21st Century Skills Scales with Susan Thomas

25 Min Read  •  Video Series

A big hurdle for educators teaching and integrating the arts is with assessment.  How do you measure creativity?  How do you grade collaboration?  Do we need to measure the arts or should it be a place for exploration and creating only?

These are the big questions that Susan Thomas faced as a coordinator for Visual and Performing arts in Frederick County, MD.  She found a pathway forward in the 21st century skills outlined by P21.org.  In today’s interview, Susan and I chat about how these skills helped her and her teacher team to develop a set of scales that can be used in any classroom.  I think you’ll find it extremely beneficial as a way into this thorny issue of assessment.


Link to FCPS’ Skills Scale Overview

Link to FCPS’ Creativity Skills Scale Sample

Link to the Hat Rack example

Link to the Student Posters


Susan R: Susan Thomas! I’m so glad you’re here. Tell us a tittle bit about yourself and what you do.

Susan T: OK. Well. I never envisioned myself doing what I was doing. I always had a love for music and science. But like most young kids I decided that music or fine arts is not where the money was. So I started college and chose a pre-med major. Needless to say I didn’t enjoy it.

It wasn’t as cool in college as it was in high school.

So you know, I decided after actually several years that it was more important for me to enjoy what I do then to make a huge paycheck. Because education isn’t where the big bucks are. But I had actually been in college for 4 years before I went into music education. And I completed that program in 2 years. Just between 25 and 28 credits a semester just to be done with it.

Susan R: So what did you do for those 4 years? Was it just pre-med?

Susan T: There was just trouble deciding I wanted to do with my life. I actually went from pre-med into psychology. And then went through the psychology program and realized there was a huge waiting list for the practicum. And in the 2 years I finished music education, I would then be ready to take the psychology practicum. So I suppose if I had stayed another year I would have been a double major but I was kind of done with college.

I thought I was going to be a high school teacher. I was absolutely positive I was going to teach high school until I student taught high school. And I realized it was not what I wanted. I was not around small kids – that was not my experience. I walked into my first day of teaching at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School and one of the 5th grade girls had cross stitched me a bookmark to welcome me. Well that was it. It was so natural for me to just show these children how to do what you do. I was hooked. So I guess about over twenty years in the classroom between Baltimore County and Frederick County has now landed me into the position where I am now.

My title says curriculum specialist for PK-5 visual arts and performing arts. What that means for those who are not in education: Priority is to support for my teachers to deliver a top quality arts experience for all of our kids. Because you have to have both: You can have great teachers but great teachers don’t work without a great curriculum and vice versa. My biggest championing is of the extensive curriculum and staff for our kids in Frederick County.

Susan R: I actually just read the piece and I can’t remember where I found it. But as a leader, our job is to put our teachers and students first and the curriculum is designed to lift them up and to help them explore. So people talk about standards first. They’re getting it wrong. It’s really people first and then your standards. I think you’re in total alignment with that.

Susan T: Absolutely. You can have the best curriculum in the world, but if you don’t have the relationships with your students – what you’re trying to teach them just doesn’t go as far. One of the greatest privileges is being able to watch our students grow up. We see them year after year. We develop that connection with them that a lot of the grade level teachers just don’t get.

Susan R: That is so true. And it’s such an honor to watch when they come in as kindergarteners and then they leave in 5th grade to go to middle school. And you’re like “I got to see that. I was able to just watch them grow over time”. So, it’s very cool.

So you have helped to spearhead the work on a new kind of 21st century skills scales. That’s a tough one to say!. So talk to us about what the skills are and why you’ve helped to work on this.

Susan T: Okay…you know it’s been a very reflective couple of years for me. You know sometimes hindsight is always 20/20 as the saying goes. And I just sit back and look at my teachers in the classroom now and I’m constantly saying, “If I only knew how you did it” or I finally saw what I would’ve done myself. And what I’ve been trying to do as a curriculum leader now is to sort of guide the mindframing way of…more of what my experience was like in fine arts as a child. Where, if my composition didn’t sound like my teacher’s, it wasn’t right. Right? Or if my artwork didn’t look like Mrs So-and-so’s hanging on the wall, then it wasn’t done right. And that’s just….

