Tag Archives: group life

9th Grade Humanities & Mission: Learning at the Service of [ ]

Over the past two years, our library has taken a prominent role in helping to develop our 9th Grade Humanities curriculum. The course itself is fairly traditional: we close read literary and informational texts for themes and concepts. We write argumentative paragraphs and essays. We perform research on historical events. We develop the skills necessary to excel in the study of history and literature. We even complete a few group projects, too.

Yet, we’re iterating Humanities into a interdisciplinary study of literature and history that supports individuals in skill development while situating learners into real world challenges that ask them to put their growing body of knowledge and ability at the service of our greater community.

If you tailed off, spun out, or otherwise crashed somewhere in the crags of that sentence, you’re not to blame. We’re building quite a bit into this course, and each component shows commitment towards creating learning experiences that fully embody our mission.

After all,  what steers our institution should drive the learning we undertake with our students, too:

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The course still needs to mature to more realize and measure the ideals, yet here’s a rundown of our progress thus far.


Individualization: Content & Skill

Our approach to course content with aspirations towards individualization? Balanced. We believe in the necessity of discussing, analyzing, and developing ideas within a safe intellectual community, so our students share texts such as Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Yet, we’ll use such texts as launchpads for individual explorations: we’ll create annotated bibliographies (and, eventually research essays) on topics and questions of individual interest that we unearthed while exploring the texts. While such inquiries are highly individualized, they emerge from a collective experience, and the skills we cultivate challenge each student to become even more effective literary scholars and historians.

Our individualization continues to emerge within the realm of assessment, as well. We collect and distribute data sets from our assessments to showcase individual learning accomplishment and also target areas for growth in future units, lessons, and tutorials.


The learning target students receive at the end of each project. This model is inspired by Mike Gwaltney, a history department chair at Oregon Episcopal School and one of the leading experts on project-based learning.

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The data we collect on each learner’s ability to comprehend and process texts, using the digital reading platform, ActivelyLearn.


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A bar graph displaying a student’s performance on a short oral presentation from last week. We’ll use these forms to create goals for another short oral presentation we’ll complete this week, and we’ll track the changes as we go.

We are using our data sets to provide detailed feedback to learners so they can create very targeted goals, developing individualized action plans for students who want to improve and extend their abilities. As our system solidifies, we want to empower each student to articulate their strengths and weaknesses, and we want each student to carry a personal toolkit for becoming even more effective scholars and performers.


Knowledge: A Conceptual Approach

As a learning environment that supports the principles and aspirations of International Baccalaureate programmes,, we forefront conceptual understanding ahead of any particular topic, issue, or text. We want our students to transition from one historical event or literary text to another equipped with frameworks to question, understand, and build knowledge.

Currently, our unit focuses on investigating how varying how varying perspectives and identities create conflict within the communities, and what factors influence the resolutions of such conflicts.

We look into the Abolitionist, Suffrage, and Civil Rights Movements. We unearthed the parallels between the the “Declaration of Independence” and the Seneca Falls Convention’s “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.” We investigated the rhetorical structure of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” and we dived into the rhetorical strategy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

We also read Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees to see how our considerations of race and gender intersect.

Even though we leap through space and time, these concepts are the threads that sew our understanding together.

Creativity & Citizenship

But our learning doesn’t stop with developing skill and understanding.

Instead, we want our students to see how they can set their knowledge towards the service of something–to put their knowledge into action.

A focal point of each unit of study in Humanities is a community focused action project.

For our unit on identities and perspectives, we are collaborating with Tacoma’s Reconciliation Project Foundation, as the 1885 expulsion of 600 Chinese workers from their residences on the Tacoma waterfront has been a human rights violation of local significance, and the city’s relatively recent actions to reconcile that event is perfect fodder to continue our investigation of communities, perspectives, and identities.

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On a recent visit to Chinese Reconciliation Park, we took photographs of aspects of the park that embody the foundation’s values. Here is a photograph of the Fuzhou Ting for the value, ‘inclusion.’

