A Library-sponsored forum on K-12 education, which explored use of digital materials to promote critical thinking and creativity and standards to ensure mastery of essential curriculum, achieved a consensus among speakers and panelists that you really can’t have one without the other.
The forum, titled “American Education in the Digital Age and Beyond: A Discussion for the 21st Century,” was recorded, and is now available for viewing on the Library’s website at: www.loc.gov/webcasts/. The event, held on March 16, was the second in a series of high-level discussions organized by the Library in partnership with the group Strong American Schools. Funding for the event was generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington welcomed the capacity audience of 100 participants and guests by describing how the Library’s digitized primary sources and teaching resources have empowered teachers and sparked critical-thinking skills in our nation’s students.
“The unchanging mission of this Library—America’s oldest federal cultural institution—is to make its resources available and useful to Congress and the American people,” Billington said. “What has changed, and dramatically so, in the last 20 years is the way in which this de facto national library of the United States is carrying out its historic mission” in the current digital environment, he said.
He introduced Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh, who noted that long-term studies of how people learn and how they apply their learning show that the brain’s faculties for critical thought and creativity must be exercised in an environment of specific knowledge and facts in order to bring about a productive result.
“We now have about 40 years of hard evidence that you can’t get the thinking skills without content of some kind, but it also goes the other way—you can’t learn the facts in a way that will stick” without interpretive thinking, she said.
Although there has been debate in the education community in recent years that effectively pits creative thinking against a standards-based approach, Resnick said, true, useful learning occurs only when both sides of that equation meet and are put to use in a student’s mind.
She showed a video of 10th-grade students engaged in a learning mode known as “accountable talk” that requires them to discuss course material in ways that force them to give reasons why they adopt a position, to defend it, and offer them chances to think about it in alternate ways. This approach boosts critical thinking but requires a good basis in the facts, she noted.
The forum’s first panel discussion featured presentations from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program, highlighting use of the Library’s digitized collections to enhance 21st-century learning skills in the classroom. Author and consultant Kristen J. Amundson moderated the panel whose members included three TPS program directors and three teacher participants in the TPS program representing the elementary-, middle- and high-school grade levels.
The panelists discussed content and modeled practice for developing critical thinking skills using the Library’s digitized primary sources in classroom instruction. Lisa Allan, a fourth-grade teacher from Northern Virginia, described how the unique nature of primary sources helps to engage students of diverse social and economic backgrounds, including English language learners, in inquiry and critical thinking.
Courtney L. Kisat, a middle-school social-studies teacher at the Jonesboro School in southern Illinois, shared her experiences using the Library’s online resources to help bridge the digital divide that still exists in this rural, economically depressed region. Kisat described how using the Library’s collections of historic maps prompts students to discuss and investigate local history. Carrie Veatch, a high-school social studies teacher at Colorado’s Vilas Online School, discussed strategies for using primary sources to help guide her geographically dispersed students toward developing 21st-century skills.
“You can get so much more out of primary sources than the tiny amount that is written in a textbook,” Veatch noted. She offered as an example a course question that required students to hunt on the Internet for primary sources on the League of Nations. Not only were documents there, she said, but there was a sound file from the early days of the 20th century of League opponent Henry Cabot Lodge delivering a speech against the concept.
Another class identified an Alexander Graham Bell experiment, outlined in one of his notebooks, and reproduced the experiment themselves, she said.
The second panel, titled “Content and Approach for a 21st Century Education,” was introduced by former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who served as superintendent of Los Angeles Schools after his term ended in Colorado. The panel included Jon Erickson, vice-president for educational services at ACT; Elena Silva, senior policy analyst for the group Education Sector; Natasha Vasavada, senior director of standards and curriculum alignment services at the College Board; and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Brian Kelly of U.S. News and World Report moderated the panel.
The panelists discussed the formation of common standards that combine content knowledge with skills such as critical thinking. Wilhoit described a movement toward voluntary common standards, especially in math and language arts. The other panelists discussed the supports needed to successfully deliver and assess this type of learning, for example, with teacher professional development, the use of technology, and coherence from elementary through high school.
The forum concluded with a keynote address from Marshall S. “Mike” Smith, Senior Counselor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He underscored the fundamental importance of “learning how to learn” and the significance of providing access to rich and openly-available content, such as the Library of Congress’ vast digitized collections. Smith outlined in detail the strategy that the U. S. Department of Education will use to motivate clusters of states to raise their content standards, terming it a “race to the top” funded by the largest infusion of funding for the Department of Education since its creation—$100 billion provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Three attendees associated with the Library’s James Madison Council also were present. Members Glenn Jones and Consuelo Duroc Danner were joined by Judy Johnson, executive director of the Cotsen Foundation. (Lloyd Cotsen is a Madison Council member.)
Geraldine Otremba, Elizabeth Ridgway, Stacie Moats and Vivien Awumey contributed to this article.