I’m not necessarily saying… it’s not how I think then, but it’s just, it’s the way a lot of people in my age bracket were brought up. That our job was to mimic the teacher to be considered successful. So I started to do a lot of reflecting of how we can move away from cookie cutter artistic experiences and really get the children involved in becoming sort of their own champion of their artistic experience. And I kept hearing the phrase “21st century skills, 21st century skills”. I knew what they were but sometimes I’m a little hesitant to jump on the train of the newest thing in education. So I sat back and let it brew a little bit. But I will tell you the turning point for me was the arts integration conference at UBMC this past spring.

We had the introductory session and the breakouts. One was called 21st century in fine arts and I thought, “OK. If it’s here at MSDE, then it must be getting some teeth somewhere.” So I went to listen and the presenter was great. I wasn’t exactly sure what I signed up for, but I watched and I listened and it was the proverbial light bulb – like a mind blowing moment. This is it. This is how to get away from cookie cutter experiences. This is how to engage in reflection and to collaborate. All the 21st century skills are things that we’ve been doing for years. Kind of like my own realization of arts integration. I’ve been doing it for years but I didn’t know what it was called. It was just “Yes, we read. Yes, we act things out. Yeah, all that kind of stuff”. And that was the beginnings of arts integration. Well the 21st century skills…oh my gosh. We do this stuff all the time. We do art projects, you do group things, you talk about… you have your gallery walks.

So one of the most intriguing parts was it took us two hours to get two columns of one indicator of the 21st century skills. Like, this isn’t for the faint of heart but this is going to happen in Frederick county this summer. The beginning part of the presentation was “we assess what we value” and essentially why are we assessing only the end product. And that got me thinking, if we’re assessing the end product, who’s creativity are we assessing? I must be assessing my creativity and judging a child based on how creative I thought they were.

Hang on – that’s a game changer.

Susan R: That’s huge.

Susan T: So I dedicated two weeks of my curriculum writing to a 21st century skills workshop and trying my best to put in a small paragraph what this was. I thought, “Please let people sign up.” I got quite a few – it was a great range. Visual art and music. Some teachers had just finished their first year, some teachers had been teaching over 20 years. So I had a fabulous umbrella perspective from the teachers standpoint. I brought them in and facilitated a workshop where, for the first 45 minutes, it was very heavy-duty “what is this and why are you doing it.” And it was so gratifying. One by one, they just got it. And it took us probably two or three days to do one scale and we started with the creativity scale thinking that might be the easiest of the four. But once they got it and once we started working through language, it was really something to watch the 21st century skills working in the 21st century skills workshop. We’re picking over vocabulary words which is fantastic.

So they were able to really kind of flow very smoothly through the other creativity scales. We presented it in August to the rest of the music and arts staff and it was almost like the Hallelujah Chorus. You could almost see it over some teachers’ heads. This is perfect, because where we’re going with this here is, in our county, students get not only traditional letter grades for music and art. They also get an effort grade. And that’s where the waters start to get a little muddy.

Susan R: Yes.

Susan T: Because some of us get straight A’s in visual art because that’s where our affinity is. But then that’s zero effort. Well that doesn’t make any sense. How can I get a zero in effort on a report card with an A? And how do we talk to parents and the community and some administrators that don’t have the fine arts background. And also don’t have to privilege that we do of, “I’ve had this child for six years. I know what they can do and where they are.” But you know in a quantifiable, databased society that we’re in, “because I said so” – there’s no space for that on the report card.

So we created these scales, too, as a series of talking points to show this is what it looks like in music and art. It’s not just picking up a crayon and copying the teacher. It’s not just picking up a pair of maracas and parroting back what the music teacher demonstrates to you. That’s kind of where it came about.

Susan R: Wow. There’s so much gold right in there in that whole explanation. Because – and I want to back up just a little bit because there’s two pieces in there that I kind of want to touch on.

The idea of cookie cutter art. Mimicking music. That kind of teaching. There is a huge conversation about whether or not that has any value anymore or whether we should do totally away with that. And whether we should go into more of an individualized, process-based approach to teaching. Do you find any value in that kind of previous thinking or things that we’ve done in the past that way?

