21st Century Skills in Modeling Instruction (part 2)


Below are responses by teachers who use Modeling Instruction, to a Jan. 5, 2009 article by Washington Post education columnist, Jay Mathews,


In the article he is skeptical that 21st century skills can fit seamlessly into core subjects in inner city schools. His article is at the end of this document.



Subject: "21st century skills in modeling instruction"

Date: Thu, 29 Jan 2009

From: "Shaffer, Russell"

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

CC: "Jane Jackson" <jane.jackson@asu.edu>


Hi Mr. Mathews:  I am the new science coordinator in the Phoenix Union

High School District (Arizona), and taught science for 23 years in one

of our district high schools before taking this position last fall.  I

recently was forwarded your January 5th article to read, and some

responses to it from other science teachers.  One was Wayne Tanson in

Massachusetts and the other was Barry Walker in Alabama.


I agree that we overuse phrases and words in education, as in many other

areas of society.  Buzzwords come and go, and we say things to be

politically correct sometimes that just make you wonder what was wrong

with the old word that we used to use.


I have seen many educational movements in my 24 years and have read of

earlier ones from when I was a kid or earlier.  An example was the big

push to change science teaching in the 60's to 'catch up' to the

Russians.  We had acronyms like BSCS, PSSC, and so on.  Those methods of

teaching faded away.  We had Harvard Project Physics, ChemStudy,

Introductory Physical Science, and so on through the next round of

changes.  There was a group at ASU that introduced learning cycles of

teaching science back in the 80's.  Things come and go; sometimes it is

a style that runs its course.  Sometimes the funding dries up, the grant

expires, or new people in high offices decide to go in another direction

and the program dies.


But modeling instruction is not a fad or buzzword.  It started with a

physics teacher in Tempe, AZ who started trying new things in his

classroom because he saw his students weren't really learning like he

thought.  He collaborated with a physics professor at ASU, Dr. David

Hestenes, and soon, modeling instruction was born.  It has been around

since 1990 or so, and physics teachers around the country were trained

in the techniques of instruction every summer at ASU and other schools

for years.  As technology improved, computers and other devices were

used to collect data in real time.  This added a new dimension to

science teaching that will only improve as years pass and technology

advances.  Modelers, as we like to call ourselves, embrace technology as

a tool to help our students learn and analyze data.


Modeling instruction has expanded to chemistry and physical science over

the years, and efforts are being made to incorporate it into two other

courses in high school, biology and earth science.  Teachers from other

countries are coming to America to take these workshops and take the

pedagogy back to their schools.  Dr. Hestenes has since retired from

ASU, but still keeps up with physics education concerns.  Jane Jackson,

a tireless woman, continues the movement in his stead, organizing

workshops at ASU every  summer, writing grants to help teachers attend

them, maintaining a 'listserve' to allow teachers to communicate their

ideas in an email forum style, the list goes on.  She is sold out to

modeling and helping our students and teachers to be successful.



In my district, we serve a high population of minority students.  For

example, my high school I taught at has 94% Hispanic students.  We have

all the typical inner city urban problems in my district:  poverty,

crime, high dropout rates, low graduation rate, gang issues, pregnancy,

broken homes, drugs, transient population, etc.  But I brought modeling

to my school in 1998 and it changed me and my students.  I could never

go back to teaching traditionally!  My students come in with lots of

issues but they have fun using the technology that I was able to

purchase, they learn to think at a higher level than I ever made them do

before (or other teachers for that matter!) and they come away having a

deeper understanding of nature.  We target all the misconceptions they

come in with, and challenge to see nature in a different way.  Faced

with real data that THEY collected, they often see that their ideas are

incorrect.  They discover laws of science instead of being told them by

the teacher writing on the board all period.


So is modeling instruction going to fade away?  I don't think so at all!

Even if grant funding and other sources dry up with our troubled economy

and budget cuts across the country, teachers who are modelers will not

stop teaching the way they learned at the workshop.  And they will find

other ways to continue the education of other teachers. 


I am not in the classroom any more with this district level position,

but I have the privilege of leading modeling workshops every summer in

chemistry and have rubbed shoulders with some great instructors and

teachers over the years.  I have helped many teachers in my district

embrace modeling and hope to influence many more in my new position.  It

is a solid method of instruction and is the way science should be taught

at all levels.  Unfortunately in many areas science is taught as a

collection of facts, or just working a bunch of math problems.  Science

can be so fun!  Modeling helps to that end.


Thanks for reading this!

Russ Shaffer

Science Content Specialist

Phoenix Union High School District

Phoenix, AZ



Subject: J. Matthews article response

Date: Wed, 7 Jan 2009

From: Barry Walker - BCS South


Hi Jay, I just read your Jan. 5 article "The Latest Doomed Pedagogical

Fad: 21st-Century Skills".  Right on!   It is time to stop all this

catchy jargon and ed-talk like "21st Century Skills", "No Child Left

Behind", etc. and get back to training teachers and giving them the

tools necessary to provoke real learning in American kids.  My school,

Briarwood Christian High School in Birmingham, Alabama is in our fourth

year of converting over to the Physics First course sequence using

Modeling Instruction methods.  This is no "fad".  Our kids in the 8th

grade are actually learning what "slope of a line" means, how to think

intelligently about energy, how to see meaning and purpose in

mathematics and basically just how to think and solve different types of

problems.  We are not an elitist school; we have a football team that is

a state championship contender almost every year.  We use Modeling

Instruction methods in all science classes in grades 7-12.


