Smart Review | Scratch Coding Cards

By Mary Ryerse and Luke Ryerse

What do you get when you combine a deck of cards, a laptop, clear instructions, plus room for creativity? A blended approach to coding and creating.

If you are looking for some hands-on coding activities for upper-elementary age kids, this is a great place to start. Some kids already are familiar with the Scratch website for coding—the addition of the box of The Scratch Coding Cards provides a structure that takes them beyond “click and guess” to having a set of instructions that tie the process together.

Analogous to a set of recipe cards that can be adapted or combined, the Scratch Coding Cards were created by lead developer Natalie Rusk and her team at the MIT Media Lab, with the goal of providing an inviting entry point to Scratch. This kid-friendly approach to coding—used by millions of kids around the world—allows young people to program their own interactive stories, games and animations.

The focus of this blog—co-written by our 9-year-old, Luke and myself—is on our experience testing it out.


We started by downloading the app within our Chrome browser, inserting the memory card and putting something on there. Instructions were solid enough to get it done

Luke and I selected certain cards from a colorful 75-card deck to create a variety of interactive programming projects. With the cards at our side, and a laptop in front of us, we created a simple soccer game, made a dancing version of his name, and still and have a few more projects on our list (e.g. creating a virtual pet and playing hide-and-seek).

The cards gave us step-by-step instructions to start coding. The front of the card showed us the main idea of the activity (like animating a character or object). The back gave the “how-to” of putting together code blocks to make the project come to life!

Front of Card:

Back of Card:


What Mom liked best about this set:

  1. Hands-on and blended. As a mom of three boys, I know hands-on activities are important. Sometimes a screen by itself can be challenging. It was great to have step-by-step instructions at our fingertips.
  2. Classic color coding. The cards are clear and organized – reminds me of a combination of Lego instructions, a set of recipes, and Uno cards (a bit oversimplified, but you get the idea). The color coding and organization make the projects easy to follow.
  3. Independent work. Luke could do 90% of the process independently.
  4. Reinforcing the right things. I liked that the kind of skills we hope kids learn – thinking creatively, reasoning systematically, and working collaboratively are all reinforced and practiced.
  5. Dose of persistence and SEL training. The cards weren’t always easy, so Luke needed to apply his social emotional learning (SEL) skills and stay positive – and even ask for some help.

Overall, I liked the fact that  I could take 10-15 minutes to help Luke get logged in and started, and then he was independent in both his motivation and his coding.


I really liked having the cards. I had tried coding with Scratch before but the cards made it easier. Here’s what I liked:

Stack of cards.I liked that I could draw from the cards instead of just looking at a blank screen.

Instructions. They helped me get further by giving me more ideas of what to code.

Creativity. It made me learn different things. It helped me think of creative things I’ve never seen before or thought of before. I didn’t know I could pick my background from a picture I took myself.

Helpful tips. There were helpful tips that I didn’t have to use but I could if wanted.

Sometimes I got frustrated because I wanted to do it a way different than the instructions. But I know I also learned more because of how the cards told me the steps. I would tell my friends to use, especially some of my buddies who like to code.

For more fun activities to do with your kids, check out:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner.

Work Worth Doing

As a senior at SAMI, the Tacoma school at the zoo, Kennedy started a study group called America Through the Lens of Blackness during a Friday afternoon block called Adventures & Applications.

In 2014, Scott was one of the first high school students to be certified by leading robotics manufacturers at RAMTEC in Marion, Ohio, in 2014. Honda paid for his college while he earned a good wage training youth and adults. He got a big raise when he graduated and gets another big bump when he becomes Honda certified. Scott hopes to return to RAMTEC to teach.

At Cesar Chavez in Washington, D.C., seniors develop and present a thesis. James (left) studied the school-to-prison pipeline. Nicolas (center) became an advocate for Syrian refugees. SaDaja (right) unlocked causes of childhood obesity.

Jarrod was an unmotivated freshman at a traditional high school. As a sophomore, he caught fire at One Stone, an innovative new Boise high school where he learned to code and take responsibility for his learning.

“If the project doesn’t work out I don’t get a C, I continue working on that project until it works,” said Jared. “There’s no sitting back and giving up. You have to finish the project. You have ownership of the project.”

One Stone runs after-school programs where Boise youth produce world class products and services. Former students like Parth (below) report that quality is a function of feedback from peer leaders, coaches and, most importantly, from clients.

What do these varied stories have in common? They are examples of young people doing good work. Through formal and informal learning they had access to opportunity, time and support to go deep, and voice and choice in shaping the experiences. They received honest feedback in a supportive place with a culture of revision.

“For the rest of their lives, young people will be judged on the quality of their character and the quality of their work,” said Ron Berger, CAO at EL Education. “We should be supporting and compelling students to do well-crafted work that makes them, their families and their communities proud.”

Why Does Good Work Matter?

Following is a quick recap of what’s happening:

1. We live on an exponential curve. Moore’s law packed more transistors on chips, doubling computing power every two years and making computing, storage and access almost free. While Moore’s law may finally fail, it looks like quantum is next.

2. Platforms rule the world. We live, learn, work and play on platforms–ecosystems of users where everyone is a producer, where trust is conveyed and value is transacted.

3. Everyone & everything is connected. More than 8 billion devices are connected today, 20 (perhaps 50) billion by 2020. Sensors on one airplane throw off more data in a day than Facebook (when it turned the corner on a billion users).