Susan T: The age and the ability level of the student and their prior experiences in elementary school… I do think there needs to be in a level artistic mimicry. Because we’re the ones who provide the skill to them. They don’t have any experience to draw that. So I K-1 and sometimes in 2, I do expect there to be a whole lot of similar looking art because they’re just trying to figure out what the technique or the skill is. But then where these scales and where my gentle nudging would be is, now that they have got the skills, what can they can do with it?

Now that they can create a piece of artwork that looks very much like a Romero Britto piece, what could you do with that style and that technique that Britto didn’t do. That sort of thing. So if you’re in middle school or high school and you’re still imitating your teacher, I don’t know necessarily that there’s so much artistic growth there. But especially in the primary grades, yes – we’re a keeper of the keys of how to actually do it. But then we’re also the keeper of the keys of “So show me what else you can do.”

Susan R: Yeah, and I think, what’s so great about these scales is that you’re able to use them to look at both the process and the product. Because your process is going to be a direct reflection of the product that comes out of it. But there has not been a very easy or clear way to kind of evaluate or assess that process. Because it is so creative, it is so subjective, because everybody’s process can look a little different. So these scales give you a little bit of a bridge to look at that process in a new way, which I think is great.

I also came across a really interesting conversation over the weekend on Facebook about whether teachers should be required to assess at all. Specifically in the elementary grade levels, but also in the high school level. Teachers are being required to do SLOs (SGOs). So they’re being evaluated on student growth.

There’s a huge argument for not assessing at all because art and music are places where students go to relax from all of that pressure and stress from the “academics”. What do you think about that? How do the scales help with that?


Susan T: I think sometimes there’s a bit of confusion or muddying of the water between assessing student growth and assessing achievement. By the end of whatever your target instruction is for the SLO. And one of my personal struggles is trying to quantify and unquantifiable discipline.

Trying to pigeonhole our kids into 90-100 is an A. It really doesn’t work that way because, just like we weren’t all cut out to go to college, we’re not all cut out to be artists and musicians. And the struggle is real for those of us who have an affinity for one but not the other. If I can show that this my way, I can demonstrate that I have that knowledge. And that’s really far out of the box for way thinking is now with the paper and pencil, yes or no. Which is fine for theoretical skills for labeling your color wheel, for doing note values, or something like that. But the musicality and artistry is gone.

If you can order your dynamic levels from loud to soft that’s fantastic. I understand you know what they mean. But if you can’t perform them or you can’t use them, that’s not being a musician. So as far as doing away with assessing, I do think we need to assess. But part of the struggle is that assessment does not mean “stop instruction, and here’s a piece of paper”. I mean, I’m as guilty as anybody else. For years and years, that’s what an assessment was. Assessment equals test. And it’s a challenge for me now to be very careful to not even use the word assessment anymore because it doesn’t mean test. But what we as a culture are so ingrained that that means – a test – that this is the be all and end all, you either know it or you don’t. And that’s not really the case. To get it that frame of ongoing.

So do we need to assess? Yes, but we need to maybe figure out how to change the mindset that an assessment isn’t a quantifiable score on paper. It’s a curve – a beginning, a middle and an end of just one year. That it doesn’t stop – just like math skills and language arts skills don’t stop – but to sort of change the idea of what assessment looks like in fine arts. That it just doesn’t look like an opscan test would in the SATs or for a math test or something.

Susan R: So in these 21st century skills scales that you’ve got created. First of all, tell us what the skills are that you developed these scales for. And then talk about how lay them out, because this is fascinating.

Susan T: I gave and awful lot of liberty to the team. Figuring if they signed up for this and they didn’t really know what they were volunteering for, I’m not going to sit and, you know, be overly structured. We looked at creativity first of the 4, collaboration, critical thinking. We did creativity first.

I laid it all out for them. There were sample – on the MSDE site – there were sample 21st century skill continuums and I showed them that. And when you looked at all of the indicators, we said we could start wherever we want. Because no one is any more important that another. And they decided that creativity is the easiest one to start with. OK.

