21st Century Skills in Modeling Instruction (part 1)


Below are responses by teachers who use Modeling Instruction, to a Nov. 21, 2008 article by Washington Post education columnist, Jay Mathews,


in which he shows skepticism that 21st century skills can fit seamlessly into core subjects.


Modeling Instruction employs 21st century skills: students think critically and creatively, innovate, display oral  communication skills and work and collaborate in diverse team settings.



From: "Park, Nicholas"

To: "'mathewsj@washpost.com'" <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008

Subject: 21st century skills


"I will remain skeptical. I have seen too many glittery labels come to a bad end when applied to classes organized with very little thought. But...I will also welcome any firsthand observations of 21st-century skills classes readers might have."



In my physics classroom at Greenhill School in Dallas, TX, which is run using the principles of modeling instruction, students learn and practice 21st century skills every day, while also learning the basic principles and their applications very well. By this point in the year, my students are able to use the tools at their disposal to design and implement an investigation of a physical situation and with some guidance come to a collaborative understanding of how it works. They are then able to collaboratively implement that understanding to solve problems, employing concepts and skills previously mastered in conjunction with their newly developed understanding. The students take initiative, come up with creative ideas and solutions, think of creative ways to use the resources available, and at the same time are able to efficiently employ the procedures and skills they have already learned.


For more information on modeling instruction, please see http://modeling.asu.edu. This program has been implemented across the country, and is a great example of 21st century skills implemented effectively.

Nicholas Park

Science Department

Greenhill School

(972) 628-5636



From: Matt Greenwolfe

To: "mathewsj@washpost.com" <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008

Subject: 21st centrury skills and teaching

Hi Jay,

I read your article in the Washington post, and it happened to come just a few weeks after a student of mine sent me the attached essay she had written for a college application.  It describes very well how the "21st century skills" as some call them are integrated into my class and also the positive impact it has had on her learning in two core subjects.  I don't call these techniques "21st century skills," having never heard the term before your article, nor have I adopted them because of a fad or because students might need the skills, as opposed to the content of physics, later in life.  I learned to teach this way from workshops in modeling instruction which originated at Arizona State University ( http://modeling.asu.edu ), and I continue to teach this way solely because it is effective at promoting student learning.   I share your skepticism about fads and marketing tricks, and want to emphasize that it took some pretty serious training and years of effort for me to learn how to do this well.


I would be glad to share more of my experiences, and you are welcome to visit my classes.

Matt Greenwolfe

Cary Academy

Cary, NC



Subject: 21st Thinking Skills

Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008

From: "Spencer, Rob"

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Dear Jay,

I teach physics 1 (non-honors) as well as AP C (calculus-based) physics at West Lafayette High School (West Lafayette, IN).  A colleague referred your column about 21st Century Thinking Skills to me and I thought I might respond to your column.


I have integrated certain characteristics of the modeling physics methodology in my curriculum:

1)  students brainstorm ideas about something that they observe...develop an experiment to investigate the physical situation, and collect and analyze the data in order to formulate a rule.

2)  students also prepare whiteboards to present their experimental findings to the class.  Consensus about the rule is reached.  The rule or concept is then practiced in new situations.

3)  test questions are new situations in which the students can utilize their understanding of the concepts they developed through experimentation.


I think it would behoove you to familiarize yourself with the modeling methodology, which is closely aligned with the characteristics of 21st century thinking skills, if you want to see real applications of these skills in a hard-core academic class.  Please google "modeling physics" if you want to investigate further.


After having read your article, I agree that practicing "thinking" is a process that needs a platform.  However, I believe that the process of "collecting data/analyzing data/making a rule/ discussing the rule with colleagues/and implementing the rule" is a process that can be repeated in many disciplines outside of a physics class.


Thank you for your interest in education reform.


Rob Spencer

West Lafayette High School – physics



Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2008 1

From: Tom Egan

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Subject: 21st century learning & skepticism

Mr. Mathews,

 My name is Tom Egan and I am a physics teacher in Park Ridge, Illinois.  I teach at Maine South High School, the same school which claims Hillary Clinton as an alumna.


I am a skeptic about many new methods of teaching that come down the pipe.  One of my colleagues even jokes whenever a new program comes around that he can remember "what it was called the last time it came out as the newest and best way to teach kids".  Being a scientist, I maintain a great deal of skepticism about many of these so-called "experimentally researched" methods that claim to be scientifically tested, but really aren't.