4. Exponential tech + platforms + data = AI breakthroughs. A confluence of tech trends accelerates progress in artificial intelligence (AI). Rather than coding solutions, you feed large data sets into artificial intelligence apps and it learns how to perform tasks better and quicker than expert humans. Big recent breakthroughs include game play, image recognition and translation.

5. AI + big data + enabling tech = new employment landscape. A new generation of enabling technologies that leverage AI is changing employment:

  • AI + robots = industry 4.0 (local custom manufacturing)
  • AI + cameras + sensors = self-driving cars
  • AI + sensors + bioinformatics maps = precision medicine
  • AI + CRISPR = genome editing
  • AI + chatbots = personalized retail

6. AI will help solve big problems. The good news is that AI will help solve the world’s grand challenges and produce massive global benefit

7. AI may be a big threat. There will be waves of job loss (but different by sector/geography), more surveillance and less privacy, and growing income inequity. It may even pose “a fundamental existential risk for human civilization,” said Elon Musk.

8. There’s never been a better time to make a difference. It’s never been easier to code an app, start a business or launch a campaign. The open tools available to everyone get better every month.

It’s clear that AI is the biggest force reshaping life and livelihoods–and every high school and college student should be well versed in its implications.

What Does It Mean?

Waves of novelty and complexity are headed our way. What does it mean? What should young people know and be able to do to be contributors in the face of uncertainty?

“The two things we should teach kids are how to lead and how to solve interesting problems,” said Seth Godin.

The fundamental changes underway suggest eight next steps.

1. Update your graduate profile. Districts, networks and schools nationwide are holding community conversations and updating their desired learner outcomes. One of our favorite elementary schools is Katherine Smith in San Jose. Below are their priority outcomes, promoting deeper learning and laying the foundation for their project-based approach.

2. Focus on learner experience. Consider the kinds of experiences likely to produce desired outcomes. If student agency, collaboration, initiative and problem-solving are a priority they call for extended community connected challenges.

3. Personalized learning. Blending tools like adaptive learning make it possible to create unique pathways for every student. But we should avoid just replacing paper worksheets with digital worksheets. Students should use digital tools to produce not just consume.

4. Competency-based learning. In competency (or proficiency, mastery, performance) based systems, students show what they know in periodic demonstrations of learning and they progress based on mastery. We want students to progress as quickly as possible without racing–prioritizing speed over depth.

5. Focus on character and quality work. As Ron Berger said, young people will be judged on the quality of their character and work product. The good news is that these are not expensive; the bad news is that they are not easy. At Katherine Smith character and quality are a product of student agency, goal setting, learning targets, driving questions, trust, culture of revision, student led conferences and tours, public art, exhibitions and portfolios.

6. Leverage teacher leaders. Given the challenges of personalized learning, it’s more important than ever to identify and leverage teacher leaders.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 uses a distributed management approach that empowers employees to take a leadership role and make meaningful decisions. The rules are transparent and roles and structures are regularly updated through small iterations.

7. Work together in networks. New learning models are complicated. Schools should work together in districts and networks that share learning models, platform tools and professional learning opportunities.

8. Encourage work worth doing. “The way you teach your kids to solve interesting problems is to give them interesting problems to solve,” said Seth Godin.

We’re at a period of reconsideration in American education when it’s not only possible but critical that we ask again “what should young people know and be able to do?” We have the opportunity to help young people shape work worth doing and create environments where that work is done well and shared widely.

We should help young people become good problem finders not just problem solvers; we should empower them with empathy, creativity and a spirit of craftsmanship.

Are we assigning and supporting worth that students will remember in 20 years? Will it result in public products that their families and communities will be proud of?

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Building the Future: Designing With Purpose

As Getting Smart’s Director of Coaching, I find relevance in the application of design thinking to multiple aspects of my life, whether in formal or informal learning environments. My most recent “aha” moment was delivered by the purchase of a “new” old home. The home is located close to our kids’ schools and family, with a price that was affordable, but it had been unoccupied for a period that exceeded 5 years—during which time it received minimal maintenance by the property management group that had been tasked with upkeep.

As we went through the remodel of this home, I was met with an exciting collision of relevance and crossover with my professional passion of designing innovative learning experiences. While there is a great deal of stress associated with completely remodeling a home (just like with expanding opportunities to provide learners and whole systems with innovative change), there is also a great deal of “pride of ownership” around the journey and delivered outcome. There are a handful of other relevant connections which, once I found the courage to take them on, provided a great opportunity to grow and learn. My translated insights are outlined below.



Be clear on your “why.”

First things first. In all aspects of design, it is important to spend time discovering your “why”. As provided in Simon Sinek’s nationally recognized best seller, Start with Why, “Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention.” Spend time with all stakeholders (family in this life scenario) and emphasize the “who” that will be served within the design you are creating. Be confident in continuously revisiting your why and know that it will evolve with the process. Your why is the living, breathing nucleus for each decision that you and your team will make.

As a family, we identified values and non-negotiables that set the stage for our house hunting journey. Once clear on why we were moving and why we wanted the things that we established on our list, we found that our search looked very different. It no longer relied on highlights motivated by other people’s interests and drastically changed the landscape of our search. This is extremely relevant in school and program design. We at Getting Smart are huge advocates of researching and, whenever possible, visiting other schools and programs as you craft your design (see 100 Middle Schools & High Schools worth visiting), but we also emphasize the importance of using your why and the community that you serve as your design filter.

