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21st century teaching dispositions

April 23rd, 2009

This teachers’ work thread in this blog comes in part from a research project we’re doing here at NZCER that attempts to understand what it looks like when teachers are working in 21C ways. As Ally wrote in the very first entry of this thread, our curiosity was to try and figure out even what we mean when we talk about the actual practice of 21C teaching and learning (you can read that here).

In our meetings and our talking and our rereading of data, we still haven’t quite figured out what exactly we mean when we talk about what it takes to have teachers who teach in 21C ways. Is this a curricular set of choices? A pedagogical set of choices? A way of being in the classroom? A set of theories or beliefs a teacher might have? We are happy to engage with any of those ideas.

Our first stab at it, though, is to wonder about whether there is a set of dispositions/ beliefs/ philosophies etc. that individual teachers might hold that would lead us to believe that perhaps they were more aligned with 21C ideas about education. After a couple of different sorts of data collection, the research team pulled together a set of ideas about what these dispositions etc might be. We thought we’d share them here and talk about them together to see how readers connected with them.

We found that some of what we all gravitated towards in those teachers we spent time with that we agreed had "it" was a particular set of ideas about which they were thinking. I think of this as thinking dispositions. It wasn’t always the specifics of what they were thinking that we were particularly drawn to, but the fact that they were questioning the old ways of doing things. And it wasn’t even enough to be questioning these different bits—they had to be questioning those old ways in a connected package.

The other main component of "it" in the teachers we all somehow agreed were 21C teachers was the way they showed up in the world. This was a kind of attitude, a way of being in the world, a set of personal characteristics which they might have had whether they were doctors or teachers or taxi drivers or accountants. (This distinction is not iron-clad but I hope it’ll get more clear as I talk about it here.) I’ll give examples of the elements of both the thinking and the being dispositions.

Thinking dispositions: 21C ways of thinking

  1. 21C teachers need to be thinking about education in new ways, and they need to be linking those ways together. They need to be thinking about the purposes of schooling, the role of knowledge and content, the relationship between pedagogy and curriculum. They don’t necessarily have to come up with the same answers or focus on the same connections, but from our perspective they have to have a mindful awareness of the often taken-for-granted pieces of schooling.
  2. 21C teachers need to be thinking about students and the relationships between students, teachers, families, and communities in new ways. Again, there aren’t right and wrong answers in this category; it’s the fact of the wondering about new kinds of relationships that signals to us the 21C teacher. Other teachers, who were doing innovative and interesting things in their classrooms but were not ever questioning the one-teacher-with-many-students-in-a-single-cell-classroom, did not strike us as 21C.
  3. 21C teachers need to be thinking about the future. This one might strike readers as even more obvious than the others, but we found it was often missing even for those teachers who had self-selected as being particularly interested in 21C learning. Unless teachers were open to ideas that the 21C might be quite different from the past and that those differences might be unknown and unknowable, they did not seem to us to be really engaged in 21C teaching.

Now each of these thinking dispositions seems fairly obvious to me as I type. Of course teachers should think in new ways about school and schooling, about relationships between those traditionally inside schools (e.g. students and teachers) those traditionally outside (e.g. communities and families), and about what future they’re preparing students to enter. The discovery we made on the research team after talking through the data, though, was that many many teachers—even those explicitly interested in 21C education—in fact do not think about these things and instead swim in the water of them, unquestioningly. This makes perfect sense (the old saying, "If you want to learn about water, do not ask a fish" comes to mind). And it has to change if we’re to see 21C teaching.

Being dispositions: 21C ways of being

We also saw what we thought of as individual characteristics in those teachers with more 21C ways of being. We found that while there were a variety of characteristics that seemed useful for 21C teachers, there were three that seemed to us to be mandatory and one that seemed, if not mandatory, at least important. You’ll see as you read that these are often tightly entwined with the Thinking dispositions above, in that some of the thinking may give rise to these ways of BEing and some of the BEing may give rise to new ways of thinking. Nevertheless, I’ll marshal on and act as though they’re separate for the purposes of useful explanation.