So what does creativity look like? What do we want to do? What do we want to show? I said that we can’t just focus on the end product. So what if we start at the beginning? So then you can see where they start. Ok great, so what about all the stuff that happens in the middle? So now we’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. Then we started talking about levels. This is what we want to do: we don’t want to substitute this as a grading product. We don’t want to have five levels. I can see what’s going to happen. Your “Master” is going to be an “A”, your “Experienced” is going to be a “B”. I don’t want that.

So we decided on four levels very purposefully. To not follow a grading scale and had a whole lot of dialogue about what do you even call those levels. What do you call a person who has really no experience for just a very baseline idea of what’s going on. Do you call them a novice? Do you call them a beginner? That’s one of the biggest conversations we had – what do we even call things. So we settled on the four levels based on things that kids can identify with like a master. That has the wizard hat because you’re a wizard. You’re the best at everything.

The Novice, the Apprentice -the most beginning level if you will – has a construction worker with the light on because you need to see your way. Now will the children associate that with something else? Maybe. We have one it looks like an Indiana Jones hat, a graduate cap for the Experienced part and then came the definition of, “OK so then what does that mean?” What does it mean if you’re a master of something? We needed to think – we did it actually from two perspectives. To the Teacher, What does that mean? And then to the child, what does that mean?

So what we also do was we created a set of four posters and they would have in big words, you know, “Creativity” or “Collaboration” or whatever it was. And then a child friendly definition of what that meant. So when the teacher started to weave these into his or her lessons, you could say, “When she talks about creativity, I understand that it’s not me copying or me using your idea off the Internet and turning it into my own artwork.

So then we also have a resource for teachers that literally looks like a hat rack. And it’s posted in our classrooms and it has all of of the 4 hats and it says “which hat will you wear today?”. And it has a little brief description of the Master, the Apprentice, all four levels. And I see where teachers will conclude the lesson and invite children to share which did they wear today. And it’s OK if you’re a novice.

Oh I saw the greatest lesson of the first experience with these 21st century skills. This was a music class and it wasn’t even about music. The teacher asked, where in your life are you a novice? Where in your life are you a master? Because it’s ok to move back and forth. The ideas isn’t to master everything at the end of every grade level.

But it’s OK to say you know I have questions and here’s what I need to do to move to the next level. So it was a very rich conversation with the teachers of saying, how do we communicate – not necessarily a concrete example of what it looks like, because that’s part of the beauty and the confusion of all of this is we cannot tell you “A master looks like this” because it depends where you started from. If I started out as a master according to the success criteria, then what does master look like for me? It might be different for my shoulder partner here who started out at the apprentice level. So you know it’s a lot of brainpower going into these for teachers to say “how do I reach kids? How do I have students reflect of where am I and then where do I need to go?” Because I do go into classrooms and see “Is this good enough? Am I done yet? Is this okay.

Another piece behind why did this in the first place is to say, How can we get students to self-motivate and how can I make this better? What can I do to take this to the next level instead of running and saying “is this right, is the right?” Because that’s not the point. It doesn’t need sound right to me. It needs to sound right to you.

Susan R: Well, and I think what’s so incredibly valuable about that… in the arts process and the artistic experience – if you were to talk to a master, I don’t know that they would say that they’re done. I don’t know that they would call themselves a master. Because there is an intrinsic drive and this allows for that and it takes the stigma away. I mean, there are so many kids who walk in and they’re out for that “A”. And once they get the “A”, they’re done! It’s like “I’m finished, I don’t need to do anymore”. And this allows them to go between levels and takes away that stigma. And at the same time we’re always learning.

You know, one of the populations we don’t talk about enough is our gifted and talented kids. We talk a lot about middle. We talk about raising achievement scores. And we talk a lot about students who need a lot of support. But what about those learners who blow through everything? You know they’re talented, but it like we let them go. We all you think oh they’ve got nothing to worry about. And so they’re sliding backwards because there’s no push for them. So I love that these scales allow them to think about “OK, well I’m the master here maybe compared to other students. But I’m not a master for me yet.”

Susan T: We actually had some professional development last year specifically targeted for the gifted and talented child in the Fine Arts. What do you do with those students who not only blow through your project or your assignments, but they do it right? I have 30 minutes, what do I do now? Now with these scales we can say, Look. Where are you on all of this and how can you know you really are? They’re good for everyone.