Frame: Check the foundation.

In design, it is critical to frame the opportunity. Identify strengths and weaknesses with an outcome target of student growth and amplified opportunities for students to learn how to learn—the foundation must be solid. Examine the foundation for cracks and then begin to the frame the “walls.” Walls establish the parameters, and are often represented by the descending highlights of 30,000 ft. vision—from takeoff all the way to landing. It has a clearly established start and end point, even if it is represented by a series of starts and finishes (think land, refuel, take off and repeat).

Ideate: Shop around and figure out what you like and don’t like.

I have vivid memories of when I was growing up, and teachers would say that “the only bad question is the one you do not ask.” I would now echo that same sentiment for the ideation phase of design. The only bad idea is the one that you do not share. During this phase of the design, it is important to capture every single idea, and be intentional about soliciting ideas from all stakeholders involved. One Stone students in Boise, ID have this dialed down to science. They call it “51-ing it,” and have been intentional in arming students with the skills to fearlessly deliver ideas with a confident swagger that is rooted in shared respect for the philosophy that the only bad idea is the one that is not shared. We partnered in delivering an LX Summit this spring, and success feedback of the 2-day experience was continuously rooted in the power that student leadership and voice can have through the open sharing of their ideas where there is no fear holding back the sharing of a potentially brilliant idea.

Create: Find contractors that share your vision.

As you have now successfully framed and gathered ideas around your design, it is time identify strategic thought partners that support deeper learning. In looking at what you would like to create, figure out who shares your vision and can increase your capacity to create. In my favorite book of all time (a lofty statement, as I am an avid reader—which could be its own blog in terms of preparing your mind and soul for innovative design), The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Daniel Pink, he takes Johnny through 6 lessons, with number 2 delivered as “Think Strengths, not weaknesses.”

While sound advice in every aspect of life, it is extremely relevant as you begin to create and add people to the design team. Don’t focus on what they have not done, focus on their strengths that are in alignment with the frame and the complement of the culture within your team.


Execute: Don’t set the doors before the floors.

So you have framed, taken a thorough dive into the world of ideation, and created the design (version 1.0), and it is time to execute (or in the words of Seth Godin, “Ship it”). I have adopted this term, highlighted in Poke the Box, which Godin originally used to describe product development and the importance of delivery to market. Its relevance in our approach to this phase of the design framework is grounded in understanding urgency while balancing a strategic blueprint that leads to the sustainable execution of the design.

Iterate: Keep the end in sight, but be prepared for the day-to-day.

Arguably the most important part of this ever-evolving process is the continued assessment of the design, in which we note potential improvements, adjustments, modifications and adaptations. This process is guided by the voice of each student, and reflective practices that provide springboards and adjustments to the road map that is design thinking.

Change is hard, and change is personal, and if you and your team have determined that change is needed to design learning experiences that prepare students for the future, then stay the course and celebrate the iteration of your design. In Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want, he shares a quote that resonates on the growing confidence in celebrating milestones large and small. “If you think your life’s purpose needs to hit you like a lightning bolt, you’ll overlook the little day-to-day things that fascinate you.” As you iterate and reiterate the design, pay attention to things that fascinate you.

With design thinking, there is a deep connection to learning for life through living life.

Our Getting Smart Services team continually strives to develop partnerships with individuals and organizations focused on personalizing education for each and every learner. As a learning design firm, we apply a solution mindset to accelerate impact-focused opportunities to design and deliver innovative change. We are strategic in applying our Smart Design Framework to transform learning, and pride ourselves on leading future forward initiatives that redefine and reinvent learner experiences. If you would like a deeper learning partner to expand your ability to dream, design and deliver, or additional details on our Smart Start coaching opportunities, contact Adam Kulaas, Director of Coaching, at [email protected]

 For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

3 Ways Computer Science Class Can Help with Student Readiness

By Sofia Cabrera

As I sat down with a group of counselors my junior year of high school, I was asked the question: “What science class do you want to take your senior year?”

I had initially thought I’d take a basic science class (which was known to be an easy A), but my counselor recommended computer science. A multitude of thoughts ran through my mind, most of which included a fear of failing and disappointing everyone I know. Despite this overly dramatic assessment of computer science, I agreed to take the course.

Over the summer I recovered from my initial fear and became genuinely excited for the computer science course. However, my year in computer science was far from an easy A and I definitely endured late nights and tears of frustration. As a student in the International Baccalaureate program, I was accustomed to working amongst my peers, but computer science forced me to become individualistic. Coding is a highly detailed oriented skill that primarily permits the coder to fully understand the work.

Therefore, I was thrown out of my comfort zone and into a class where I would become confident in my abilities. Computer science challenged me to find a solution on my own. As the course progressed, I realized Google and those around me could only assist me to a certain extent. I had to rely on my own knowledge and skills to succeed.

Because of this, I know my computer science class had a tremendous impact on my future aspirations in my readiness for college, career and life. It also helped me grow specifically in these three ways:

1. Mentoring. The techniques I learned will allow me to assist others in many aspects of technology. For example, if a peer of mine or an adult needs assistance regarding computers, I can offer the skills I learned in computer science class. Prior to taking computer science, I had little to no knowledge of how websites or apps functioned. I am now able to produce a functioning website and comprehend problems that may arise when in development stages. Therefore, my skills include coding in java, javascript, HTML and CSS. These languages are the basis of many technological products and projects, so I am able to understand issues that could arise for others.