Currently, we’re mid-project. Our class has listened to board members from the Reconciliation Project Foundation who have presented on their aspirations for the project. We have toured the nearby Chinese Reconciliation Park. We have used these experiences to discern the values the foundation is striving to build within our community. Such activities have deepened our close reading abilities. After all, one should analyze a presentation or a space just as one analyzes a poem or a story.

We have created Opportunity Statements to recommend which values we feel should be amplified, and we have written Historical Studies to showcase how these values are embedded in the concepts and events surrounding the Chinese Expulsion.

We have also employed a toolkit of ideation methods, from the Impact-Effort Matrix to the NUF Test to develop plans to help the Foundation amplify the values we see the foundation aspiring to achieve.

In the coming two weeks, we will pitch both our understanding and ideas to foundation members. The feedback we’ll receive will be used to iterate our plans, and we will eventually create full-on presentations, some of which will be given to the entire board of trustees during their May meeting.


In future posts, we’ll showcase a few in progress or unrealized goals for the course as well as investigate why the library team is so involved. But for now, we’re excited to report some of the strong steps we’ve made towards transitioning our 9th Grade Humanities class into an even greater realization of Annie Wright’s mission, and we’re searching for  even more opportunity to amplify how we individualize learner interest and growth while building a body of knowledge that is then employed to engage and impact our wider community.

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Low-Definition, High-Definition, & Re-Definition: Constellating Stars Along I-280

Among the many hobbies we here in the Library & Learning Commons share, tracking shifts and evolutions in the landscape of education is one of our favorites, and Twitter serves as our central hub to peer into these developments throughout the world. Given the medium’s frenetic pace, we often feel situated in a camera obscura, catching emerging shapes and moving figures without much chance for the fullest clarity, so any opportunity to get on the ground in one of the most exciting environments for education is an opportunity for a high-fidelity view.

This past week marked the second occasion we have sent a team of educators down to The Nueva School’s Innovative Learning Conference. We’re incredibly fortunate that Annie Wright commits to immerse its educators in the zeitgeist shared by so many in the Bay Area. Worldwide, there is no higher concentration of people and organizations committed to transformation outside of the I-280 corridor. Even as whispers of another tech bubble continue their crescendo, it’s almost impossible to imagine that area becoming unseated from its dominant position. That place, like no other, has built itself on learning, and such learning will ignite rapid resurrection. Excess capital might take a sabbatical, but it will always return to this environment’s infrastructure of fervent thought.

We see this learning in major Silicon Valley tech firms, start-up incubators, world-class universities, and, for our purposes, the many schools committed to honing best practice in progressive education.

Aside from the conference itself, our trip featured visits to The Hillbrook School, Stanford’s d.school, and MKThink. The learning spaces of these places are so easily alluring.

Hillbrook has its I-Lab.

The d.school is the gold standard for formal education’s move to make space for critical collaboration and creative thought.

MKThink holds incredible expertise in shaping such spaces, and their own headquarters features a makerspace and small collaborative hot seats within a historic roundhouse that sits along San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Round out our Thursday visits to these three organizations with a Friday dedicated to orbiting around the Nueva School’s triple threat of i-Labs, and we received a front seat to education’s most interesting furnishings and technology features.

We can easily depart SFO with airline napkins and hotel stationery filled with scribbled blueprints and quite a set of shopping lists. But to do so would be to miss the Bay Area’s most important lesson: transformation occurs by examining the ecosystem of evolution, not its tools. Not the makerspaces. Or the sticky notes. Or the furniture. Or iPads. LCD screens. Dream Director position descriptions. Centers for Teaching Excellence. Service learning projects. Internal start-ups. Online classes. Global education. Coding. STEM/STEAM/STEAMS/SHTEAM. Makerspaces. Group process toolkits. Meditation techniques. Assessment practices. Pedagogical approaches. Even delicious salads served at school lunch. Design Thinking as a proper noun. All and all and all: the tools and deliverables so easily seen from the camera obscura. It’s wonderful to realize the expanse of tools at our disposal, but what might we put them in the service of?

What constellates Hillbrook, the d.school, MKThink, and Nueva among the many, many stars along I-280 are their commitments to modes of thought that shape their learning ecosystems, ecosystems that are poised to evolve exponentially and infinitely.