When I learned the Modeling method of teaching physics, I was, at first, just as skeptical.  However, as I began to explore, I began to see the great value that it had.  More and more of my students began to develop a deeper understanding of the subjects I taught.  More students could communicate to me the ideas of physics; not as a series of memorized definitions, but rather as ideas that they could turn around and demonstrate to me not only using their own words, but with the accuracy that I expect from my senior students.  One of the best anecdotes I can share is that several of my students end up at the University of Illinois' College of Engineering.  Several of these students report back as to how ahead they were of other students (even those with an AP Physics background) because the Modeling method forces them to go beyond plugging numbers into equations and memorizing definitions from a textbook.


I continue to be skeptical of many new ideas; however if you are looking for a teaching concept that works with students, I urge you to find a teacher who uses the modeling method of physics.  You will be in for a pleasant experience.


Thomas Egan

Science Department

Maine South H.S.



Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2008

From: Tim Burgess

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Subject: Thinking while learning

Mr. Matthews,

    I started teaching Physics and Chemistry using the Modeling Instruction as disseminated from Arizona State University ten years ago.  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).

     Let me mix an analogy:  It became clear to me that my students were not learning basketball by playing it.  They were learning basketball facts from a book.  My 6'10" students were having a great deal of trouble with basketball fact recall and developing a bad attitude about basketball to boot!  Since allowing my students play, encouraging thought and fostering conversation about physics they have experienced being physicists while also learning physics.  Such an approach focuses on thinking over the mere accumulation of isolated facts. Modeling Instruction has empowered me to  allow my students to think.

       The effort to expose students to the state content standards in Physics no longer stands alone as my focus.  Students thinking, innovating, imagining, predicting and reflecting are paramount goals.  It happens that they learn some Physics along the way too.

    Highest Regards,

Tim Burgess



Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2008

From: "Hulme, Suzanne"


Here at Westhampton Beach High School, the students in my Regents

Physics classes are thriving, and doing extremely well, learning physics

with the modeling method, as originated out of ASU.  My students use

modern tools and technology everyday to collect, and more importantly,

to analyze data, in order to uncover basic principles and relationships.


The most modern aspect of our classroom, however, is that it is

student-centered.  The students themselves are responsible for

presenting and discussing labs and problems sets, using a technique

called whiteboarding, where students learn to communicate ideas and to

discourse in a scholarly fashion.  Students learn to think critically,

solve complex, open-ended problems, collaborate, and see that there

are many ways to analyze a situation.  While still mastering traditional

physics, they practice the skills of working with others.  They learn

how to think like a scientist-they become skeptical, and really improve

their reasoning skills.  My students teach me something every single



I am an intelligent, gifted teacher, who is not following the pack.  I

taught for 14 years before adopting the modeling method, and am very

pleased with the results.  My students do very well on state exams as

well as on other standardized tests.


It is true that there have been some trends in education which are just

that-trends, but in physics, we have made real progress, and have plenty

of documented research to back up our results.  May I suggest that you

check out the website at ASU for more information?


Suzanne Hulme

Physics teacher

Westhampton Beach High School

Westhampton Beach, NY



Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2008

From: Kimberly Shaw

Subject: 21st century skills and content

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Mr. Mathews

To quote you:

"I will remain skeptical. I have seen too many glittery labels come 

to a bad end when applied to classes organized with very little 



Yes, indeed, and even well-organized classes can fail if teachers 

don't have the support and training they need, as you also seemed to 



I am a physicist, and have been a faculty member at a regional 

comprehensive university for over 11 years.  (Actually, two of them 

in two different states).  Both schools have a mission to be "open 

access" - in other words, to make a college education accessible to 

all.  This means I see students with the widest range of abilities - 

from very poor and very bright students who need to stay close to 

home, to students who struggled to meet admissions requirements. I 

have also made it an important part of my career to be involved with 

teacher training, and working with local educators to help improve 

our schools.


While I shy away, like you, from glitzy terms and grandiose claims, 

there is research based data that shows that you can teach analytical 

abilities, problem solving, critical thinking in the context of a 

specific content area.  (Actually, I seem to recall that I have seen 

a study which indicated that without a context, teaching these skills 

is worthless, but I don't have the reference at hand.)  For some 

background data, I would refer you to the books How People Learn and 

How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the 

Classroom, both published by the National Research Council.


