Relevant and Applied Curriculum

Curriculum must support active, authentic, and engaged learning, leveraging technology innovations that profoundly affect our daily lives.

Curriculum is sometimes seen as limited to the academic goals and standards within each content area, and the books and learning materials that support those goals. According to Ronald Doll, curriculum actually refers to all purposeful activity that takes place within the classroom. Doll, R. C. (1995). Curriculum improvement: Decision making and process. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

With this expanded view of curriculum as a starting point, ACOT2 has identified six key characteristics of curriculum for 21st century learning:

  1. Involves collaboration and community
  2. Is based on authenticity and relevance
  3. Leverages real-world tools, resources, and methodologies
  4. Incorporates a rich continuum of teaching and learning strategies
  5. Is grounded in rich content with a 21st century context
  6. Creates linkages to the outside world

Collaboration and Community

The ability to function as a member of a team is key in the 21st century workplace. Therefore, it should also be a key characteristic of the 21st century classroom where one stated goal is to prepare students for a productive and successful work life.

It is important to note, however, that it is not only workplace imperatives that recommend a focus on cooperative and collaborative learning in 21st century learning. Cooperative and collaborative learning have long been recognized as one of the most consistent strategies for increased student achievement. For example, in his recent book, Classroom Instruction that Works, Robert Marzano identifies cooperative learning as one of the nine most effective instructional strategies available to classroom teachers. Marzano, R. J. Pickering, D.J., Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

The education literature makes a distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning. Generally speaking, cooperative learning is a set of strategies that provide the structure for students to learn and work effectively in small groups or teams. Collaboration is more generally defined as positive interactions during the learning process that build relationships and lead to increases in learning, understanding, and product quality. The importance of understanding the differences is to better understand the relationship between the two: collaboration is greatly enhanced if the skills and processes of cooperative learning are mastered.

In a recent meta-analysis completed by David and Roger Johnson of over 164 studies on various methods of cooperative learning, the Johnson brothers suggest that cooperative learning should have a certain set of characteristics. Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Stanne, Mary Beth (2000). Cooperative Learning Methods: A Meta-Analysis. University of Minnesota.

These include:

Positive interdependence.
Members of the group understand that they can only succeed by working together, and rewards and celebrations are based on the success of the group.
Promotive interactions.
Rather than compete, members of the group support one another, exchange information and resources, and accept as well as provide constructive criticism.
Individual accountability and personal responsibility for group goals.
Everyone in the group takes responsibility for the successful completion of the project and is held accountable for their portion of the work.
Frequent use of interpersonal and small-group skills.
Students are taught the various roles that need to be assumed when functioning as members of a team and practice these roles in the context of rich, relevant work.
Assessing and refining the functioning of the group.
In formal cooperative learning environments, processes are established to continually assess the quality and effectiveness of group interactions. Each member is responsible for evaluating his or her own contributions as well as those of others.

Recent work on learning communities has extended the importance of collaboration from student-to-student collaboration into teacher-to-teacher and teacher-to-student interactions. With the democratization of information that is taking place and in a world where virtually all information on a topic is available to anyone in real time, the relationships of teachers and students need to evolve significantly. Teachers need to move even beyond the role of facilitators and become collaborators in learning, seeking new knowledge alongside students and modeling positive ways to work and think.

Not surprisingly, technology can play a central role in promoting collaboration in the learning environment. A powerful example of this is the CSILE (Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments) project from University of Toronto. Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (1992a). An architecture for collaborative knowledge building. In E. De Corte, M. Linn, H. Mandl, & L. Verschaffel (Eds.). Computer-based learning environments and problem-solving (pp. 41-66). Berlin: Springer-Verlag. Developed by Scardamalia and Bereiter in the late 1980s, CSILE invited students into a knowledge-building environment where they would enter interesting things that they had learned into a shared database. Then, through a series of scaffolded interactions with their information, information contributed by others, and prompts provided by the software, they would refine these interests into researchable questions. While CSILE is still available as Knowledge Forum, many of the functionalities of the original environment can be duplicated using Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis.

Another example of technology-anchored collaboration is Margaret Riel’s Learning Circles. iEarn Learning Circles site: This project, now part of the iEarn network allows student groups in geographically diverse locations to collaborate on curriculum-related projects where both teachers and students work and learn together.

Research Findings Related to Collaboration and Community

While models of student and teacher collaboration have not yet been widely researched, the impact of cooperative or collaborative learning has been well documented. In the Johnson brothers’ meta-analysis of over 164 studies on various methods of cooperative learning, virtually all of the studies showed significant positive results. Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Stanne, Mary Beth (2000). Cooperative Learning Methods: A Meta-Analysis. University of Minnesota.