I truly enjoy helping others and hope to enter a career where I can teach and learn from those around me. Plus, I love being the one who figures out the problem with my teacher’s computer.

2. Advocacy. I believe that being a female in a technological field will give me an upper hand with peers competing for similar jobs. Being one of only four girls in my class is a great example of the shortage of women interested in STEM careers.

In the future, I want to help women enter fields like computer science and share the advantages of learning new skills. When I told any of my peers I was in computer science, they were in awe. Taking a computer science class as a woman shouldn’t be a shock but a common occurrence. Many people are scared of all that technology has to offer, but I believe it will give me an advantage in the future.

3. Grit & Perseverance. This course also taught me that I have a great deal of patience. Although I have to admit that I shed a few tears, things (usually) worked out. In terms of my future aspirations in life, I believe that having patience and resilience can be a great advantage. Working with others is an important part of any field of work.

Computer science definitely taught me to have patience when learning new things. While I still have to work on minimizing my perfectionism, I was able to step back and see that this is a strength of mine that will serve me well in the future.

So although I entered my computer science class with immense fear and self-doubt, I now have no regrets in my decision. After successfully passing the course, gaining my high school diploma and my International Baccalaureate Diploma, I would do it all over again.

Even if I decide to enter a field unrelated to computer science my skills will transfer to all fields. On top of the achievement of passing the course, I will utilize my coding skills for the rest of my life.

For more, see:

Sofia is a freshman at The University of Texas at El Paso interested in computer science, social media and writing.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

Smart Review | Is There PBE In Your Water?

“Nature is the greatest teacher” was the mantra that I was taught as a young camp counselor, and is the mindset that led me to become a biology teacher. After 19 years in education, I have made it my personal mission to give kids experiences that will give them cause to care about the environment.

As climate change and environmental degradation have become ever-present facts of life in our world, this mission feels more important than ever. And while being outdoors for extended periods of time is an important start to sharing my mission, I feel more obligated than ever to incorporate scientific inquiry into our times outdoors as a family.

Not being a “beach vacation” kind of family, when it’s time to get out of town, we tend to end up in the Great Smoky Mountains or closer to home in Brown County, Indiana. Wherever it is we go, there is always hiking. We feel it is important to keep kids connected with the outdoors, have wildlife encounters and simply be unplugged.

Whenever we set forth on a day hike, my youngest always wants to know what our “goal” is (“Is there a waterfall at the end? Are we climbing a mountain? What will we be looking for? Why are we going on a hike???”) Often, there is no goal, no destination– just a need to get outside. But in advance of a vacation to Colorado this past month, I was asked to field-test the Intermediate-Level water testing kit by TestAssured.

Perfect! We had a “goal” for one of our hikes involving some fun place-based education. Not only would we try out this product but we would have a chance to practice some scientific methodology in an authentic setting (and reverse any of our possible summer brain drain in the process).

Let The Testing Begin

The kit contains:

  • Enough materials (tablets, test strips, and vials) to run tests on four different water samples for pH, alkalinity, hardness, Iron, total Chlorine, Nitrate, Nitrite and Copper.
  • A hand-held probe that provides an instant measurement of temperature and Total Dissolved Solids.

While the test is designed to test the safety of drinking water from a tap, my lab assistants and I (my kids Josie, age 12, and Michael, age 8) tested stream water from a lovely Rocky Mountain stream at 9,000 feet. If you’ve ever been camping you’ve probably wondered if any water nearby was safe to drink, so we decided to find out.

The first test we conducted was done without any advance preparation and we read the instructions on the spot. Sample water is collected in a small vial and two different dip strips are used to test for the presence of trace elements, ions and particles. Multiple tests can be conducted at one time, with each result read by a color change.

The water-resistant instruction cards provide written instructions and color spectra for interpreting the tests. In this way, a quick measurement of multiple water parameters can be made at one time. Just one of the tests (iron) involved dissolving a tablet as a required reagent to get a measurement, and the instructions clearly state to perform this test last so that the same water sample can be used for all of the tests.

The hand-held probe used to measure Total Dissolved Solids and temperature is very easy to use and has the option to store results for later reference. The kit also includes a booklet for recording the results of each test, up to four samples.

The Verdict & Recommendations

We found the kit to be quite easy to use, especially after one repetition. The kids were keen to do a comparison of the stream at three different spots, and we found that we could perform the tests much more quickly after the relatively short learning curve (and in case you are wondering, we concluded it wasn’t a good idea to drink the water at any of the test sites).

There are not many downsides to the kit, but we did have a few recommendations:

  • We wondered about the amount of foil trash the kits produced, and if there were a way to package the strips together and avoid so many individual wrappers.
  • Another mildly confusing aspect to the test strips was which color square corresponded to which test. Though the instructions provide a well-labeled diagram, we wondered if it would not be too much extra trouble to add labels to the strips above each square.
  • Finally, the information provided in the small data notebook was a bit sparse on details as to why the tests needed to be done in the first place. We talked about the different parameters, such as pH and nitrate, and made predictions based on our setting, but it seemed like there could have been a bit more background information and also more guidelines for interpreting the tests (as in what constitutes a safe/ unsafe level of a certain solute in the sample.)