I have recently become involved with teaching science using Modelling 

pedagogy.  Modelling explicitly teaches students skills in scientific 

reasoning and questioning.  It was developed for use in high school 

physics classes, but has been adapted for other high school sciences, 

for math, and is being adapted for college and some middle school 

uses.  There is a lot of data on student performance, not just in the 

content area, but also in these "21st century skills".  See the 

central web site: http://modeling.asu.edu/

if you want references to their assessment data.


What does it do?  The students who come out of modelling classes - 

done properly, by teachers trained in this method who buy into it, 

and have the time and support to do it - often cover fewer topics.  

The classroom environment is very different, very active, and appears 

disorganized.  But students leave these classes retaining more of the 

material, and better able to learn further material and apply what 

they know more readily.


The key of course, is supporting the teachers.  Modelling is not 

lecture, and is very different from what many classrooms look like.  

Many teachers don't like the noise, the chaos, the change in how they 

must "control" the room.  But if you train the teachers in how to do 

this, give them support to be more sure of their own content 

knowledge, and most importantly, support them when they change how 

they teach, students and faculty alike do well, and the benefits last.


Just my two cents, with a few references to research that might help.


Kimberly Shaw

Director, Math and Science Learning Center

Associate Professor of Physics

Columbus State University

Columbus, GA 31907



Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2008

From: Daniel Keegan

Subject: 21st Century Critical Thinking Skills

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Mr. Mathews,

 I teach Physics in rural Missouri. My students are seniors that will be attending college next year. I use a teaching method called modeling to engage these students in a continuing exercise of empirical study. This has paid wonderful dividends.


On our last test covering acceleration, the students clearly and coherently navigated a line of questioning that started with observation, developed as relationships among variables using graphical tools and concluded as mathematical formula describing the full association. No plug and chug for these students.


They develop this mastery the old fashioned way - by verbally describing the phenomena to their peers and adjusting their views based on an open discourse. A real sense of community has blossomed and the students are quick to engage to help each other overcome obstacles.


Working together, initially expressing what we observe in a concrete, easy to understand dialogue and advancing to an abstract world of symbols and mathematical expressions - it's how we solve problems - in our Physics class today and our future endeavors tomorrow.


Dan Keegan

Physical Science Teacher

Cole Camp High School

Cole Camp, Mo. 65301



From: Frank Lock

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Subject: 21st Century Skills

Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2008


    I have been teaching science since 1974. I began teaching high school chemistry and physics in 1979. Through all that time, I continuously searched for new and better ways to facilitate student learning in my classroom. For a lot of reasons I believe I was improving and achieving more success each year. In 2003, I was very fortunate to find the best way to facilitate student learning of physics. That summer I enrolled in a course to learn about the Modeling pedagogy for teaching physics. The most important aspect of the program is that it uses physics to teach science. It is a program that is deep, rather than wide. Since the fall of 2003, I have employed Modeling in my physics classes. As a result, my teaching has been more satisfying, and more successful, than all the previous years.

     In 2005, I enrolled in a Modeling Chemistry course, to learn similar strategies for facilitating student learning of chemistry. The results in my chemistry classes have been the same.

The Modeling system helps students learn what science is, and how to think. I strongly encourage you to find teachers in your area who are " Modelers" and learn more about the program. Who knows, you may learn what science is really all about!

Frank Lock

Lemon Bay H.S.

Englewood, FL



From: David Meyer 

Sent: Thursday, December 04, 2008

To: 'mathewsj@washpost.com'

Subject: 21st century skills

Mr. Mathews,

I saw your article on 21st century skills and was disappointed in your

skepticism about teaching them.  I teach Chemistry and College Physics at

Marshall High School in Marshall, MO.  My classes are based on a

collaborative inquiry approach called the Modeling method.  Here is an

example of what my students can do using the 21st century skills mentioned

in the report and in your article.  Yesterday I gave a 'lab practicum', a

test of their lab skills.  It is an engineering problem that they have to

solve at the end of a unit. They were given the problem, and then they must

work together to make a prediction.  This involves them thinking "critically

and making judgments, solving complex, multidisciplinary, open-ended

problems, developing creative thinking, communicating and collaborating,

(and) making innovative use of knowledge".  After they have made their

prediction, we test to see how they did.  Students don't just come with all

these skills; the modeling method of teaching incorporates the skills

mentioned above in all phases of teaching.  Just wanted to let you know it

is possible to teach these types of skills to students.  Thanks,

David Meyer M.N.S.

