Saber-tooth Curriculum or 21C Standards?


New Fist, an early Stone Age man, develops the first formal curriculum, devising lessons to teach their youngsters skills that will significantly improve the quality of their lives. Topics include fish-grabbing-with-bare-hands, wooly-horse-clubbing, and saber-tooth-tiger-scaring-with-fire. The curriculum is highly successful for many years.

 One day, a new ice age dawns. Muddy rivers make it impossible to see and grab fish. The wooly horses leave for a more desirable climate, and the saber-tooth tigers become extinct. Some members of the tribe suggest it’s time to revise the curriculum and teach new skills more applicable to the changed environment. These skills include net-making, antelope-snaring, and bear-killing.

cavebearBut tribal leaders scorn their ideas. “If you had any education yourself,” they say severely, “you would know that the essence of true education is timelessness. It is something that endures through changing conditions, like a solid rock standing squarely and firmly in the middle of a raging torrent. You must know that there are some eternal verities, and the saber-tooth curriculum is one of them!” (Brooks-Young, p. 129 )

 When I read the above excerpt (longer version here) in Digital-age literacy for teachers: Applying technology standards to everyday practice, the stone-age metaphor resonated with me. The need for change is not new, and it is never easy. There is no question that as educators, and especially as teacher librarians, we too can face a stone-wall attitude about change.

 Moving Out of the Stone Age

Moving to 21st century teaching and learning is not easy. The good news is that we have some expert, research-based help to move our teaching expertise — and our schools –forward with The AASL Standards for the 21 Century Learner and the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) and Performance Indicators. Marjorie Pappas’s article, “Standards for The 21st-Century Learner: Comparisons with NETS and State Standards” provides summaries and comparisons of the documents:

 The AASL Standards for the 21st-century Learner are preceded by the following nine Common Beliefs:

  • Reading is a window to the world.
  • Inquiry provides a framework for learning.
  • Ethical behavior in the use of information must be taught.
  • Technology skills are crucial for future employment needs.
  • Equitable access is a key component for education.
  • The definition of information literacy has become more complex as resources and technologies have changed.
  • The continuing expansion of information demands that all individuals acquire the thinking skills that will enable them to learn on their own.
  • Learning has a social context.
  • School libraries are essential to the development of learning skills.

 The AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner include the following four standards:

Learners use skills, resources, and tools to do the following:

  • Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.
  • Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge.
  • Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.
  • Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

 NETS: The Next Generation (ISTE) includes the following six standards:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Decision-Making
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Technology Operations and Concepts

Pappas points out that “Applying an inquiry process within collaborative learning situations and thinking skills are apparent throughout the documents . . . . Both sets of standards place value on cultural differences and focus on participation in a democratic society by including those skills within separate standards. Both standards include skills that engage learners in gathering, evaluating, and using information.” (Pappas, 2008)

Obviously these are skills applicable for many years to come.

More Help

In their article “Reframing the Library Media Specialist as a Learning Specialist,” Allison Zmuda and Violet H Harada ask, “What would it look like if learners could determine their information needs, solve problems, read for pleasure, effectively and ethically use information and ideas, debate merits of a point of view, and create quality written and oral communications?”

The AASL book Standards for the 21st-century Learner in Action helps answer that question by providing an in-depth look at the beliefs and standards of the program including detailed benchmarks and action examples.

The chapter that most interested me, because influencing student attitudes is not easy, is Chapter 3: Dispositions in Action. It says, “Learning in the 21st century . . . requires a range of dispositions: to be curious, resilient, flexible, imaginative, critical, reflective, and self-evaluative.” The chapter goes on to detail indicators and behaviours to show the development in the student from teacher controlled to student controlled learning. An example:

Indicator: Display emotional resilience by persisting in information searching despite challenges

Sample Behaviors:

–  Brainstorm new ways of searching for information when the existing strategy does not work

–   Analyze challenges faced in the research process and identify the possible barriers