Josie and Michael loved the experience of water testing and it added a dimension of inquiry to our hike. And even if the kit is intended to be used with water from a tap, the act of testing any water is fundamentally important to making students question assumptions they have–clear, cold water certainly looks clean, and we all assume that the water that comes out of the faucet is safe. But is it really? We may become complacent in this belief and falsely assume that we do not need to wonder about the safety of other things as well.

Testing water is a simple, accessible and fundamental exercise in scientific inquiry, and this test does the job very well. I plan to take a look at some of the more advanced kits to use with my high school biology students in the upcoming school year, and I could see this or other kits produced by TestAssured having great applicability for our project-based learning science courses. We have a creek just ten minutes by foot from school, which is a constant source of inquiry for us as we examine the health of our local watershed, and so a kit like this one would also work at school for implementing place-based education.

This type of testing transcends most age levels, and there is no reason why the test parameters covered by this kit could not also be used by students ages eight or younger. This gives me reason to believe that my 17 and 18-year-old students may very well be partnering with the young students in our project-based elementary schools to build our inquiry skills, become “citizen scientists” and begin fostering a concern for and love of the natural environment. The tests we did on vacation have me excited about the possibilities for next school year!

For more, see:

A kit was provided to the author for this review. If you are interested in having review your innovative product or book, please contact [email protected].

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

What Do You Think About CTE?

By Mary Ryerse & Cat Wedgwood

What’s the first thing you think of when someone says “vocational” or “career-technical” or “trade” school? Here’s what we picture:

Cat: I always think of the low-quality commercials that came on in the 80s when I flipped on the television after school. I’d eat my fruit roll-up snack and watch people doing boring (to an elementary school aged girl) things like my dad did with our car or with our air conditioner, and then a 1-800 number appeared to call immediately so you could learn how to do this work, too. It most certainly never appealed to me, and I never even thought of it as an option for my future education.

Mary: Yes, the 80s commercials Cat references are classic! Thankfully, I have also had the opportunity to see as both an educator and as a mom the high tech and high-interest options that are available today. For example, our sons have participated in Project Lead the Way’s biomedical and software programs.

Not Your Dad’s CTE

As referenced, career and technical education (CTE) has come a long way since those days. Today’s CTE is innovative. It’s cutting-edge, technologically exciting and prepares students of all ages for a wide range of high-wage, high-skill, high-demand careers that graduates can start quickly.

The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) is the largest national education association focused on promoting the benefits of trade and technical schools across the country. Based on data drawn from the U.S. Department of Education’s High School Transcript Study, the ACTE states that the courses of study offered by technical schools encompass 94% of the interest areas of high school students.

As this ACTE-produced video asserts, today’s CTE is cool:

CTE Career Breakdown

CTE programs educate students for a range of career options through 16 Career Clusters and more than 79 specific articulated pathways. Integrating academics and application prepares students to be college- and career-ready by providing core academic skills, employability skills and technical, job-specific skills.

As shown in the infographic below (also available on the ACTE website), the CTE programs that stem from the 16 Career Clusters include preparation for careers in the health sciences, information technology, construction, finance, hospitality & tourism and many more:

We hear so much about the need for students to prepare for STEM careers, and as you can see in the infographic many of these careers fall in the STEM category. Approximately 36% of STEM jobs require postsecondary credentials that CTE students can obtain within two years of high school graduation, giving them an advantage over those attending a traditional four-year college.

Workforce-Ready Mindsets and Skills

Because students who choose a CTE track often do so out of their own interests and passions, they also develop the types of student agency skills employers desire the most in employees along the way, such as problem-solving, project completion, communication, research, time management and critical thinking skills.

Student mindsets about entering the work world are critical. We recently released a report on personalizing college, career and life readiness with College Spark Washington that discusses the importance of equipping students to better understand their options and pave their learning pathways.

Further, there isn’t really a better learning experience than on-the-job training to develop employability skills. We recently featured GPS Education Partners and their innovative apprenticeship partnerships in a Next Generation Career Pathways case study.

For more on employability skills, refer to the Employability Skills Framework, which was developed as part of the Support for States Employability Standards in CTE and Adult Education project, an initiative of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the United States Department of Education.

CTE Students Excel

Not only does CTE help prepare students for future careers, it also helps keep them in high school. According to ACTE, high school students involved in CTE are more engaged, perform better and graduate at higher rates:

  • 81% of dropouts say relevant, real-world learning opportunities would have kept them in high school.
  • The average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is 93%, compared to an average national freshman graduation rate of 80%.
  • More than 75% of secondary CTE concentrators pursued post-secondary education shortly after high school.


It is no wonder CTE students excel. Many of the things so prevalent in what is being talked about today in education have long been part of CTE. For example, CTE’s mastery progressions of skills and competencies model competency-based education; CTE’s hands-on approach has long reflected project-based learning; further, the work experience students gain in fields such as hospitality provide for the development of social emotional learning (SEL) competencies.

We would love to hear more about what you think about CTE and invite you to share any high-quality examples of connecting to today’s workforce and initiatives in the comments below.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

7 Reasons and Resources for EdTech Gamification in Education

With the proliferation of the wide range of EdTech tools that we have seen in recent years and the widespread popularity of games (whether video, sport or board) among students, it comes as no surprise that many are seeking ways to introduce new and innovative EdTech games into their curriculum.

While intuitively it can almost seem like a cop-out to throw a game at students and expect them to learn, when well-designed it really can be an effective instructional practice. Here are seven reasons gamification through EdTech can be useful, and resources for designing a program that maximizes these potential benefits.