Susan R: I was just going to ask. Does it have to be used in just arts classrooms? Well, not “just” arts classrooms. Only arts classrooms. Or can they be used across the board?

Susan T: Absolutely. And I have a kind of zero entry plan for weaving this in. One of the most gratifying outcomes of the curriculum writing that we did, towards the end of the whole session – I did four weeks this summer – and at the end we have the administrative leadership meeting. And we sort of setup the cafeteria as a science fair style of all the content areas. And the administrators come around and talk to the teachers, they talk to the curricular leaders. What did you do? What can I expect to see?

And we talked about these 21st century skills and the second principal that came by and she studied them. And she goes, “well we could use this in our language arts room. Well we could do this for math, too”. Umm-hmm. So it was perfect.

I’m like, yeah that’s the point. It’s not meant to be contained in the fine arts room. The skills and the vocabulary were very deliberately chosen to not be art centric. So I have couple of buildings where teachers have said can we have these? Can we give these to classroom teachers? Yes please. I would love to walk into any grade level classroom anywhere in Frederick County and see these hanging.

We’re only two or three months in, so it’s a little premature. But absolutely. These scales – I mean I will share them with anybody and anyone who wants them. You know work is at its best when it’s shared and used by other people.

Susan R: Absolutely. So. Do you see this as a doorway into maybe arts integration and STEAM? As a way for people to have these kinds of collaborative conversations and develop that?

Susan T: I think that the scales can serve as a sort of a comfort zone for those who are not fine arts teachers who may be a little hesitant to add the “A” to STEM or to do the arts integration because of the common pain point of, “I’m not a musician. I can’t sing and I can’t draw. So therefore I can’t do it.

The scales show that it’s not really on the teacher to do that. It’s more on the student to explore his or her own artistry or musical behavior. And when you look at those, it gives you sort of the framework for those unboxable characteristics of artistic learning.

I mean how do you assign a number value to creativity, to collaboration, and how does that apply in the arts? Well here is where this came from. It came from the arts, so it works for us. Hopefully yes that will be it will be a good resource for classroom teachers who are interested in jumping in with arts integration and STEAM as to how you can work in theses skills that aren’t so easy to track with paper and pencil.

Susan R: Yep. So one last question because I can already hear it. I’ve heard it many different times. How do you get parents and other stakeholders on board with this when they’re so used to seeing grades come home? A’s, B’s, C’s… where they can’t quantify. I’ve even seen elementary school parents and you give students a satisfactory grade, where they ask “what translates to an “A?” So how do you foresee being able to kind of have those conversations with parents and trying to get them to understand that?

Susan T: Our teachers do a great job of being in contact with the parents through newsletters and they send home resources. But theses scales in particular – the A-B-C grades are what we’re used to as a culture and perhaps no matter what we do, we have in our mind what an “A” is. And as a teacher that was never really where the conversations were it was always around this effort grade. How can you tell me that my child isn’t giving effort, isn’t going above and beyond? And that was one of the biggest catalysts behind these scales. Let me show you how we look at how those students have the opportunity to reflect. Let me show you through this recording or through this snapshot of their final piece where they are on this and they had the opportunity to reflect. Really it is just bringing the parents in and it’s the time too.

This is very different than anything that we’re used to. Our teachers are getting used to it too. So once the teachers can get accustomed to sort of where were heading as a county, conversations between administrators and other stakeholders and parents and such will become a little easier once the teachers have a full grasp. This is one of the biggest requests we have this year. Wanting more professional development about it and how can we do this, how do I incorporate these scales into my teaching, which is fantastic. So that’s one of my charges for this year. It’s to work with the staff that wants it and who are really buying into it now.

So I think that question will have a little more solid answer by the end of this year once we’ve had the chance to work and have conversations with parents and administrators to gauge the understanding and judge where we need to go from there.

Susan R: I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I did and be sure to check out Teaching with Creativity for more ideas and tips and techniques, just like the one you saw today. Thank you so much to Susan Thomas for sharing her wonderful expertise with us today. And if you found this valuable, please consider sharing it with your friends or colleagues and sending us a review over on iTunes or on YouTube so that others can find this show as well. Thanks so much and I’ll see you on our next episode.