Science Dept. Chair

The Marshall High School



Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2008

From: Wayne Tanson

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Dear Jay Mathews,


"I will remain skeptical.  I have seen too many glittery labels come to a bad end when applied to classes organized with very little thought. But...I will also welcome any firsthand observations of 21st-century skills classes."


The following is my take on how 21st century skills are impacting my teaching and learning and helping my students thrive!


We teach introductory physics / technology engineering to all freshmen. All of our freshmen must take either the technology engineering or introductory physics MCAS test given in Massachusetts. In our classes, we integrate data collection, analysis, and drawing conclusions from analyses. The use of the computer-aided modeling and data collection technologies, such as photo-gates and motion detectors, has revolutionized the teaching of topics like the graphical analysis of motion. By using motion detectors and photogates, our students can create and interpret graphs (distance vs. time, position vs. time, speed vs. time, velocity vs. time, and acceleration vs. time) of 1-dimensional motion to show constant speed/velocity, uniform acceleration, and stationary motion. In large part due to the enhanced understanding of physics concepts through computer technology, most students perform better than state averages on the introductory physics MCAS test.


The major impact of computer-aided activities have on students is that critical thinking and problem-solving skills have increased significantly, as demonstrated by MCAS results. These activities have enhanced: application of new problem-solving techniques; analysis of data using modeling techniques; synthesis of the meaning of analyses; evaluation of data that demonstrates the technical quality of observations.


When I joined the science department in 2001, data collection and analysis technology was antiquated. Graphical analysis of motion was studied using spark timers. Students hand-measured the intervals between the dots produced on the ticker-tape, put their data into tables, calculated slopes and graphed the results by hand.


During the summer of 2002, I took a professional development course at Bridgewater State College. The course focused on the "modeling method of instruction" using Vernier and Pasco equipment. At the end of the course, I received as part of a grant from the summer institute white-boards and Vernier software as well as a motion detector, and a photogate. I then applied for grants to purchase probes, sensors, tracks, cars, computers, and other equipment necessary to outfit our lab. As a consequence, we now have six lab-stations and numerous probes and sensors. Because we have 25-30 students in some classes, we are working toward adding still more lab stations. White-boarding has extended outside the physics classroom to the other science classrooms and to the mathematics classrooms.Whiteboarding allows the students to: talk to each other in groups and plan presentation, teach peers through presentations and critique one another’s presentation in a cooperative environment.


Wayne D. Tanson

Math and Physics Teacher, Uxbridge High School, Uxbridge, MA



Subject: 21st century skills through Modeling Instruction

Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2008

From: "Minaya, Carmela"

To: <mathewsj@washpost.com>

Dear Mr. Jay Mathews:

 Your skepticism around the lack of teaching 21st century skills is accurate for most of education today.  However, there is a small, band of teachers (slightly more than 5% of all science teachers in the US) who are implementing Modeling Instruction in science, which by design addresses 21st century skills.


Every summer at Arizona State University, under the program leadership of Dr. David Hestenes, Dr. Jane Jackson, and Dr. Bob Culbertson, many secondary teachers are trained on the content and pedagogy of Modeling Instruction.  Modeling Instruction re-creates a scientist's experience exploring physical phenomena within the classroom setting.  Students work collaboratively to uncover working models with which they can interpret & analyze data they collected from experiments that they designed.  The depth of logical and critical thinking that emerges from students is quite astounding.


Modeling Instruction was only one of two programs in 2002 to be rated EXEMPLARY by the US Department of Education.  It was the only secondary program designated with that honor in 2002.  Modeling Instruction is discussed in three different chapters in the NSTA book: Exemplary Science for grades 9-12, Standards Based Success Stories edited by Bob Yager.  There have been other good science teaching programs in the past as well.  This begs the question why don't some of these programs still exist today?  The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds research on new methods, but stops funding once the method is established as effective.  If these movements don't find ways to sustain themselves, they disappear.  In 2005, when the NSF Modeling Instruction funding ended, the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) was established for the purpose of sustaining Modeling Instruction as a viable and successful science teaching pedagogy.  Please visit http://modelingteachers.org for more information about Modeling Instruction or the AMTA.


Your perspective on education is greatly appreciated because it highlights the importance of the few programs that are not "glittery," as you so eloquently put it, but quietly effective in a grassroots manner at giving the next generation of adults the skills they need for the 21st century.  Modeling Instruction teachers believe that we will impact the world one student at a time.  I'm confident that after you research Modeling Instruction you will become a strong advocate.


Carmela Minaya, Science Teacher

Hanalani Schools

Mililani, HI