1) SEL and Collaboration Skills: Games of all kinds have the potential to teach valuable SEL and collaboration skills. We all know that sports have been used to this end for ages, but even video games can give students a chance to practice working together. Think that EdTech games are, by nature, an isolating solo experience? Check this out.

2) Real-Time Feedback: Psychologically speaking, real-time feedback is one of the most powerful ways to reinforce desired behavior. The real-time, direct feedback that is typical of EdTech games (for example, most of the games provided by PBS Kids and is a great mechanism for helping students prepare for tests—rather than having to wait to flip to the end of a practice test (or for the days that the grading process usually requires), students are immediately able to determine whether they were right or not, and then figure out why.

3) Progress Tracking: Tools like Gradecraft, 3D GameLab, Classcraft and Virtual Locker can streamline game set-up, management and assessment, and can provide teachers with an easy way to determine which students are ready for the next step, and which require a little bit of extra attention. Can you say competency-based learning?

4) Coding Practice: We’re all aware of how important coding is for 21st-century students. Cause+Code = the new way to make an impact. Coding may very well be the next widespread blue collar job, and games are a great way to get kids used to computational thinking at a young age. Try getting started with something like CodeMonkey, Code Combat, or the resources provided by MIT.

5) Student Engagement: This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of gamification for education (it’s been backed up by research time and time again), but that doesn’t mean it should go overlooked. The combination of real-time feedback and the potential for leaderboards mean that EdTech gamification is a great tool for student engagement. We all want to win, so why not provide a structure that allows students to learn valuable skills while they play?


6) Math Motivation: Math practice is an important foundation of coding and engineering skills, which in turn are a crucial component of the maker culture. However, the age-old question remains: how can we get students more interested in math? See numbers two and five above, then check out these math practice apps.

7) Perseverance: All of the above factors combine to teach students to persevere. The by-nature increased student engagement of gamification, combined with the chance to work with their peers and the ability of teachers to meet individual students where they’re at with an appropriate level of challenge, means that students can be more likely to keep trying until they’ve achieved (and learned) everything they can.

There are no silver bullets in the classroom, and gamification is no exception. However, if you’re starting to think of ways to occasionally introduce a bit of spice to your curriculum for next year, gamification can be a great technique.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

Key To Prep: The Science of Teams

Tyler Cowen asked doctor and author Atul Gawande what’s missing in medical education. He said doctors needed to learn to work in teams:

I think the number one thing is an education around the fact that we are no longer a craft. It’s no longer an individual craft of being the smartest, most experienced, and capable individual. It’s a profession that has exceeded the capabilities of any individual to manage the volume of knowledge and skill required. So we are now delivering as groups of people. And knowing how to be an effective group, how to solve problems when your group is not being effective, and to enable that capability—that, I think, is not being taught, it’s not being researched. It is the biggest opportunity to advance human health, and we’re not delivering on it.”

Every profession has crossed the threshold of individual capability–medicine, law, engineering, computer science and education. Most of us work on projects in teams–and those teams are increasingly augmented with smart machines and automated processes.

Seth Godin said two important skills should be central to preparation: how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.

Gawande and Godin suggest that core to preparation is the ability to take on a big problem and break it into component parts, distribute work to a diverse team, work through challenges, and sprint to a public deliverable.

Research Into Good Teams

Google research into effective teams uncovered something unexpected that is key to better teams–group norms. In particular, creating psychologically safe environments stood out. Teams that encourage safe discussions and different viewpoints succeed more.

On good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion–what researchers referred to as ”equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment.

The good teams had high social sensitivity. They had team members who could sense how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Prepping For Work In Teams

As Dr. Gawande suggests, preparation in every field should include much more about the science of working in teams. That preparation could start with studying what goes wrong. Patrick Lencion’s Five Dysfunctions is a useful summary of what can go wrong.

Work in teams requires a broad sense of awareness and the skills and dispositions of collaboration.

Awareness. Given the inevitability of an augmented future with teams including human and machine intelligence, preparation should start with experiences that promote meta-awareness: self, team, context, quality and tools–that’s social and emotional learning plus strategic awareness and digital literacy.

Given the subtle but important way that smart tools and platforms are curating our view of the world, it’s increasingly important to help young people develop algorithmic awareness. Almost everything they see on a screen was selected by a machine learning algorithm which can be great but also results in a filter bubble.

Collaboration. After awareness, young people should experience success in collaboration including design (design thinking), project management, decision-making, presentation and communication.

Buck Institute For Education editor John Larmer suggests developing clear criteria for teamwork; create a collaboration rubric or another list of expectations/norms and post guidelines on the classroom wall.

Form teams by carefully considering who would work well together. If a particular student needs extra support or understanding (or, shall we say, special handling) put him or her with the right teammates. Team members can write and sign a contract that spells out their agreements about working together, and the steps to be taken when they don’t.

“We constantly talk about collaboration and working in teams with students,” said Randy Hollenkamp, principal at Bulldog Tech in San Jose. Teachers at the New Tech Network affiliate encourage students to create team norms and build contracts with each other prior to every project.

Hollenkamp stresses how trust is crucial to work in teams. “It is as important to students doing the lion’s share of the work as it is to the students not doing the lion’s share,” he said. “If someone in the group is doing more work, then there is a group trust issue that needs to be discussed. This idea is carried into our ‘culture of critique’ as well. The norm here is to be ‘kind, specific and helpful’ when giving a critique. In doing this, our students build trust and seek and expect critiques with each other and adults.”