Depending on the strategy employed and whether cooperative learning was compared to competitive or individual learning, the Johnsons recorded average effect sizes ranging from .18 to 1.04. Most of the effect sizes reported would be considered strong effects. Marzano, after completing a similar review of cooperative learning studies, reported an average effect size across studies of .73-an extremely large effect that would account for learning gains of approximately 27 percentile points.

Authenticity and Relevance

The concept of more authentic, relevant learning has been bandied about in education since the time of John Dewey in the early part of the last century. Dewey’s concept of "learning by doing" was based on his understanding that people learn best when they are actively involved in tasks that have meaning and importance.

Unfortunately, except for a few schools involved in active learning models such as problem-based or project-based learning, most classrooms still focus to a great degree on "exercise-based" work as the basis of student learning. From math worksheets to essays and reports, most of the work assigned to students is destined solely for the gradebook. This raises the question: Are exercises and reports the best way to prepare for a world that values innovation and new knowledge? Are these tasks rich enough to allow teachers to embed other important 21st century skills in the learning process? Recent theorists, such as Fred Newmann, think not.

Fred Newmann from University of Wisconsin defines a set of standards for Authentic Instruction, Authentic Student Performance, and Authentic Assessment Tasks. Newmann, F.M., Secada, W.G., & Wehlage, G.G. (1995). A guide to authentic instruction and assessment: Vision, standards, and scoring. Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools. These standards paint a picture of authenticity and relevance in practice. Newmann’s standards are organized into three areas:

Construction of knowledge.
Students must apply the facts, concepts, and skills that they learn into the construction of some knowledge product or new understanding.
Disciplined inquiry.
Students must use disciplined inquiry, that is develop an adequate base of knowledge and an in-depth understanding of the content and methods of the discipline, which are exhibited through complex communication of ideas central to the discipline.
Value beyond school.
The performance must have value beyond the school; that is, the work must have meaning or value that transcends the student-teacher relationship and is not simply used to rate the performance of the student for grading purposes. This value may be a result of sharing the work in a meaningful way with an audience outside the classroom. It may also have value simply because the topic and product are personally valued by the student. Or it may be that the product or task closely mirrors the kind of work done in the real world and that relationship is clearly evident to the student.

The most challenging of Newmann’s standards are those for Value Beyond School. These standards would have been extremely difficult to address in the past, but with the advent of new technologies such as wikis and blogs, students can now communicate with audiences outside the school in safe and efficient ways. For example, technologies such as iMovie and GarageBand allow students to create products that can be shared with a host of audiences in their schools, communities or even globally.

Projects such as those found on the iEarn website and web-based technologies such as SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang allow students to create and collect survey research with real subjects and real audiences. In the 21st century curriculum, authentic, relevant work is finally scalable.

Integrated within Newmann’s model for authentic learning is the concept of Deep Learning. Noel Entwistle from the University of Edinburgh contrasts deep, strategic learning with shallow, apathetic learning. Entwistle, N. (2000). Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment: Conceptual frameworks and educational contexts. ESRC Teaching and Learning Programme, Conference 2000, Leicester, England.

Deep Learning Shallow Learning
Relating key concepts Routine memorizing
Using evidence and developing schema Following rote procedures
Focus is on growth and understanding Focus is on minimum requirements
Intention is to seek meaning for yourself Intention is to get it done

Deep Learning is a style of learning that comes more naturally to some students than others. In fact, the literature on Deep Learning has many similarities with the literature on self-directed learning, a 21st century skill. But habits of Deep Learning can be nurtured in all students. Deep Learning requires deep teaching. Teachers must give students challenging tasks that require them to wrestle with core concepts in the curriculum and the time to do so.

Research Findings Related to Authenticity and Relevance

While randomized studies that demonstrate the power of relevant, authentic learning have yet to be conducted, a body of compelling correlational research hints at the power of this instructional theory. Newmann has applied the authentic learning framework and assessment tools in two compelling studies. One is an analysis of the role of authenticity in promoting student achievement in school reform projects over a five-year period Newmann, F.M., Marks, H., Louis, K., Kruse, S. & Gamoran, A. (1996). Authentic achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers. And the other is a study of the relationship between authentic work and student achievement in 100 classrooms in the Chicago Public School system. Newmann, F.M., Bryk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J.K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence? Improving Chicago’s schools. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

In each of these studies, Newmann found a strong relationship between the authenticity of the work assigned in classrooms and student achievement. In the Chicago study, for example, multiple assignments were gathered from over 100 teachers randomly selected from schools in grades 3, 6, and 8. The assignments were analyzed using the standards and rubrics for authenticity described above. The state assessments in reading and math and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills were used, controlling for race, socioeconomic class, gender and prior achievement. Newmann found that students in classrooms where intellectually rigorous, authentic work was assigned gained 20 percent more than the national averages. In classrooms where assignments were less rigorous, student growth was approximately 25 percent below national averages.