Stages of Development

–  Stage 1 – Need continual encouragement when first attempts to find information are not successful

–  Stage 2 – With occasional help and emotional support from the teacher or SLMS, identify alternative strategies to find needed information

–  Stage 3 – Reflect on why original search strategies did not work; independently determine additional possibilities (AASL, p. 43)

 Brilliant! I eagerly looked for more information and found Barbara Stripling’s article, ‘Dispositions: Getting Beyond “Whatever.”’ Stripling says, “Dispositions are not taught explicitly. Instead, teachers structure learning experiences so that students practice the behavior that is an expression of the disposition. Over time, through a series of experiences that reinforce the targeted attitudes and behaviors, students can adopt the dispositions as their own personal habits of mind.”

The article perfectly sums up for me an attitude I have seen too many times.

‘”Whatever.” This one word characterizes the public attitude of far too many students today. Many young people have developed an armor of nonchalance or “whatever” to counter the increasing pressures of testing-based accountability and classroom cultures of teacher-incharge and students-instep.”

Stripling goes on to explain that by integrating the AASL standards into our programs, we can help our students move from “whatever” to “Yes, I can” as they develop the dispositions needed to be independent learners.

What’s Next?

Though, like the saber-tooth tiger, I am rather “long in the tooth,” I’m not a tribal leader resisting change. In Alberta we are waiting for the Alberta Education School Library Services Initiative (SLSI) to be completed. In the meantime, I encourage my colleagues to integrate the AASL standards in their programs. How? Zmuda and Harada (April, 2008) have suggestions:

“The . . . AASL Standards for the 21st-century Learner should be prominently featured in all aspects of the learning environment – physically hung on the walls, judiciously placed in curriculum binders and planning materials, and prominently displayed on the school and library media websites. The library media specialist also should use the learning goals as a touchstone in every conversation with staff. Such relentless consistency both models and reinforces to staff that the focus on the goals of learning is a “disciplined mindset” that ensures that what students are asked to do on a daily basis is challenging and worthy of the attempt.”

This dedication to change for the sake of our students and our society is the sign of the 21st century leader.


American Association of School Librarians. (2009). Standards for the 21st-century learner in action. Chicago, Ill: American Association of School Librarians.

Brooks-Young, S., & International Society for Technology in Education. (2007). Digital-age literacy for teachers : Applying technology standards to everyday practice (1st ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Pappas, M. (2008). STANDARDS FOR THE 21ST-CENTURY LEARNER: Comparisons with NETS and state standards. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 24(10), 19.

Stripling, B. (2008). Dispositions: Getting beyond “whatever”. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 25(2), 47.

Zmuda, A., & Harada, V. (2008). Reframing the library media specialist as a learning specialist. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 24(8), 42.

5 thoughts on “Saber-tooth Curriculum or 21C Standards?

  1. Modeling dedication….”whatever” complexes…my favourite animal. Talk about a great posting.

    My question is…in our present climate full of mandated documents and well meaning standards/implementation plans, how do we spur on dedicated service and minimize the “whatever” attitude of educators who are feeling strung out?

  2. Great question, Mark – You ask, “How do we spur on dedicated service and minimize the “whatever” attitude of educators who are feeling strung out?”

    There is no short aswer to this, but I’ll share what worked best for me. I worked with the teachers who wanted to learn and grow, and then as they enthused about success, more teachers wanted in on the new learning. I really believe the dispositions I mention in the post will help — how many teachers will recognize themseleves at Stage 1 or 2 in the example I quoted?

    By making these explicit in our instruction, we then actually can teach to and change those attitudes.

  3. Thanks, Cynthia. Interesting post…I agree that the AASL standards provide an excellent framework for TLs in the province (and anywhere) to work towards. I wonder how these standards will work together with whatever new comes out of the provincial work being done on school libraries? That will be an interesting question to explore down the road…

  4. Cynthia,

    I’m interested in using the first picture of the sabre tooth tiger in a TED talk. Is it open source or would I need to license it?


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