The nature of work is changing in every profession. New knowledge is being incorporated to attack emerging challenges and solve persistent problems. Teams are developing and delivering solutions with sophisticated tools.

Our recent Project-Based World series made the case that managing projects and working in teams should be priority learning outcomes for students, teachers and leaders.

School districts and networks should hold community conversations about how work is changing. These conversations lay the groundwork for updated graduate profiles that name project management, collaboration and social awareness as priority learning outcomes.

As many schools develop an antiseptic version of personalized learning, it’s important to note that project management, social awareness and collaboration arise from extended challenges, not digital worksheets.

After making working in teams a priority, build the infrastructure for success at scale. Schools in the New Tech Network uses a learning platform build for project-based learning. The degree of collaboration and student agency are assessed for each project. These assessments could lead to a sequence of microcredentials and a portfolio of evidence.

It’s time to make project management and skills, and dispositions of awareness and collaboration, priority outcomes.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

It’s Time to Sign Up for the ACT: These 25 Tips can Help Boost Scores

As many students who just graduated from high school are looking to their future by packing for college or joining the workforce, those entering their junior or senior year of high school may be preparing for an important date that could impact their future opportunities.

August 4 marks the deadline to register for the September 9 ACT. There are only a handful of ACT national testing dates (note that some states administer the exam to all students as well).

While there are some schools that are “test optional” and don’t require submission of standardized test scores, for students who want to maximize their post-secondary options, strong performance on the ACT or related exams is crucial! Whether a student is preparing to take the test September 9 or just looking for jumpstart ideas for summer prep for a future date, these tips can help.

It can be intimidating to parents and students to think of “the big test day,” but being equipped with basic knowledge about the process and the test (and a few additional tips) can help.

This set of tips is written for those looking for a quick overview prior to the test (not a comprehensive study strategy), with the goal of boosting the overall experience and hopefully even the score! It is something parents and students could read 1-2 days before the test and find a few helpful tips. It goes without saying that even better is familiarizing students with the process well in advance.

I am a firm believer that a test score like this is solely one piece of a student’s overall profile, which also includes interests, experiences, aptitudes, mindset, determination and much more. Any one test score does not define a student, though it does have a direct influence on college admissions and financial aid packages. So it’s worth taking a few minutes to review.

Many of these tips came from The Real ACT Prep Guide (from the makers of the ACT) as well as from several friends and colleagues who’ve been hammering out strategies to help kids do their best.

There are numerous tools and resources to help students prepare, including the aforementioned book, as well as online tutorials. For example, one resource that has been particularly popular of late is, a free online support system.

The Prepfactory approach starts to move students from traditional methods of preparation to more mobile, consumable and adaptive approach.



The ACT is a “subject area test,” with five sections as listed below. Each section has a strict time limit, and not all students or states elect to include the writing component.

  • English: 45 minutes
  • Math: 60 minutes
  • Reading: 35 minutes
  • Science: 35 minutes
  • Writing: 30 minutes

Overall strategies (many of these tips are pertinent for any type of testing):

  • Get organized. Get your pencils and calculator, have a snack, and know where you’re going. You cannot eat in the testing room, but you can expect a 10-minute break at the end of your second test.
  • Know what to expect. For example, two of the most critical things to know for the ACT include:
    1. There are time limits
    2. You are not penalized for wrong answers.
  • Keep it in perspective. As indicated above “you are more than your test score.”
  • Learn as much as you can. Nothing can replace good learning along the way.
  • Refresh your knowledge and skills. Even if students haven’t been prepping for months, it can help to review math formulas.
  • Physically prepare. Exercise, eat right and get plenty of sleep.
  • Apply general test taking strategies:
    • Pace yourself. The ACT must be completed in a limited amount of time. Specific strategies for pacing vary by subject area.
    • Know the directions. Understand the answer document and if possible, read sample instructions ahead of time.
    • Read carefully. Read the question, read the question, read the question.
    • Mark your answer document carefully. All sections (except writing) are multiple choice.
    • Decide on strategies for answering easier or harder questions. On the ACT, your score is based on the number of questions you get right.
    • Check your work. Make sure you answered in proper places, answer all questions and reread your essay.

Section by Section Tips



  • 35 minutes
  • 40 questions, 4 passages with 10 questions each
  • There are passages covering prose fiction, social science, humanities and natural science. At least one section has a comparison component.

Strategy Tips:

  • Since there are 4 passages with 10 questions each and a total of 35 minutes allotted for this section, the pace should be between 8-9 minutes per section.
  • Skim the questions before reading the passage (but don’t waste time on answers until after reading).
  • Know what you are looking for–for example, if the question specifically refers to the passage, you can find it in the passage. If it starts with something like “most likely” or “reasonable conclusion,” you’ll need to infer it.
  • Read through all of the answer choices and eliminate extreme or judgmental answers.
  • When in doubt, read!



  • Time: 35 minutes
  • Questions: 40 questions total (7 passages with 5-7 questions each)
  • Content is on major topics in science spanning physical science, physics, biology and chemistry. The format is review and interpretation of charts/graphs, experiments or studies.

Strategy Tips:

  • Look for patterns and relationships in the data.
  • Remember to focus on “the obvious” –chart and graph titles or keys, bold words, italicized words, definitions and formulas.
  • Read and reread the questions, and ensure you organize your responses around the study being referenced. Some questions combine multiple studies.



  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Questions: 75
  • Tests grammar, use of the language and conventions.

Strategy Tips:

  • Remember what you’ve learned in all of your years in Language Arts class. Remember proper punctuation options–when to use periods, commas, semicolons, commas, dashes, etc.
  • Double check possessives/apostrophes: “it’s vs its” and “who’s vs whose.”



  • Time: 60 minutes
  • Questions: 60
  • The majority of the math portion is pre-algebra, though it also includes intermediate algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

Strategy Tips:

  • Review formulas before the test.
  • Work through familiar problems carefully yet quickly.
  • Carefully check answers.



  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Prompts: 1
  • The prompt follows the pattern of presenting a topic, providing two views on a topic, then posing a writing prompt in the form of a question where you’ll need to take a position.

Strategy Tips:

  • Know the format of the prompt.
  • Read and reread the question.
  • Decide on your position and create an outline to support it. Be sure to present clear and concise arguments that are backed up by concrete examples.
  • Remember that clarity is king. Evaluators only have a short amount of time to read your essay so it needs to be logical and clear.

While these tips by no means offer a comprehensive boost-your-ACT strategy, they can hopefully help teachers, parents and students prepare for the basics.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

Making The Case for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Nonprofit venture philanthropy firm New Schools Venture Fund recently released its new study, Unrealized Impact, to help deepen the understanding of the racial/ethnic diversity of the education workforce; the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies and practices that leaders have put into place; and the effectiveness of these practices.

The study includes data from more than 200 organizations on organizational demographics, policies and structures and nearly 5,000 individual perspectives on lived staff experiences in relation to diversity, equity and inclusion, with an intentional focus on race and ethnicity.

Frances Messano, a managing partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, and authors Xiomara Padamsee, CEO of Promise54, and Becky Crowe, Senior Advisor at Bellwether Education Partners, brought together a group of five education funders (Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; NewSchools Venture Fund; Raikes Foundation; Schusterman Family Foundation; and Walton Family Foundation) to underwrite this rigorous study, which was based on answers gathered to the following questions:

  1. What are the racial and socioeconomic demographics of staff, leadership and boards in education organizations?
  2. What are the policies and practices that education organizations employ in relation to diversity, equity and inclusion?
  3. What are staff perceptions of diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations and of related practices and behaviors?
  4. What are the perceived links between organizational diversity, equity and inclusion and student success?

“The study’s sponsors and authors came to this work with a perspective: that diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations are stronger and therefore better able to reach their goals,” said Padamsee. 

While progress in the education sector has been made, the results show that organizations still have much to do to improve DEI.

1. Staff & Leadership Racial and Socioeconomic Demographics

The study shows the percentage of black and Latino leaders in American education compared to black and Latino PreK-12 students remains unbalanced:“As American students have become a more racially diverse population over the past decade, there is a stark difference between those who are doing the work and the racial demographics of the communities we serve,” said Messano.

2. Policies and Practices

A wide variety of practices related to diversity, inclusion and diversity were found as well.

  • Organizations of all sizes reported having basic policies in place, but there was no set of universal practices being used, and many reported they do not have anything in place.
  • Only nine of the 50 practices included in the survey are currently being implemented by half of the respondents, however, all but nine of the 50 are being used by at least 20% of the organizations surveyed.

“This study clearly showed that education organizations need to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at the same time,” said Crowe. ”Although the terms may seem similar or even interchangeable, each is distinct and important. Organizations often start with a focus on diversity and think that’s enough.  Diversity, without a focus on inclusion (belonging), and equity (fairness), leaves impact on the table.”

3. Staff DEI Perceptions

The study shows that staff perceptions about DEI in their organizations definitely impacts recruitment and retention:

  • Staff said they are 3x more likely to recommend an organization that is diverse, equitable and inclusive to a friend.
  • 61% of staff (regardless of race) reported that they intend to stay in their organizations for the next three years.
  • 24% of all staff respondents report experiencing discrimination in the workplace.
  • Staff of color were 50% more likely to report a discriminating experience.

“Education leaders are increasingly committed to doing better on diversity, equity and inclusion, but this study shows many organizations aren’t sure where to even begin. The promising practices outlined in this report will give leaders a place to start,” said Messano.

4. Linking DEI & Student Success

While the primary focus in this study is to better understand internal organizational work on DEI and implications for staff, there is also interest in understanding the links between DEI and student outcomes.

In the responses, six areas of impact were frequently reported, suggesting the significant ways in which workplace DEI can positively impact student outcomes:“Teams that reflect the lived and life experiences of the students they serve are better able to design and execute effective solutions that eliminate certain blind spots and potential bias[es]. The tools we create are more effective at engaging educators in realizing and being motivated to respond to equity gaps in their classrooms, schools, and systems,” said one anonymous participant.

The hope is that the study inspires those working within education organizations of all types to recognize diversity, equity and inclusion as a source of unrealized impact and make a commitment to progress an organizational imperative.

Interested in Participating?

It’s not too late for your organization to take the surveys. Visit the survey FAQ page to learn how you can take one or both of the surveys used in this study.

By participating, you are contributing your organization’s data to the field-wide data set. In addition, you will receive detailed, complimentary summary reports with benchmark data and insights.

Interested in Learning More?

You can also explore the data, read the report and find out more about the new Promise54 here.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.