In the TLN Forum discussion, a middle grades teacher in the southeast offered this provocative conversation starter:
I'm starting to believe that 21st Century learning is just a dream in today's schools, simply because there just aren't any shared definitions of what 21st Century learning looks like -- and I'm not sure most teachers or principals could pick out a 21st Century classroom if they saw one!
For most of my peers, 21st Century classrooms are characterized by whiteboards and student responders. As long as they roll the class sets of laptops and clickers in the room once in a while, they're preparing students for tomorrow -- even though their instruction remains teacher-driven and static.
I argue with one person regularly who starts every conversation about technology with, "Do you know what whiteboards let me do?"
"I could care less," I say. "What do they let your students do?"
I think that's where the disconnect begins: Shouldn't every conversation about instruction start with a clear vision for what we want students to be doing -- and why those actions and behaviors actually matter?
And if so, are the actions and behaviors necessary for success in the 21st Century different than the actions and behaviors necessary for success in previous decades? How? Can technology support the development of these actions and behaviors?
Could your peers answer these questions? Your principals?
A midwestern teacher replied:
I could not agree more, especially with your contention that very few people interpret "21st century learning" as anything more than the application of cool technology to what we've always done, in our brick-bound classrooms.
I am part of a county-wide task force to build programming for accelerated learners; mostly superintendents and curriculum directors (read: turf protectors). We met recently and it was three hours' worth of frustration, trying to decide #1) who was really "gifted" (because that matters so much) and #2) what new ways we could deliver accelerated learning opportunities to them, whoever they are.
What it boiled down to, at the end of the day, was that seat time and per-pupil funding trumped all other possibilities--and we needed to meet monthly for a whole year, because we didn't want to rush into decisions about utilizing technologies to let our most able learners take college-level classes.
Near the end of the meeting, I said this: "None of this has anything to do with what's now possible, via technology, or what our most capable kids WANT to learn, and are learning, completely on their own. While we are scheduling a year's worth of meetings, our brightest kids are forming quasi-professional networks and directing and choosing their own learning. We're still thinking like traditionalists."
This, of course, went over like the proverbial lead dirigible. We'll see if I get invited back.
Then high school teacher JB wrote:
I think about these questions/concerns every day. I'd love to share my thoughts and experiences in my school district as we've wrestled with this unstated mission that we must transform our schools into 21st Century learning environments.
[The first poster said]: “I think that's where the disconnect begins: Shouldn't every conversation about instruction start with a clear vision for what we want students to be doing----and why those actions and behaviors actually matter?”
I agree. In fact, most folks would say they agree. Yet, we fail to have this vital conversation so our actions do not always match our philosophy. In my experience, I find something different about the conversations about using technology to teach than the conversations about using other methods to teach. And it boils down to this. We aren't talking enough about "why it matters" (as you put it), we only talk about "how to do it." But, more and more teachers just like you are saying "so what?" to their colleagues and initiating the vital conversations about why using technology can have more impact on learning than not. No dream can die when a struggle like this exists.
[The first poster said]: “And if so, are the actions and behaviors necessary for success in the 21st Century different than the actions and behaviors necessary for success in previous decades? How? Can technology support the development of these actions and behaviors?”
In this decade, my lifestyle and behaviors have changed tremendously because of technology. It's not just about using a computer or other fancy tech tools, either. It's my thinking. I need people in a different way than earlier in my life and career.
I see it everywhere. Something has happened that has created a need for people to connect differently and more often than before. And not on someone's front porch or on the phone. We need loose, virtual relationships to remain near the surface at all times - for business, for family, for play, for school, for government, and so on. You were concerned about accurate definitions of 21st Century learning. Another way to think about it is to think about 21st Century living. What is living like now that is drastically different than living before? When we answer that, we know what our students need to know.
For me, I look for deep meaning in the history I teach. Meaning for them, not for me. So I've designed an election project that helps them connect with an "election partner" to discuss and make sense of this election for their lives. I couldn't possibly do this without adults willing to connect to kids or technology.
I could go on forever with zeal for this type of learning. But I really want to underscore the fact that our instincts about this new way of learning are correct. We know it's necessary because we live it and our students will, too. (If they don't already!) It's not about computers; it's about what computers do. They connect. After all, most teachers I know are inspired by the process of making connections. Some of them just don't realize why those connections are so important.
Thanks for initiating a conversation about what students are able to do as they learn in new ways. I'm thinking I should take down my "It's All About Me" sign by my desk and replace it with a large question mark to remind me to think about why I do what I do.