Real-World Tools, Resources, and Methodologies

If student work is to be truly authentic, the tools and methodologies that are used to do that work need to be authentic as well. As the tools of professionals become increasingly digital, they become more economical for use in education.

For example, word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation software are ubiquitous in high schools around the nation. But other tools are available as well. Professional historians, for example, seldom rely on textbooks for their information. They piece together the stories of history from firsthand documents, letters, and other artifacts. Through resources such as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and others, these same artifacts are now available to anyone with a digital device and an Internet connection.

For example, oceanographers make use of real-time data from buoys scattered across the oceans of the Earth. Students can now access that same data and conduct analyses that parallel those of professionals. Movie editing software, once prohibitively expensive and requiring massive computer systems to run, is now included for free with many computers purchased by schools. Students can now use the same resources for learning that once were the exclusive province of the professional and report the results of their learning in a variety of media reflective of the world in which they live.

One of the major hurdles that must be overcome if students are to have access to the tools and practices of professionals is the lack of knowledge of many teachers of the real-world applications of the content that they teach. Many mathematics teachers at the high school level, for example, have been classically trained in mathematics. In many universities, this means that their training has been steeped in theories and algorithms with very little connection to practical applications.

Just as students need scaffolding to develop 21st century skills, teachers may need scaffolding to begin to identify the applications of the content they teach and to construct real-world problems and projects related to that content. For example, providing math teachers with access to architects or civil engineers can provide the impetus needed to create those projects. Even providing students, through email or other Web 2.0 communications, with access to professionals can sow the seeds of real-world applications within the classroom.

The opportunity for the use of real-world tools in the curriculum is as new as many of the tools themselves. Solid research documenting the impact of these tools on student learning is sparse. There are hints in early research, though, of the potential power of these approaches. In a review of the use of databases of firsthand historical resources in the curriculum, for example, Michael Berson from the University of South Florida reported that studies have "demonstrated increased academic achievement, motivation, self-directed thinking, self-initiated activity, construction of meaning, analytical analysis, and increases in collaborative peer interaction." Berson, M. (1996). Effectiveness of computer technology in the social studies: A review of the literature. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 28 (4), 486-98.

Research Findings Related to Real-World Tools, Resources, and Methodologies

In a series of research studies conducted with students using Geographic Information Software (GIS) to study science and geography, GIS was found to strengthen problem-solving skills, increase geographic knowledge, and encourage spatial analysis. In two of these studies, it was demonstrated that despite the use of these professional tools resulting in less coverage of content breadth, the depth of coverage consistently resulted in similar or better performance on factual tests and exams. Kerski, J.J. (2003). The implementation and effectiveness of geographic information systems technology and methods in secondary education. Journal of Geography, 102(3), 128-137. The use of data collection "probes" has been linked to increases in the ability to interpret data and decreases in student misconceptions in science. Marcum-Dietrich, N. & Ford, D. (2002). The place for the computer is in the laboratory: An investigation of the effect of computer probeware on student learning. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 21(4), 361-379.

Despite the infrequency of use in today’s schools, the use of professional tools in the curriculum shows great promise.

A Continuum of Teaching and Learning Strategies

In a 2002 National Geographic Survey, 85 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans were unable to locate Afghanistan and Iraq on a map; 69 percent were unable to locate Great Britain; 29 percent were unable to find the Pacific Ocean. National Geographic-Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey. November 2002.

The best teachers have always had a variety of "arrows in their quiver" when it comes to teaching and learning strategies. The value of diverse teaching and learning practices is that they can be applied depending on the content. For example, there are times when a lecture or demonstration is the most efficient way to provide students with the information they need. But as access to information becomes more transparent, the need to lecture diminishes and new practices can be developed.

Some of these practices-the use of project-based learning, for example-are established and familiar to most educators. Some new practices, however, are only now being conceived and refined. Online learning has been widely available for less than 10 years. Video and audio podcast classes-even entire courses-are now available from iTunes U on the iTunes Store. Leveraging these resources and orchestrating these new teaching and learning practices are the challenges for teachers today.

