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21st Century Skills - Competencies without a Classroom Podcast - Episode 5 Recap

S2 E5: Russell Gordon @rgordon
Eric Do Couto
April 15, 2021

" We want to have students be able to be comfortable with being uncertain. "

In the fifth #21For21 episode of Competencies without a Classroom podcast, we interview Russell Gordon, who teaches Computer Science and Mathematics at an Independent, Co-educational school in Canada. You can also visit his site for CS tips, tricks and tutorials at

What can you borrow from Russell for your classroom to help teach 21st century skills?

The 21st century skill that Russell teaches in his classes is the normalization of reflection & feedback

And that can often take the form of one question each day, "What did I learn or what did I make progress on today?"

Describing what a student made progress on, followed by daily feedback from the teacher, conditions students to learn and normalize daily effort and steady progress -- versus trying to cram work in before a deadline. Russell likens the habit of last-minute cramming to that of being a sprinter, while the expectation and reflection of "What did I make progress on today?" conditions students to become more like long-distance runners.

Russell uses a digital portfolio tool to facilitate those daily reflection and feedback discussions between himself and his students. Russell also noted that having a space for students to reflect asynchronously, within the confines of a private digital portfolio, results in students displaying depth of thought and insights that they often wouldn't show in person or in front of their peers.

Another note of interest is the note Russell makes around the quantity of work not being a priority, but rather valuing deep-thinking or quality work from students instead.

What 21st century competency or skill is being developed?

Critical thinking through reflection and incremental, consistent improvement.

"I was just learning [to implement reflection] by doing which may be a bit trite, but you can make any course organized around tests and secrets. I think if you take those evaluations away and evaluate students based on process as much as product, at least in computer studies, you're seeing course now that is actually more true to Ontario's [Gordon's province] secondary school computer studies curriculum"

21st Century Skills - Rapid Fire Questions:

Q: What's the one competency that, if Ryan were the superintendent of a school board, every student would learn?

A: Creativity, specifically the ability to think about a scenario/problem and come up with possible ideas to address that issue. As computers automate more and more tasks, creativity remains a relatively innate human trait and skill.

Q: What's one life skill each student should learn in high school?

A: Time management.

Q: If you could post anything on a billboard for everyone to see, what would it be?

A: Kindness. Russell suggests reading An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger, and that students watch Austin's Butterfly online.

Q: What was your favorite subject in school?

A: Political Science class - more specifically, because the format of the class was to have students read the newspapers and discuss the issues they found most interesting in class. The teacher was able to discern who actually took the time to read the papers, students were able to select issues or topics most interesting to them and then discuss those topics in class.

"I just like then if a teacher was able to provide like a narrative of the historical events that always seem to really engage me. I always liked the idea of if someone's able to really tell a good story, and I think history provides that content where you're able to give that story. And you can also show like images and things that are related to it."

Q: What's your favorite book or the one you wish you read before you turned 18?

A: An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger

Q: If you have a magic wand, what is one thing you would change about K-12 education today?

A: "I would love to have an education system that understands the context that all of the students that are part of our education system come from and create an education system that values students of all ethnicities, all genders, and, and really understands what it means to be inclusive of all students in their, and their experience."

Reflection Prompts for Your Students

Use the prompts below to have your students reflect on what they heard in the episode and consider how Lauren's advice can be applied to them.

  1. Watch the video of Austin's Butterfly (6:30) - what is the lesson that the teacher is trying to convey? What enabled the student to steadily improve on their work?
  2. Try Russell's reflection question. What did you learn today in class? Or what progress did you make today?
  3. Russell shares that if he was superintendent, all students would need to demonstrate evidence of creativity before graduating. How would you define creativity? Describe the ways in which you personally express your creativity.
  4. If you were in charge of designing the courses you needed to take/could choose from in high school, what course would you add? Why did you choose that course? What 21st century competencies could be developed through it?
  5. Russell spoke about time management as a competency that all students should learn in high school. How do you manage your time in and outside of class? Share a time when you displayed this competency.

Bite-Sized Video Clips

If you're running short on time, or just want to play a snippet for your class or colleagues, the bite-sized videos below are perfect for sharing.

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