How Schools Are Changing to Meet 21st Century Needs

Local private schools incorporate new skills to prepare students for the future.
Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong


There’s no doubt about it: Kids are different these days. By the time they don a backpack for their first day of kindergarten, the next generation can navigate through your smart phone, demand recycled juice boxes and access more information more quickly than any generation in history. 


So what are Hawai‘i’s independent schools doing to keep pace with these students of the future?


A lot, it turns out. Hawai‘i is in the vanguard of 21st century learning efforts, reinventing the way we look at education, brick by brick, from curriculum to teaching to the very buildings that students learn in. 


“Looking back on the past four years, we have witnessed one of the most productive and creative periods ever for our private school community,” says Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools (HAIS). Take a field trip with us through some of these innovative classrooms, and see what the future of independent education holds.


Changing the Subject

The future of education is in revamping the traditional learning model, where students simply memorize information presented by teachers and recall it on a test. Independent school statewide are moving to this approach.


“When I was in school, I sat in a chair and a teacher stood in front of the room and talked. The teacher had curriculum, presented it, and then I took a test to see if I’d mastered it,” says Dr. Philip Bossert, director of the Schools of the Future program, a joint effort between HAIS and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. The program provides grants to some of the schools that are shifting to 21st century learning methods.


The problem with the traditional education model, Bossert says, is that it’s not a good gauge of what a student understands.


“All of us have access to Google to find information. Why waste time memorizing? What kids need for a future work environment isn’t facts about history, but the skills to discover, to authenticate, to make sense of and to summarize information about history,” he says.


This changes the skills at the core of education, focusing on critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate ideas and work collaboratively in a group to solve problems.


“I’ve fundamentally changed as a teacher,” says Russell Motter, chair of the history department at ‘Iolani School. “I’m not teaching history anymore. I’m teaching students to be historians,” he says.


“Parents call me to say, ‘I can have a conversation with my kids at the dinner table now, because the things in your classroom are relevant and come up in conversation.’ That’s great feedback,” says Motter.


Simply put, trends in 21st century education have three things in common: “They transform classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered, from content-based learning to project-based learning and from test-based assessment to performance-based assessment,” Bossert says.

  Bye, bye blackboard: HPA’s Energy Lab inspires student innovation with a non-traditional classroom.

Bye, bye blackboard: HPA’s Energy Lab inspires student innovation with a non-traditional classroom. 
Photo: Dana Edmunds 


Students First

The idea of putting the student in the driver’s seat may, at first, sound a little scary. But rest assured, it doesn’t mean that students run amok.


Rather, it means the students are active participants every step of the way.


“It’s about making connections and asking the right questions so they think through and process information. They take ownership for their learning, as opposed to a teacher just kind of spewing information,” says Dee Priester, principal of Mid-Pacific Institute’s middle school.


In a student-centered method, teachers assess each student on what they already know, and work to bring them to their next level of learning. Usually, that’s not through straight instruction but through the addition of projects, the content of which is also driven mostly by the students.


“I’m not the sage anymore, I don’t sit there and tell students what to do,” says Edna Hussey, Mid-Pacific’s elementary school principal. “But if I ask students the right questions, I can open up to teaching things I’ve never have thought of before.”


At Hongwanji Mission School, last year’s fourth graders were involved in a worm bin project where they maintained the worms and harvested compost. “They bagged it up and they sold it. They were the ones who decided what to do with their profits. They put money back into the worms but also invested in the aquaponics system that they run,” says JoAnn Jacobs, curriculum coordinator and Schools of the Future lead at the Hongwanji Mission School.


Kids are more engaged in what they’re learning and they want to know more about each topic, says Jacobs.  “So as teachers we keep on going with it. We’re allowed to do that in independent schools. We have the flexibility to innovate.”

  Each eighth grader at Seabury Hall gives a presentation of a personal, yearlong project to an audience of students and parents.

Each eighth grader at Seabury Hall gives a presentation of a personal, yearlong project to an audience of students and parents.
Photo: Courtesy Seabury Hall


Class Project

There is one compelling reason why 21st century teaching focuses on projects: It helps students retain the lessons they learn. “If students have had to develop knowledge through their own research, it’s going to stick with them longer than memorizing facts,” Bossert explains.


At Seabury Hall, eighth grade students have a project that spans an entire year, involving all academic disciplines. “It starts with their history class, teaching them how to research a topic that they choose. Then it transfers to the English department and they have to write a paper on it. The rest of the disciplines build on it,” says Jacque Peterka, Middle School Head at Seabury Hall.


“It starts with their history class, teaching them how to research a topic that they choose. Then it transfers to the English department and they have to write a paper on it. The rest of the disciplines build on it.”
—Jacque Peterka, Middle School Head at Seabury Hall.

“The child goes through the research, the writing, the putting together of a keynote presentation, then they actually get up in front of 200 or 300 people and present it,” Peterka says.


Teaching kids through group projects starts with even the youngest learners. “Independent schools have the flexibility to embrace play through projects,” says Dolores Brockman, who teaches kindergarten at Hanahauoli School.


“It’s as simple as learning about the supermarket. We go to the supermarket, ask the worker about their job, and then play it out in the classroom. We can see how they’ve incorporated the information into what they’re playing, and give them opportunity to collaborate and problem solve,” says Brockman.


Parents need not worry that this will mean that kids won’t be unprepared for the reality of tests like the SATs.