Hillbrook was an early adopter of 1:1 iPads. This enabled the school to transform their computer lab into the iLab. The school performed in-house research on how the iLab affected learning outcomes, and this research motivated educators in Hillbrook’s community to adopt the features of the iLab in individual classrooms. The iLab has since morphed into a makerspace. This makerspace will soon move to a yet unbuilt hub at the center of their campus. Their engine of further evolution is fueled by an in-house researcher and a teacher in residence program that will continue to measure the impact of their prototypes and prepare their community for whatever they choose to scale out next.

We can take Hillbrook’s shopping list and their how-to guide. What’s more challenging, and what I-280 does so well, is maintaining thoughts on higher aspirations with each incremental shift and assuring each development arrives with contrails that ask everyone to interrogate how that development might impact the next step, even if that next step has yet to be imagined.

The d.school advocates and educates towards mindsets and practices that enable organizations and individuals to navigate their evolutions with the intellectual elegance that is on display in ecosystems like Hillbrook’s. Stanford empowers professional and personal transformation, launching those that connect with their mode of design thinking well into the future.

MKThink is increasingly involved in constructing conceptual frameworks for identifying problems within problems and quantifying the impact of solutions in order to ignite continual iteration.

Nueva showcases standing evidence of a school very experienced in such evolutions, and their decision to expand into educating high schoolers displays their evolving savvy in thinking towards these next steps.

This year’s lineup of speakers and workshops at the Innovative Learning Conference also presented such maturity. Almost every presentation we attended focused on the process of evolution. Here is how we aligned a community around a set of values. Here are the many levers we have at our fingertips to drive us towards fulfilling those values. Here is how we measure our effectiveness. Here is how our measurements motivated pivots along the way. Here is the ecosystem we created. Take it in. We’re set to evolve.

But don’t copy us or our direction—it’s truly about the messy work of developing the ecosystem that will sustain your community’s values, not ours.

Umberto Boccioni: “The City Rises”

All in all, It’s easy to get wrapped up in the aggressive futurism embedded throughout I-280. Credos abound:

At its face, we might easily be turned off by such aggression that harkens back to F.T. Marinetti and Company:

“Do you, then, wish to waste all your best powers in this eternal and futile worship of the past, from which you emerge fatally exhausted, shrunken, beaten down?”

We know the environment is also competitive and cutthroat, and extremely problematic are issues of race and class, which also makes the Bay Area a central node for both social innovation and social unrest to the extent of outright riot (ex 1., ex. 2.).

We can also point towards other stars outside of the valley, from the transformative Mount Vernon and Shattuck St. Mary’s to the upstart Iowa BIG, Watershed, Big Picture Learning, Nuvu Studio, the latter allowed the luxury of developing an ecosystem from scratch.

But it’s the thoughtfulness, warmth, and calculated elegance with which organizations dedicated to learning employ empathy driven design thinking and lean methodology to engage in the messy process of transforming ecosystems along I-280 that makes a visit there so thrilling, as the area offers such a concentration of schools and school partners prepared shape the continued brilliance of the Bay Area for years to come.

Thanks to community members at the Hillbrook School for the warm welcome, Durell Coleman of DCDesign for an engaging tour of the d.school, Signo Uddenberg for exposure to MKThink and its work, and everyone who worked so hard to put together the Innovative Learning Conference at Nueva. And thanks to Annie Wright for dedicating the time and resources to make this experience happen.

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Group Process Resources


Here’s the final of our five post series on group process and collaboration. For context, here are links to the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Collaboration is never delegation. Instead, it’s a constant negotiation between task and maintenance, between roles and goals, and between humans who want to work together to make positive impact, on each other and their tasks.  There’s still thought to be put towards this and activities and language to teach and employ, but these are a few first steps we might take to teach everyone to harness the productive tension in groups in order to accomplish our goals. Here’s my reading list, both past and present, that is helping push the very early foundations of a group dynamics curriculum that you see emerge in this series of posts. Click on each link to be directed towards a short description or the source itself.

Paradoxes of Group Life, by Kenwyn K. Smith (for learning about the central, necessary tensions in groups)

Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott (for increased knowledge and skills for conversation and collaboration)

Leadership and Design Studio’s Task-Maintenance Cards (pictured above in their prototype versions–not yet available for distribution.)

