Tech Leadership

The Three R’s Meet the Three C’s

by Jim Hirsch

There is no question the three R’s are the hallmarks of every successful education system since the Greek philosophers. Of course, those hallmarks are also the current foundation of every state and federal accountability system.

In today’s classrooms, however, our students have become keenly interested in the three C’s that they use often and effectively in their lives outside of school. Bringing those three C’s — communication, collaboration and creativity — into the typical classroom is a challenge that deserves the attention of every school leader now.

The work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and their Route 21 project in particular, is bringing private-industry expectations for their future workforce into this discussion as well. In fact, results from the organization’s October 2007 survey of voters nationwide show that 88 percent of the respondents believe 21st-century skills should be part of the curriculum.

Beyond a greatly expanded core subject list, the learning and innovation skills identified by the partnership include creativity and innovation; critical thinking and problem solving; and communication and collaboration. Measuring student proficiency on these skills is much more difficult than assessing the three R’s. Embedding learning experiences involving the three C’s is just as challenging, but a necessary first step if we wish to address what the public is now viewing as important educational components for their children.

In the 2007 Project Tomorrow Speak Up Day survey, 51 percent of the K-12 students said they’re interested in educational gaming because games make it easier to understand difficult concepts, yet only 19 percent of parents and 15 percent of administrators favor that idea. In a similar vein, while 53 percent of middle and high school students are excited about using mobile devices to help them learn, only 15 percent of school leaders support this idea.

Modeling Applications
This significant disconnect between student learning preferences and adult hesitancy to invent appropriate methods to embed those learning preferences into typical school activities will be a growing tension point as we strive to provide more student-centered learning and engagement in our classrooms.

As school system leaders, it’s important to model and encourage inclusion of the three C’s in all of our work around the business of education. That can start as simply as requiring your leadership team to keep electronic calendars that provide group access rights, all the way to having online accounts to a free service such as Google Docs and asking your team to collaborate on shared word processing or spreadsheet documents.

For example, ask your leadership team to read the lead article in the July 2008 issue of Fast Company dealing with innovation, titled “Selling Your Innovation: Anchor and Twist.” Start a shared Google document with your impressions of the article and how you could embed an idea or two into an initiative you’ve been considering. Have other members of the team share their thinking in the same document — even adding images or links to supporting articles as they wish. This level of collaboration, communication and creativity is exactly what our students are excited about using during their own learning time.

Principals and teaching staff will notice the increased level of innovation used by the district leadership team and may become more inclined to investigate uses of these collaborative technologies themselves. The more experience staff have for themselves with this type of technology-enhanced collaboration, the more comfortable and confident they will feel in designing learning activities where students can use their understanding of the three C’s.

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Can the use of the three C’s be done in a safe manner in a school setting? The answer is a definite YES! Consider these two examples as working models of appropriate school use of innovative collaborative technologies.

Students create their own ad-hoc study groups frequently when working on school assignments outside of class. A recent application available on Facebook called Study Hall allows friends to meet each other online and use a common, private whiteboard and collaborate using text, drawing tools and images while discussing reading assignments, math problems or science experiments.

I don’t advocate having students use Facebook accounts while in school, so consider implementing an open-source social networking application such as Elgg on your school server and installing Study Hall as an available application.

Similarly, a student portal such as MySuite from Editure provides a personalized student learning platform that teachers can post information to and provides access to collaborative tools such as message boards, e-mail, blogs and related collaborative tools but within a protected school environment. This is accessible to students and teachers at any time, through any device that offers Internet access.

To remain a relevant learning experience for students and engage them more deeply in school, consider adding emphasis on the three C’s, in addition to the great work you’re doing with the three R’s.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent for academic and technology services in the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas. E-mail: