Best practices for 21st-century teaching and learning

When people play games, especially when we come together to play games, there’s a meaningful context for content that students may not embrace otherwise. I’ve used different games (including World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Portal 2 and Sims) in different contexts at all grade levels at many of our schools.

Good games engage players in deep problem-solving — often involving trial-and-error thinking — that encourages deeper levels of understanding than they can get from a lecture. When you add the social element of multiplayer games, the experience becomes even richer, encompassing collaborative problem-solving, communication skills, and much more.

In addition to the games, we can gamify curriculum. We designed lessons as a series of mini quests, each awarding small amounts of experience points that allowed players to level-up in the class, acquire ranks/titles, and ultimately unlock badges to showcase their accomplishments. This type curriculum encourages social-learning experiences, focuses on reflective writing, publishing work online for specific audiences, and engaging through a variety of digital media.

Online career and technical education

The specific skills I place emphasis upon are employability skills in the workplace. I devote much time to workplace communication, both written and verbal. I also focus on employability skills such a dependability, honesty, integrity and ethics in the workplace.

I use virtual business simulations for Accounting, Business Management, Hotel Management, Personal Finance, Restaurant Management, Retailing, and Sports and Entertainment Management. I also offer students more than 70 online career and technology courses. The adage about textbooks is true. When published and released, they are obsolete. The software I use is constantly upgraded and revised. It is relevant and poignant for the present-day world of work.

Both software suites are designed for an individual educational experience, which necessitates a hands-on approach by the student. Online educational software is not a fad or a soon-to-be-forgotten method of instruction. It is the future of education!

Early education

To give our students the best possible chance at success in a changing world, when I became superintendent of schools in the summer of 2012, I put together a team of administrators, parents and teachers to create a vision for the district called “Empowering 21st-Century Learners.”

We are making our vision a reality in two ways. I have a strong focus on early learning, and a big part of that is early literacy. We worked with our digital literacy platform to launch an initiative called “Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads,” so kids who are 0–3 can download books and read them for free.

We also teach robotics and STEAM starting in kindergarten, and are now including 3- and 4-year-olds. With the help of an engineer, our youngest students are building a Mars rover — a modular car that they can put together and drive. The rover will have a handle that controls a claw so students can learn by picking up blocks with numbers and letters on them. We will have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and systems engineers to help build the rover and take it through an obstacle course. As far as I know, nobody in the world is bringing this level of STEAM and robotics to 3- and 4-year-olds.

Project-based learning

In our basic skills class, each teacher chooses a performance task from the hundreds of online options. They spend three weeks focused on a cross-curricular, holistic project that not only tests students’ cognitive ability, but also teaches them life skills and allows for hands-on career exploration. When students complete the task, they rotate and start a new project with a new teacher.

I love CSI and the detailed processes that go into solving a crime, so I created a Crime Scene Investigator lesson. I thought, “What is the best way to give my students hands-on experience when they obviously can’t go to a real crime scene?” Soon, the stairway of our school turned into a life-size crime scene complete with caution tape, splattered fake blood and a lone shoe next to a body outlined with spray paint.

Using online task materials, each group of students became experts in areas including bite-mark analysis, lifting fingerprints using a fingerprint kit from the local police department, and collecting DNA samples. Each specialist group then presented their findings to the class so every student was able to learn different aspects of analyzing a crime scene. The class prepared its evidence into a full crime report as if it was going to be analyzed in court. To solve the crime as a team, they used skills from all subjects, including collaborative problem-solving, making precise measurements, creative writing, and presenting their research and findings to the class.

Students will never truly learn creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration out of a textbook. They have to experience them for themselves.