A conservative guide to 21st Century Learning – Step 1: Draw your curriculum crossword

New York, 1913

Despite thousands of initiatives around the world (think: PBL – UDL – DESIGN THINKING – SEL – BLENDED – SAMR), it remains difficult to change the hearts and minds and especially habits of most schools and their communities to change or modernise their priorities for learning in the 21st century. After all, we’ve spent 100 years developing what we think school is and should be. I speak from experience having tried many initiatives myself as a school leader. Those experiences have helped me become a stronger leader and very much a realist. I am enjoying the challenge of helping teachers move their practice forward in ways they agree with and that keeps the community comfortable. It is also crucial to minimise or eliminate adding extra workload to teachers who have suffered from having to deal with so many initiatives over the last 20 years.

To choose one first step for a school still practising essentially the traditional 20th-century model of separate lessons in separate subject silos, I have found it useful to use analogy of crossword in doing something that many schools have tried but not maintained long term. The first crossword appeared in 1913 in New York and as we all know became an extremely popular challenge format copied by all newspapers and tackled by hundreds of millions of people every week to the extent that you can now purchase entire books of these word puzzles. 

When you think about it, a crossword is just a list of academic challenges, often unrelated to each other but challenges that can simply be answered on their own if you have the right kind of practice and mind for doing so. 

It seems to me that crosswords became popular across the world and not purely cryptic quizzes because of the important role the grid plays in the popularity of these Academic challenges. 

  1. The first of three benefits the grid brings is it makes visible a big picture of a journey you are just about to embark on that is mapped out before you. 
  2. The second benefit is the sense of progress as you complete that journey, after all people don’t set down to simply answer the individual academic challenges, they sit down to complete the whole crossword itself. 
  3. The third and crucial role the grid plays is giving a place and purpose to each academic challenge. It is less about each piece of academic achievement and more about how they all fit together and link to complete the big picture.

So the real question is why go to the extra effort of having to produce a grid of white squares to put the answers in. After all, good crossword aficionados could simply list the answers to all the cryptic clues.

It seems to me that crosswords became popular across the world and not purely cryptic quizzes because of the important role the grid plays in the popularity of these Academic challenges. The first of three benefits the grid brings is it makes visible a big picture of a journey you are just about to embark on is mapped out before you. The second benefit is the sense of progress as you complete that journey, after all people don’t set down to simply answer the individual academic challenges, they sit down to complete the whole crossword itself. The third and crucial role the grid plays is giving a place and purpose to each academic challenge. It is less about each piece of academic achievement and more about how they all fit together and link to complete the big picture.

So together academic challenges and a map or big picture form a really popular challenge scenario.

Without a map or big picture we can all appreciate that the academic challenges themselves would only be popular with the sort of pure academic who already does very well in the existing school setting, happy and content with random academics without the need for purpose or place.

Present the bigger picture, the learning journey and help transfer skills and knowledge between classrooms.

So that’s what brings me to what normal school looks like and why it’s not so popular. It also leads me to the first easy step that doesn’t threaten teachers with any new approaches to teaching but just asks school leaders to ensure the school curriculum is presented as a cross-referenced big picture journey. This is simple to do as themes and links are easy for teachers to find and even make for a fun professional activity.  Published curriculum crossword maps help teachers reference the linkages to material being studied elsewhere and helps the students transfer knowledge and skills between the silos.

So without changing your curriculum and without asking teachers to do anything but teach what they already do, your school and build a semester or term curriculum map showing students and teachers all the obvious crossovers in skills are knowledge. Students can then effectively complete a big picture journey as they go through semester to giving more purpose in place to put often feels like a random set of academics.

The off-shoot of taking this first step is that teachers start to connect and make curriculum connections which can lead to conversations and exploring how to take things to the next level. To give this idea an research foundation, John Hattie has argued for a decade that his meta-data research combining hundreds of millions of school achievement results around the world shows that teacher shared efficacy has the single most powerful impact on learning and achievement. This is the idea that teachers view their role as part of a whole-school team with a share vision for educating learners rather than an isolated individual subject specialists in separate classrooms. 

Here’s an example: Natural links between topics.