Everywhere you turn in education today, you hear mention of “21st Century Learning.” It is very natural that whenever there is talk about “change,” there is anxiety and confusion until people fully understand what is meant by the change. A parent in a very direct and honest way reached out to me recently after hearing me talk about the growing emphasis of teaching, collaboration, creativity, and critical problem solving. “I don’t get it!” he said, “I went to school and did well. My oldest kids have gone through school and it looked exactly the way it was when I went to school. I didn’t like school, but I got through it and I’ve done well.” Then he added, “So what is this talk about “changing” school? I don’t understand what you mean by 21st Century Learning? What’s the definition of it?”
It is hard to fully grasp such an abstract concept when we have been all through school and have all succeeded. “Why fix what’s not broken?” is a common refrain. But let’s be honest — education is broken. The world is changing. The skillset needed in the world today is far different than the one needed just a few years ago. The challenge for us is to “redefine” what has been successful in the past and apply those concepts to the new demands and expectations. For example, we have to:
Redefine the classroom. Students need space to learn, talk and share. There is still plenty of content for them to learn, but they need room to collaborate and to work together as teams. Our students are finding that in classrooms, it is far easier to work around tables than desks. Tables allow them space to gather to talk, create projects and draw on large sheets of paper when necessary, etc. Such an environment facilitates their work and makes for a far more productive experience.
Redefine rigor. The reality is, there is plenty of content and now we are adding on more skills that need to be learned. The question of rigor really focuses now on “How do we begin to utilize all that information? How do we take all that we have learned and now begin to apply it directly? How do we define the problems? How do we get the team to come up with possible solutions?” And let’s remember — we are finally realizing that there may be multiple solutions to a problem. How do we analyze each one? How do we make a decision on which to follow? How do we relate to the other people on the team?
Redefine “teachers.” Teachers are quickly becoming facilitators, guides, mentors, sources and resources. There is plenty of time when they still need to impart knowledge and information, but so often they have to get out of their own comfort zones to get the students engaged in what they are learning. A wise man once said that true education is when the teacher and the student are in the same person.
Redefine the school day. The challenge here is time. How do we create a schedule where there is time to reflect, talk, work together and really begin to get excited about what we are working on? With technology at our fingertips, can we finally grasp the concept of “any time, any place” learning? As students grow passionate about their learning — will it extend well beyond the hours of a school day? Personally, I already see clear evidence of that.
Redefine homework. Homework is still necessary, but it is the make up of homework that is changing. There is reading to be done, time to reflect on what happened during the day, time to explore and time to gain information. Evenings are more for time to review materials, view videos, and responding to some guided questions that will help students be prepared for the lab or the project the next day. The days of doing endless problems for any class, when five clearly would have demonstrated our understanding of a concept, should be long gone. The drill and kill methods that maybe had us anxious to learn the material, only taught us really how to regurgitate that material. We are trying to get our children to be prepared to go far beyond rote memory in their ability to be analytical and innovative.
Redefine assignments. While assignments meant worksheets, essays, etc., now the assignments are project- and solution-oriented. Writing is still critical as is public speaking. Communication abilities have expanded, however and students are finding an enormous amount of material at their fingertips.
The challenges are real. But let’s be honest — the future is now. School is not a place just to send our children and hope they “absorb” an education. It was John Dewey who once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Our world is different and rapidly changing. What we are trying to do in education today is have our children prepared for that “new” world and to understand how to use these needed skills to be adaptable and flexible. Finding the time to reflect on what they have to do and then to step forward in a proactive way to solve whatever problems they may face is the key. It is an exciting time in education! We are asking far more out of students and teachers than we have ever asked before. Together, we will help our children develop the confidence and competence they need to face the new world head-on. Maybe then we can stop with the references to “21st Century Learning” and get on with the fact that this is just learning… period!