do a better job of assessment of 21st Century skills in students.

However, I fear that philanthropic efforts by Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, or Oracle will not have the systemic impact we seek until education leaders embrace the opportunity that technology presents in making our students more engaged, and more successful in school. If you need a reason for why that is important – check out a recent McKinsey study that said the United States’ GDP would have been 9 to 16 percent higher – that is, $1.3 to $2.3 trillion higher – in 2008 had U.S. high school graduates attained the average skills of their peers in Canada, Finland or South Korea. In our current economic situation, we can’t afford not to have an educational system where all kids succeed.


  1. I completely agree with your concerns, Paige. As a teacher who embraces the world personal, relevant, and engaging instruction I can tell you that it is possible and happening in many districts across the nation whether the 40-somethings realize it or not. We are taking our current standards and pushing them above and beyond rigor in order to truly personalize the learning through PBL.

    I am glad that Intel and other organizations are standing to support effective education.

  2. I have seen similar thinking by school leader.. I, however, am encouraged by some of the efforts in my school, district, and from our state leaders. One area that has concerned me for years is the idea that there needs to be a "technology classroom" where anything related to technology is taught. I have heard comments to the effect that there is no need to integrate technology in a classroom because we have a "technology class." There is a need to break down that classroom wall concept.

    I have the opportunity to suggest ideas that become "pilot" technology projects in my district. I am confident that these opportunities are due to my "out of the box" thinking of how to engage students. Just this last week I was visited by a student from last year's class. She informed me she was sad that her teachers this year "ONLY let me do assignments from the textbook! I enjoyed your class so much more last year because we could use technology to show our understanding." I thought this was a high compliment and appreciated her taking time to talk to me. I suggested she take time to do the next assignment two ways: one as the teacher required, and the second using technology. I continued by saying her technology assignment should show the teacher how this allowed the same learning, but was more fun to do and "more interesting for the teacher to grade." The student left with a smile and seemed excited about 'teaching her teacher'. I am NOT confident the teacher will alter his/her lessons but at least a message will be shared.

    It is imperative that our State and National standards underline the need for students to learn and implement technology in all subjects. I, however, do not want to see "bloated" standards that just add more for teachers to do. Standards need to be rewritten in a way that 21st Century Skills are integrated into the standard.

    Teachers need time to learn how they may implement technology into lessons. They also must have time to modify lessons in ways that engage students. Support by Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, and other organizations has been beneficial in helping with this change. I appreciate their support and leadership in promoting this technology educational reform. I sincerely hope that educational leaders, like this superintendent, will recognize and make the needed changes.

  3. Having once been the technology "leader" in my school district--that is I allowed my students to show me their learning and application of knowledge through technology; now I am one of the last to receive "new" technology until a large extraction industry corporation gave our school district a large grant for science and math. The sad part is I am still far behind my counterparts such as gardenglen in other states. Now that I have newer technology I am expected (thank goodness!) to once again have my students use this technology--when they are already ahead of the game due to their use of technology daily. The day of pen-&-paper tests, lessons and student engagement are really behind us if only we could join the 21st century!

  4. Suggest that we look at the assumptions behind the "Rigor and Relevance" movement and see what makes sense. Check out my response at

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