Additionally, as more data becomes available to teachers, they are now better able to diagnosis individual student’s needs and make better decisions about what is going to help individual students learn. This opens up a whole new range of possibilities for personalizing teaching to meet the abilities of each learner. Options include small group projects and investigations, WebQuests, just-in-time video lessons, and podcasts integrating lecture content with slide presentations.

Never before have there been as many options for teaching and learning available to classroom teachers. Where technology resources are sufficient, innovative classroom teachers are radically altering their roles within the school as they move from the primary source of information and direction to a coordinator of purposeful activity that matches student learning needs with available resources, thereby promoting self-directed learning behavior.

Research Findings Related to Teaching and Learning Strategies

Most of the learning and teaching strategies discussed above have their own bases of research. Some, like authentic learning and assessment, have strong correlational studies supporting them but not much in terms of randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of research. Project- and problem-based learning each has a considerable body of research behind it, but the results in these studies vary greatly depending on the specific content and process employed.

Some of the strategies are too new to have bodies of research. WebQuests, for example, have only a couple of studies that have looked at their efficacy in improving student achievement. In one of these studies, a control group in Texas outperformed the treatment group, which participated in a WebQuest on the Texas Revolution. Strickland, J. (2005). Using webquests to teach content: Comparing instructional strategies. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(2), 138-148. But, as the author notes, the control group did not use a traditional, textbook-based approach to learning. They participated in a project that represented that span of Texas history through visual symbols, a compelling group learning approach that seemed more steeped in content and critical thinking than was the WebQuest.

One lesson that can be learned from much of the research on new, technology-supported learning tools and strategies is that their effectiveness is more dependent upon the quality of the content than on the medium. Harold Wenglinsky, known in education technology circles primarily for his landmark study on the subject, conducted one of the more compelling studies on the impact of varied teaching practices in the classroom. Wenglinsky, H. (February 13, 2002). How schools matter: The link between teacher classroom practices and student academic performance. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(12). Retrieved Jan 24, 2008 from It demonstrated that the students of teachers who used technology for higher order uses such as simulation and inquiry outperformed students whose teachers did not use technology or used it for drill and practice. In the study, Wenglinsky noted that the students of teachers who used varied teaching strategies, hands-on learning, critical thinking activities working with real-world problems, and so on did significantly better on the NAEP mathematics test than those students of teachers with more limited instructional repertoires.

Rich Content with a 21st Century Context

As previously noted, 21st century skills are an imperative that schools cannot ignore. Some of these skills can be taught directly, then integrated within the content areas; critical thinking skills are one example. Some require specific environmental, instructional, and organizational changes to provide scaffolds for students as they build new, more productive learning strategies. Self-directed learning is an example here.

Some skills need to be integrated into content and involve changing the context of the content being taught more than involving specific knowledge and skills. A good example here is global awareness. Global awareness can be incorporated into virtually all subject areas by developing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will help students learn to operate in a global context.

Several principles should guide the selection of content and context in 21st century learning. First, when possible, educators should err on the side of depth versus breadth. As described earlier in this report, Deep Learning results in student achievement that is the same or better than rote tasks on assessments of rote learning. But Deep Learning also leads students to the understanding of core concepts and principles in the content area and, if combined with authentic, relevant work, allows the student to develop the higher order skills defined in the P21 framework.

“Curriculum is the formal and informal content and process by which learners gain knowledge and understanding, develop skills, and alter attitudes, appreciations, and values under the auspices of that school.”

— Ronald Doll

Second, schools must link standards across content areas through the creation of rich, multidisciplinary units or projects. The real world is multidisciplinary. Any field of study-journalism, computer science, environmental science, accounting, and so on-has aspects of language, writing, science, math, and communications. Assigning multidisciplinary work better prepares students for this reality.

In addition, assigning rich, relevant product-oriented work is often inefficient in a departmentalized context. Recently, in California, students participated in a three-week unit developing a travel website with its theme based on the California Standards for ancient Greek history. If the only standards to be addressed were those history standards, the amount of time spent on the unit might have seemed excessive. But the teachers designing the unit incorporated math instruction for pricing, money conversion, and time/distance calculation; language arts instruction for persuasive and descriptive writing; technology standards for use of graphics and web tools; and a host of 21st century skills. The unit increased their efficiency in covering the curriculum.