Gamestorming, by Dave Gray (for a series of ideas and activities to accelerate group process)

The University of Victoria’s Human Resources Department’s Manager’s Toolkit (for more on The Waterline Model)

The University of Pittsburgh’s Speaking Within the Disciplines (for more details on the specific functional task and maintenance roles we might adopt)

The Ten Faces of Innovation, by Tom Kelley and Jonathon Littman (for various group roles we might strive to fulfill)

The Six Thinking Hats, by Edward De Bono (for various group roles we might strive to fulfill)

For anyone who has studied organizational behavior, you’ll know there are even more appropriate professional and academic texts regarding organizational and behavioral management (and please! write them below in the comment section of this blog!). But, with easier reading comes faster experimentation. We won’t grow our ability to facilitate groups (or teach facilitation) but over-preparing.

Instead, drop Task-Maintenance into your next group project, see how your group takes on the language, and make an action plan from there.We’re happy to help facilitate this process (and other group tension creating and mitigating activities)

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Why Groups & Libraries?

This is the fourth post in a five post series on helping learners navigate group life. Here are the first, second, and third posts.

Why Library? 

Previously, we’ve posted on the increase in attention inquiry has received given how inquiry equips students with a process of learning that they can use to navigate ambiguous tasks. We’ve also positioned the library as a central space for inquiry, a space that’s equipped with various tools, informational resources, and places to make inquiry happen.

While it’s crucial that individuals learn how to learn through the inquiry process, it’s as important that individuals learn how to learn in groups. After all, it’s a big world and the problems are too many to rely on solo master inquirers to solve them for us. Instead, we’ll need people who are equipped to work in groups and facilitate groups masterfully as each individual brings a unique body of knowledge and skillset to aid group success. If each of our learners is pursuing individual lines of inquiry based on their interest in a particular topic, then we’ll have opportunity to team several up for a project experience so they can teach each other and learn a topic even more holistically.

I’ve always said that libraries are spaces for conversations with a text and with another person. Collaboration is just a specialized conversation the library can help facilitate.

The Co-Lab:

In fact, the Annie Wright Schools Parents’ Association was kind enough to donate funds necessary to flip the librarian’s office into the Co-Lab, a collaboration laboratory that groups in our community can book to enhance maintenance and tasks. The seating is flexible, the windows are writeable, and with a little advanced notice, it comes equipped with supplies and facilitators that can make your group fly. Attendees can learn how they might use four spatial factors to modify a room to suit their meeting’s goals. They might learn about task-maintenance, or they might learn how to use various activities and techniques to proactively encounter group challenges.

Group Life at AWS

This series of posts isn’t to say that we don’t teach collaborative skills elsewhere in school. In fact, we’ve been doing such fantastic work with teamwork for many years. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Our 4th Grade completes an entire inquiry unit on “How We Organize Ourselves,” where they explore leadership in their community and build teamwork skills that they use for the rest of the year.
  • Our 2nd grade works on team skills as they design their own team experience in their normal classrooms but also for their physical education experience.
  • Our IB Business course helps students practice team-building and team success as they develop proposals and business plans.

Of course, there are many other instances of how we help our learners learn group skills, but these are just a few of the highlights I have seen in my short term as librarian!

Next Post: Further Reading on Group Process

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Practicing Group Life

This is the third post in a five-post series on Group Life. For the first post, click here. For the second post, click here.

Today’s workshop was speedy, but it featured introductions to several techniques we might use with groups. Some will stimulate thought on how groups work. Some will be readymade for learners to use as they work on group facilitation skills. Here’s a brief description of each one and how they might align with stages of maintenance on The Waterline Model.

Prop To Y: Give a group early confidence in its ability to succeed by providing low-stakes tasks they can easily master. Prop To Y requires a set of props and a pile of notecards, each card with a verb phrase on them. Then, groups are randomly assigned a prop and a notecard and asked to answer this question: How Can You Use this Prop to Do Y. The group will have five minutes to create a plan to share with another team.