I often wonder why Modeling Instruction methods are not practiced in

every school in America.  Singapore, currently rated the top math nation

in the world, has had two teachers in every modeling class at Arizona

State University the last two or three summers.  Our problems centers in

the "dragon" called the American Education System.  It is top heavy and

loaded with politics and powerful  lobbies that stop anything that

threatens "the system."  We operate on a 1960s model of school and it is

not 1960.  Eighty percent of 4th graders say, "I love math."  Eighty

percent of our 8th graders say, "I hate math."  Our current science

course sequence of  biology-chemistry-physics was put in before 1900

when we were primarily an agricultural society.  Would you say this is

still true?


In my opinion the biggest problem in American education is that "the

dragon" refuses to pay teachers to get training to upgrade their skills.

Teachers are expected to upgrade themselves at their own expense.

Please tell me one other profession or business in America that does not

pay their people to upgrade.  Even the American auto industry pays their

employees while they train to up grade an assembly line.  The primary

key to effective learning in kids is not better facilities, more

equipment, better books, a computer for each kid, etc it is  passionate,

well prepared teachers in the classroom.  Yet, we throw money at all

this other stuff by the millions.  School administrators take lavish

"training trips" and some, along with politicians get lavish "perks"

from companies that sell this stuff to schools.  It would be interesting

to know how many computers sit idle in classrooms in America due to lack

of software or training.


If you get a chance to get out and experience schools I invite you to

our school to "hang out" in our classes for a day or two and evaluate

Modeling Instruction for yourself.  I'm a 35 year veteran of teaching

physics and math, have seen and tried several fads and can assure you

Modeling Instruction is not a fad; it really works.  Something has to

change in American math/science education, the Chinese are coming and

they are well educated.


Still looking for "the soft spot in the belly of the dragon",


Barry Walker

Briarwood Christian High School

Birmingham Alabama



copied/pasted at



The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad: 21st-Century Skills

By Jay Mathews

Monday, January 5, 2009; Page B02


Today on this page, we are ushering in the new year with the hottest trend in pedagogy, the latest program teachers are told they cannot live without. It is called 21st-century skills. Education policymakers, press agents and pundits can't get enough of it.


I am not so impressed. I have been writing cranky columns about 21st-century skills on washingtonpost.com, calling the movement a pipe dream whose literature should be tossed in the trash.


Granted, the 21st-century skills idea has important business and political advocates, including President-elect Barack Obama. It calls for students to learn to think and work creatively and collaboratively. There is nothing wrong with that. Young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece. But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?


There are ways, some teachers tell me. Tim Burgess, a physics and chemistry teacher in Alabama, said he tried coaxing students to think for themselves. He laid out clues and let students sort them out together -- and it worked. "Suddenly, it became clear how 21st-century thinking was far more important than the mounds of content we were expected to force-feed our victims (I mean students)," Burgess said. Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Education Sector think tank in the District, concluded that 21st-century skills could improve teaching of the basics, in a report quoted elsewhere on this page.


However, teachers who say this approach works agree with me that the marketing of the concept has not been entirely honest or wise. A sentence from a report by the Tucson-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills illustrates the problem: "Every aspect of our education system -- preK-12, postsecondary and adult education, after-school and youth development, workforce development and training, and teacher preparation programs -- must be aligned to prepare citizens with the 21st century skills they need to compete." This is the all-at-once syndrome, a common failing of reform movements. They say changes must be made all at once, or else. In this democracy, we never make changes all at once. The past few months of the financial crisis prove that, once again. So please don't tell us we have to. (Ken Kay, president of the partnership, told me that he doesn't think it all has to be done at once, but that is not what his handouts say.)


I won't discount that good teachers say their students are learning more this way. Many mention a system called modeling instruction, based on the work of Arizona State University physicist David Hestenes. Matt Greenwolfe, who teaches this way in Cary, N.C., sent a student's reaction: "In small groups we would use whiteboards to write down ideas, draw graphs and solve for unknown variables. Using webcams I would take pictures of the whiteboards and post them on the class Web site for everyone to use as a resource. . . . Physics class has helped me look at problems in different ways so I can solve them. If I don't understand the data when it is presented in one way I am able to ask questions and change it, using a method I can understand."


Greenwolfe said it took him years of effort to learn this, which reminds me of my last personal encounter with what I now realize were 21st-century skills. I needed a science credit to graduate from college. I signed up for Celestial Navigation. I was assured it was a gut, the popular term then for a course that required little or no effort. I was in love, soon to be married, obsessing over what to do with my life, with no time or patience for study. I was a classic case of delayed social development, thinking and acting at age 22 like a typical high school senior. My college treated me like most high schools treat distracted 18-year-olds. It wanted me to graduate. It was not going to let a trivial thing like academic standards stand in the way.


My final exam would be applauded today by promoters of 21st-century skills. We had to plot a course on a Boston Harbor cruise ship, strategizing, analyzing, collaborating. I don't recall understanding any of what was going on, but I turned something in. As I expected, I got a good grade and a bachelor's degree, despite learning no science.


That's why I get nervous whenever I hear of some brilliant new teaching method that is going to sweep our students into a new century, wise beyond their years. It takes hard work to teach this stuff, and even harder work, by poorly motivated adolescents, to learn it. Kay told me he knows that, but I don't see the point emphasized in his promotional materials.


Great educators tell me that teaching and learning are more about relationships than content, more about asking questions every day of everyone in class than depending on students to soak it up on their own. In our poorest neighborhoods, we still have some of our weakest teachers, either too inexperienced to handle methods like modeling instruction or too cynical to consider 21st-century skills anything more than another doomed fad. There might be a way to turn them around, but if there isn't, instead of engaged and inspired students, we will have just one more big waste of time.


E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com