Finally, schools must infuse the curriculum with a forward-looking context. A teacher in Virginia studying weather patterns in an earth science unit had students collect real-time data from buoys in the Caribbean Ocean and Atlantic Oceans to look for changes in currents and temperatures that might be impacted by global warming. Students used those data in concert with satellite images of water vapor to prepare an advocacy report to send to local legislators. Involving students in the issues of today and doing so with the tools of professionals in the field can provide students with a sense of the importance of the content they are studying and its linkage to the world around them.

Research Findings Related to Rich Content with a 21st Century Context

Several bodies of research are linked to the topic of rich content with a 21st century context. First would be the research already discussed in an earlier section on assigning rich, authentic work to students. Studies also suggest that in authentic problem-based learning environments, students develop flexible knowledge, linked knowledge that is more easily activated and transferred to novel situations, more effective problem-solving skills and, perhaps most importantly, build skills of metacognition. Metacognition, the ability to monitor the quality and effectiveness of one’s own thinking, is a key to critical thinking, self-directed learning, and other key 21st century skills.

Linkages to the Outside World

Another defining characteristic of 21st century learning is linkages to the world beyond the classroom. These linkages serve several purposes. First, linkages with local community groups, small businesses, and institutions such as local museums and historical societies, can provide outlets for authentic student work. Second, these linkages can provide additional opportunities for students to collaborate and to act as part of multidimensional teams. Third, these linkages can provide positive role models for students. Interacting with real scientists in an online project, for example, can give students positive insights into professions and professionals alike. Finally, these connections can help students understand their position in relationship to others in their community, nation, and the world, expanding their sense of place and connectedness.

There are several levels at which linkages to the outside world can become a regular part of the student experience. First, simply assigning work on topics where the student has had some say in the development of that topic or where the topic is of obvious interest and importance to the life of the student outside the classroom establishes a link to that outside world. While studying immigration issues in American history, for example, asking students to research their own family’s immigration using tools such as the Ellis Island website or interviews recorded with elder members of their family relates the learning to the life of the student.

According to a recent study by Education Week, 10 years ago, less than two-thirds of U.S. public schools had Internet access and just 14 percent of those schools had computers connected to the Internet in their classrooms. Today, nearly all schools have Internet access. In fact, 95 percent of them have computers with high-speed Internet access. A Digital Decade. Education Week. March 29, 2007.

A second type of link can be a simulative one. Many online projects offer students the opportunity to emulate the work done in the outside world through rich simulations. In the IMMEX project from UCLA, for example, students studying genetics in the seventh grade can play the role of a genetic detective using actual lab results to try to determine which of three claimants is the twin of a wealthy heir. Perhaps one of the best-known education simulations of the 1990s was the Jasper Woodbury series from Vanderbilt that allows students to solve real-world problems in a video-supported, simulated environment.

The third and most powerful mode of connecting to the real world is through genuine engagement with the world outside of the classroom through joint projects or through authentic projects with a real-world audience. For some time, theorists have discussed the potential for increases in motivation when students are provided with opportunities to do work that has an audience outside of the classroom. Historically, however, this has been difficult to organize at scale in the insular classroom of the past.

Today, through email and Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs, and podcasts, it is now possible to engineer collaborations between students and virtually any other individual or group: students of other nations, experts in a chosen field, university staff, and more. At the entry level, pre-existing projects such as those within the iEarn network are here today, allowing teachers and students to join global writing or science projects in a safe environment pre-populated with schools across the globe. More advanced teachers are relying on their own visions to leverage the web and new technologies to envision new, exciting, and engaging projects that bring the world into their classrooms on a daily basis.

Research Findings Related to Linkages to the Outside World

Early studies of the IMMEX simulation environment documented improvement in problem-solving accuracy across problem sets and more importantly, increases in metacognition. Kanowith-Klein, S., Stave, M., Stevens, R., & Casillas, A. (2001). Problem-solving skills among pre-college students in clinical immunology and microbiology: Classifying strategies with a rubric and artificial neural network technology. Microbiology Education, 2(1), 25-33. A large study of the Jasper Woodbury simulation found that while basic achievement was the same in students using that program versus controls, the Jasper Woodbury group outperformed controls on more advance problem-solving skills and had more positive attitudes toward mathematics. Pellegrino, J.W., Hickey, D.T., Heath, A., Rewey, K., Vye, N.J., & the CGTV (1991). Assessing the outcomes of an innovative instructional program: The 1990-91 implementation of the "Adventures of Jasper Woodbury" (Tech. Rep. No. 91-1). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University: Learning Technology Center.