Task-Maintenance Spectrum: Groups should perform continual maintenance to understand each individual better. In the early days of a group, it’s useful to understand where each member falls on a spectrum between task and maintenance. Who cares more about how the group works together? Who cares more about getting stuff done? Arrange yourself along this spectrum (it’s not necessarily a polar choice), see where your teammates fall, and talk out why you’ve placed yourself where you have.

Roles & Goals Fishbowl:  After reviewing the Waterline Model, have one of the many groups in the room sit in the middle of the room with everyone else watching. Then, ask that group to discuss how they want to work together as a team. You can pepper that group with questions, but you should also write acts of Task and Maintenance that you witness the group performing. You might even ask others watching the interaction to do the same just so we come to an operating understanding about how to view Task and Maintenance occurring in a group. Of course, the entire conversation is pointed towards maintenance, but there are tasks that always be seen when the group will converse.

Signature Presence: How do I look/talk/act/think when I’m performing at my best in a group? How do I look/talk/act/think when I’m at my worst in a group? Your Signature Presence is your special uniqueness you bring to a group situation. By asking and answering these questions and letting your teammates know, you’ll enhance the support your group can offer you. Bill will know when Mary’s on fire and when he should stop and listen for a bit. Or, Bill might notice that something’s bothering Mary, so he’ll stop task and perform maintenance to bring Mary back to her signature presence.

Speedback: On the count of three, point to the leader in your group. Discuss. On three, point to the person you feel most comfortable with right now. Discuss. On three, point to the person you’d like to hear from next. Finger-vote: on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being “beta-fish collaborate better than we do” and 5 being “we’re thoughtful, considerate all-stars!” show how you feel your group works together.

The goal of speedback is to get quick reads on how the group feels about its process. Some speedback can clarify roles and goals, while some speedback helps analyze group dynamics. Some speedback even points out the elephant in the room. Hey, the elephant is there: we might as well point it out so we work together to usher it out the door.

Johari’s Window: 

Graphic from Mindtools.com’s article, “The Johari Window: Using Self-Discovery and Communication to Build Trust.” Click the graphic to be transported to the article.

When you push this far into the Waterline Model, maintenance will dive deep, but maintenance will also become highly productive. Johari’s Window asks all group members to acknowledge what they think they know about themselves that no one else knows, what they know about themselves that they think everyone else knows, and finally, the blindspot: what others know about an individual that that individual doesn’t know. Group members should actively strive to close their blind spots in order to improve group functionality. This last one I didn’t ask the entire faculty to complete. Instead, I passed a Johari Window about myself to let faculty fill out, and I made copies of the Window in case a brave group wanted to take this next step.

We practiced several other group process techniques, and not every group practiced every single technique. However, these are a sampling of the techniques that were introduced. Some are tools that we can all implement in our group experiences, and some are experiences that ask individuals to reflect more deeply on how they operate in groups.

We ended the workshop wondering: which techniques, tools and language should we help our students adopt and use, and which techniques, tools, and language should we adults facilitate for our kids?

The Next Post: Why Library, and Why Inquiry?

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The Waterline Model

Here’s the second of our five post series on Group Process. For the first post outlining the importance of group skills and the basic language of groups, do click here.

The Waterline Model

“Let’s take a break. Would anyone like some coffee?” You’ll see individuals and groups make early efforts at performing group maintenance by fulfilling human needs, and maintenance can and should be even more complex. The Waterline Model offers an action plan for how we might perform group maintenance proactively and productively.

From “Positive Goals, OD Resources: Supporting Positive Transformation for Organizations”

Here’s how it works: you and your group are sailing along the sea of performing tasks. At some point, your group will encounter a problem, and you’ll have to lower sails on task to perform some maintenance on the group.

Oftentimes, our first step towards solving a group’s problems is to blame an individual: “Joe’s a real boor to work with!”

However, the Waterline Model is much more sagely. Hit a group challenge? Our first priority should be to clarify roles and goals.

That didn’t work? Let’s analyze whether we’re all included in the discussion or whether we’re operating with the optimum procedure for making decisions.

So, the model encourages us to hold off questioning interpersonal problems or an intrapersonal problem until all else has failed. After all, if your group has to focus on a conflict between two members, you’re completely off-task. Be proactive, perform easier and earlier maintenance, and lay the foundation for a successful, confident, functioning group.