“We still maintain the rigor of the classroom study, then layer on those projects.  Colleges and universities are still a lot of standardized testing so we have to be careful,” says Peterka.


Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong 


Fewer Tests

Most students in traditional classrooms have, at one point or another, politely asked a teacher: “Will this be on the test?” The subtext is, ‘If it’s not on the test, I’m not going to bother to remember it.’ In a future-oriented school, students get back to the point of learning: Mastering whole concepts and putting them in context.


“Instead of regurgitating answers, performance-based assessment is students showing, through performance like a presentation or a designing a solution, that they understand the information,” says Bossert.        


Part of performance-based assessment is having more people involved in the process, including teachers, parents, the students themselves and the student’s peer group. Many projects include presenting information to peers and to parents, developing critical self-assessment skills. “As long as they can reflect on what they’re doing and self-assess, they can adapt and move on in the moment. That’s not easily taught,” says Peterka of Seabury Hall.


It also helps with teamwork. “If they’re working together and collaboratively, they should be able to ask each other: ‘how do you think this turned out?’ and be comfortable asking that question and working together,” Peterka adds.


A Step Ahead

Future schools are oriented towards developing the skills kids need in their future world. But they also can help students assess the course of their own future. At Assets School, sophomores, juniors and seniors can participate in a mentorship program each Wednesday, spent out of the classroom and on a job site.


“It’s an amazing opportunity for these kids to explore different career opportunities,” says Lynda Jackson, whose 17-year-old daughter, Halley, is a senior at Assets and in her third year of mentorship. Last year, Halley was paired with a local photographer. Her friends were placed at job sites like daycare centers, auto body shops and a radio station.


“The mentorship was eye opening,” Jackson says. “Halley saw what it takes to run a business—she spent time filing things, alphabetizing and sweeping. It’s not all glamorous photo shoots.”


“She figured out she doesn’t want to pursue it as a career.  I think it’s just as important to find out what you don’t want to do as what you do want to do,” Jackson says.

  ‘Iolani students get a hands-on approach to learning art.

‘Iolani students get a hands-on approach to learning art. 
Photos: Courtesy ‘Iolani 


Teaching New Tricks

At Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy, there’s one class without a blackboard. In fact, they call it a conference room, not a classroom, which makes sense—equipped as it is with videoconferencing capabilities. The teacher doesn’t have a desk, and the students don’t sit in neat little rows facing front. Some of the class space is even outside. This is the Energy Lab, the first of its kind in Hawai‘i and possibly the U.S., and a fine example of what a future school could look like.


 “When we designed the Energy Lab, we did it as a non-traditional classroom. You’ll know you got it right when you bring a traditional teacher here and they’re a little uncomfortable, because they can’t find the teacher’s desk,” says Dr. Bill Wiecking, the director of the energy Energy Lab and a science teacher.


Students sit in groups and have clusters of video monitors centrally-located for visual aids. “What we need to do is break free of the way we were taught how to be teachers by people in the 1950s and earlier. We’re still figuring it out. But we’re a little bit further down the line and maybe with better flashlights,” Wiecking says.


It’s clear that teaching becomes a more complex process in a future school, so to teach the teachers, HAIS has worked with the education division of Chaminade to develop a new Master’s degree for teachers in instructional leadership.


Like the students they teach, teachers too must learn to embrace teamwork. “Most teachers are isolated in their classrooms. There’s one teacher, they close the door and they’re with one group of students all day long. They don’t get a chance to work with colleagues professionally,” Bossert says. A School of the Future teacher needs to collaborate with colleagues to find the best methods for implementing new instruction, because there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.


A Global Classroom

Certain themes emerge from future-oriented learning environments. Most striking is how children begin to see themselves as part of a larger world—whether the island they live on or the planet itself.


Punahou School’s littlest learners are grasping sustainability, one banana peel at a time.


“We’re taking kindergarteners through the process of farm-to-table,” says Joanne Wong Kam, the K-1 supervisor. “The class followed a banana from the farm to the store and how the leaves were composted and put back to the farm it started with. It teaches why our islands are so special and how we have to watch that balance between nature and what our islands produce,” she says.


In 2009, a classroom visit from a Holocaust survivor spurred a group of ‘Iolani School students to action.


“These kids made an independent connection between the Holocaust and what was going on in Darfur, and asked this woman what she thought about it,” says Russell Motter, history chair.


They took her responses and made a video to raise money and awareness. They brought the skills from their 21st century education to bear—completely outside the classroom environment. They verified facts, interviewed a source, and communicated ideas in a compelling way, choosing a modern medium to do it. The video went viral around the schoolyard. The effort is still ongoing at the school. 


“These kids are making a statement about something going on in the world that they really care about. They’re working collaboratively on something, and there’s this aesthetic value they’re bringing to the table. Kids want the opportunity to express those original thoughts,” Motter says.


“These kids are making a statement about something going on in the world that they really care about.”
—Russell Motter, history chair at ‘Iolani School. 

Robert Witt, HAIS executive director, says that ‘Iolani’s students are in good company. Hawai‘i’s independent schools are putting classroom lessons in the context of human kind. “More than anything else, our students today will be called upon to create and sustain relationships defined by understanding, openness, tolerance, empathy, and kindness,” he says.


The classrooms of independent schools are uniquely equipped to give students that global understanding. With each classroom as unique as the students they nurture, each private schools can—and do—bring their own voice to the conversation about 21st century learning.


This story originally appeared in the 2012 Private School Guide.