Scott McLeod
A group of students sit together at a table with papers and tablets working on a school project

The ISTE Standards represent an ambitious framework for using technology for learning, but they are easily achievable when schools and districts understand and adhere to the accompanying educator behaviors and support structures known as the ISTE Essential Conditions. As the founding director of CASTLE, a university center dedicated to technology leadership and innovation, I work regularly with schools that are integrating the ISTE Standards into their day-to-day instruction.

What I've learned from this work is that in order to accomplish technology-enhanced outcomes in schools, we must confront two common roadblocks that often get in the way of deep learning: 1) Emphasizing the digital tools rather than student learning, and 2) aiming for lower-level student learning outcomes. 

These tendencies are often reinforced at edtech conferences where many presenters focus on tool usage and traditional outcomes rather than powerful student learning experiences. 

The ISTE Standards confront this challenge head on through a strong and unapologetic emphasis on student competencies and ways of being. In other words, instead of stating that students should know how to use spreadsheets, graphic design software or learning management systems, the ISTE Standards clearly articulate that what we really want is students who are powerful learners, designers, citizens, collaborators, thinkers and problem solvers in meaningful and authentic contexts.

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The mindset and language embodied in the ISTE Standards are critically important in order to prepare students for success in a technology-infused global innovation society. We also need to back up our words with action steps and implementation structures that help us reach our desired outcomes. 

"Instead of stating that students should know how to use spreadsheets, graphic design software or learning management systems, the ISTE Standards clearly articulate that what we really want is students who are powerful learners, designers, citizens, collaborators, thinkers and problem solvers in meaningful and authentic contexts."

Turning our ideals into action

When we walk the halls of our schools, we often see gaps between our digital learner profiles and what’s actually happening in our classrooms because we haven’t yet translated our ideals into daily operation. One tool that can help bridge that gap is the free 4 Shifts Protocol, an instructional (re)design resource that emphasizes deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work and rich technology infusion

The protocol was designed to help schools answer the question of "Technology for the purpose of WHAT?" with something better than “teacher efficiency and traditional factual recall and procedural regurgitation.”

The 4 Shifts Protocol aligns with many of the outcomes articulated in the student section of the ISTE Standards and provides concrete “look fors” and “think abouts” that help us consider robust technology infusion in our day-to-day lessons and units. 

For example, the ISTE Standards state that students should be empowered learners who “take an active role in choosing and achieving their learning goals” and “demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways” (Standard 1.1.c). 

Section C of the protocol extends the ISTE standard by asking some very specific questions about a lesson or unit, such as:

  • Who selected what is being learned?
  • Who selected how students demonstrate their knowledge and skills and how it will be assessed?
  • Who is the primary user of the technology? 

These questions provide reflection and dialogue opportunities for us educators. If we like our answers to the questions in Section C, awesome! But if we’re not quite there yet, we can pivot toward the desired answer instead: "The answer to that question is teacher. What if we wanted the answer to be students? How can we redesign this activity to make that happen?”

This process is preferably collaborative, because more brains equal more ideas!

Looking for a framework to guide tech use? Download the ISTE Standards today!

Similarly, the Knowledge Constructor standard states that students should “build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems” (1.3.d) and should “use a deliberate design process for … solving authentic problems” (1.4.a).
Section B of the 4 Shifts Protocol extends these ISTE standards by inviting us to consider such questions as:

  • Are students asked to take on an authentic societal role as part of their learning?
  • Are students using authentic discipline-specific tools and technologies?
  • Are students creating real-world products or performances for authentic audiences? 

Again, if we’re trying to put some real-world lenses onto student work and we like our answers, then great! And if we’re not quite there yet, we can use those same questions to help us collaboratively redesign toward desired outcomes. If we’re really ambitious, we also can fold in one of the items from Section D of the protocol — adults outside of this school — and have students partner with outside experts or organizations as they engage in authentic, real-world activities.

Emphasis is on student learning

The 4 Shifts Protocol was designed to be an extremely practical implementation framework that complements and extends the ISTE Standards. Like the student section of the ISTE Standards, every item on the protocol emphasizes the student learning experience, not what the teacher is doing. Many thousands of educators worldwide are using the protocol and it’s freely available under a Creative Commons license, allowing you to remix and reorganize the protocol items as desired. 

Hopefully the 4 Shifts Protocol will be useful to you as you work to integrate the ISTE Standards into your daily instruction and coaching contexts. Please stay in touch. I am happy to support you with your instructional leadership or redesign efforts. 

Don't miss Scott McLeod's session "What Do Deeper Learning Leaders Do Differently? at ISTELive 23 in Philadelphia. Register today!


Scott McLeod is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado Denver. He is an ISTE Ambassador and Community Leader, and was the 2016 recipient of ISTE’s Award for Outstanding Leadership. Scott works regularly with educators and schools and has authored numerous books and articles on leadership, technology, innovation and deeper learning.