Want bonus points for group facilitation? Too often, meeting facilitators start sessions on task, rather than on maintenance. Or, if we do start on maintenance, it lacks authenticity or surprise.

Don’t assume roles and goals are clear with everyone, and be conscious to group dynamics, how they might have changed since your last session, and how they might evolve throughout.

So, perform Group Maintenance. Always First.

Next Up: Techniques & Tool-Kits for The Waterline Model

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I Love Group Life. I Hate Group Life.

In the coming week, I’ll be leading a workshop on group process with our US faculty as they explore inquiry and its best practices. The Library Co-Lab will also feature its Grand Opening Event with the AWSPA. In celebration, I’ve written a series of posts on group process  and its important to inquiry and, in turn, library. In advance, I’d like to credit Greg Bamford and Ryan Burke for introducing me to many/most of the ideas and techniques expressed in this series. My experience working with the Leadership + Design Studio was invaluable for having the time/space to take risks with putting these ideas into practice. 

I love group life. I hate group life. That’s the paradoxical reaction each and every one of us face on a daily basis, and it’s one that we are too often ill-equipped to navigate.

This week, the Upper School faculty and I will be using our Late Start to demonstrate how lessons and exercises on group dynamics might be woven into inquiry-based learning. Collaborative Skills are one of many 21st Century Skills* we’re working to develop with our learners at AWS. Often, you’ll see curricula that weaves group skill growth into “Life Skills,” or you’ll even see entire courses commited to growing leadership, especially at the college or professional school levels.

However, we’re looking to find avenues to integrate that skill set as one of the core literacies we help students develop. That way, learners will see transfer: how group skills matter for any pursuit we undertake, whether it’s biology, chemistry, world studies, or business (but really, don’t we all pursue a concoction of them all?).

So, what’s up with group life? Why’s it so hard? In the week’s posts, you’ll find how the Upper School will be working through these issues and ideas on Wednesday. After all, our Upper School faculty are in the midst of their own collaborative inquiry project focused on stress, and we have an inkling there’ll be opportunity to resolve distracting group tension and raise productive group tension as we complete our own inquiry work.

Task and Maintenance

Too often, we’re left without a vocabulary with which to frame our group experiences.

To solve this problem, we’ll introduce an easy dichotomy to use with each other and also our students:

Task: the action items a group accomplishes in order to reach a goal.

Maintenance: the actions a group undergoes to maintain its harmony or functionality.

Groups perform tasks (we must do x and y), but groups also perform maintenance (how might we work best together?). Just as tasks are consistently completed and morphed by groups, maintenance needs to consistently occur, even among those groups that have been established for long periods of time.

Each participant in a group sits somewhere on a spectrum between being completely task-oriented (“I pride myself in getting stuff done”) and maintenance-oriented (“I’m always worried about how we work together on this stuff”).  Even though there are specific task-maintenance roles individuals might feel more comfortable in, everyone should learn to adopt several roles responsively, as roles can change from group to group, from project to project, or even from day to day.

Unfortunately, we all exist in environments that reward tasks, while successful maintenance is much more difficult (although possible) to identify and incentivize.

Can we stay on task? Might we stop for maintenance?

Even though we might teach such terms to those who won’t always transition into environments that also use this same language, at the very least, we’ll provide two terms that’ll help our learners step into the murkier, more ambiguous areas of group process: how might we perform maintenance to assure successful completion of tasks. Once we’re equipped with a basic, operating language of groups, we can start to take control of how we process groups. Nothing is more empowering to navigate group life than knowing terms we can attach our feelings and experiences to. Task and maintenance helps just that.

Next Post: The Waterline Model & How Maintenance (Should) Work.

*I know, I know: the term “21st Century Learning” or “21st Century Skills” can receive a bad rap: aren’t these the skills we’ve always instilled in our learners? I’ve seen “New Knowledge Skills” gaining momentum, as these allude to the skills we need to develop when we work in environments where information is easily accessed and we need to learn to navigate that increasingly complex web of information to create knowledge and action within our communities.

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