  1. Openness and reflectiveness, about practice, about self. Those teachers who we thought of as 21C teachers were deeply engaged in reflection about themselves and their teaching. They were constantly asking themselves why they did this or that, why students responded in particular ways, why schools were set up as they were.
  2. Comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. To teach in new ways which prepare students for an unknown future requires a kind of comfort with things that are new and uncertain. Some of the teachers we worked with thrived under this uncertainty; others tolerated it. Whether they thrived or tolerated, all of them had to be able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity without shutting it down or running from them to make our list.
  3. The capacity for juggling multiple things at once. Because each of these pieces is so entwined in practice, for us to recognise one of the teachers in our study as 21C, she had to be able to handle more than one thing at a time. In fact, it was important for these teachers to hold on to multiple strands of these ideas simultaneously in order to synthesise across them or put them together in new ways. Someone who thinks first about mathematics and then about literacy and then about science, or who thinks first about students and then about community members and then about the future, is unlikely to put the ideas together to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
  4. The ability to author these ideas. Here’s the one we weren’t totally convinced about and so we’ll hold tentatively here. It seemed to us that in order to show up in ways we recognised as 21C, you had to actually put these ideas together in some kind of self-generated packet. We didn’t care exactly what the ideas were that people were putting together, nor did we mind if people weren’t putting the ideas together in ways that were aligned with our ideas. What mattered to us was that each teacher was putting together his own package. If a teacher could quote from a book or resource where someone else had done a masterful job of putting these ideas together, and even if he was putting those ideas to use on his own, we did not necessarily believe that this was a solidly 21C teacher. For us to really believe in the solidity of it, a teacher had to put the ideas together in her own way and use them in her own way. Reading things and citing the ideas of others was great, but citing an authority outside yourself as the reason you knew what you knew seemed to us to be a less robust way of holding these ideas.

So that’s the list of them, or at least that’s the list I take away from the discussions we had (my colleagues may pile on and show me their different perspectives). We believed that if we saw these thinking and being dispositions in a teacher, we’d recognise that teacher as 21C. Without those dispositions, the teacher could strike us as a fantastic, helpful, intelligent, wonderful teacher, but not as a 21C teacher from our perspective.

We intend, over the next weeks, to play with some of these ideas about dispositions and to put flesh around this initial skeleton of our thinking. But we want readers to help too. As we write, we’d like you to think about where the holes are in our thinking. Are there dispositions we’re missing? Are there some here you don’t believe in? Perhaps we’re misguided with the idea about dispositions generally and you have a better way to put these ideas together? Come along and play with us!

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  1. Pat Hargreaves
    | #1

    “Not doing the student’s thinking for them…”

    I like it – a lot.

    It kind of worries me that we might be seeking to label a 21C teacher – as if somehow not being (or BEing if you want) is somewhat deficit.
    I think looking for traits or personal philosophies in teachers would be largely a waste of time – the reason for this is that students happen to be a diverse group – as such our teachers may also need to be diverse for 21C education.

    If we move away from the largely content based instructional methods (I come at this from a secondary school perspective), seemingly towards co-construction, negotiated outcomes and, most importantly, relationship building, then it is not the traits of teacher we should be worrying about but how do we get a teacher in front of a student (or grouping of students) whereby this relationship is most likely to flourish… This suggest matching a teacher (or group of teachers) to certain students – not subjects.
    In my experience, this concept is a little to ‘out there’ for teachers and school leaders to grasp.

    This suggests that (good) teaching, therefore a good 21C teacher, is likely to be situational in nature. This may be that idea of flexibility to some degree.

    In terms of what should then occur in the schoolroom for 21C education, should also be situational. This requires, in my opinion, an understanding of pedagogical practice that allows a student to shift from dependency on the teacher to one of independence or autonomy (I like the term interdependence…). This understanding, however is not just the domain of the teacher, the student also needs to understand where they are headed so that they can relate situations where a didactic approach may be required, or a more consultative role is needed for them.

    We could argue ad nauseous about stuff like optimism, humour, curiosity, love of learning blah, blah – but it doesn’t get to the heart of change for 21C education – if change is warranted then teachers need to be the change agents.

    I haven’t any idea about the people you interviewed for your research, but I’d put a bottle of wine on the table that the stuff you are trying to pin down as 21C teaching could be interpreted as that of change agentry. Reflective, at ease with ambiguity, seeking new ways, questioning the old…

    And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most came from outside of the educational industry in some way. The ‘fresh eyes’ as it were.

    And for what it’s worth, in a modern world, if I wanted to know about water I’d ask the fish – not the fisherman. Want to know about education – ask the students.

    I realise I wander about – sorry.
    To summarise –

    21C learning is about a differing teaching pedagogy – specifically shifting learners from dependency to independence as a learner.

    21C Teachers, at the outset anyway, need to perceive themselves as change agents and act accordingly.

  2. Ally
    | #2

    Perhaps another thinking disposition is something about thinking about learning and the student’s role in it, in new ways. Perhaps this comes under your second one, Jennifer, but may be we need to spell it out a bit more too. In “Women’s ways of knowing”, Belenky uses the phrase “midwife-teachers” to describe teachers who see students as active constructors of knowledge. She says, “They support their students’ thinking, but they do not do the students’ thinking for them or expect students to think as they do…”. Did we see evidence of this in the interviews?

  3. Ally
    | #3

    I’ve just been reading the Teachers’ Council newsletter and it made reference to Graeme Aitken’s key note address at last year’s world Teachers’ Day conference. In that he said he thought teachers need to be wise people (people who displayed curiosity, fallibility, open-mindedness, suspending judgement and optimism.) I think we agree on most of those dispositions but have we considered optimism and is this important? His presentation is available on the Teachers’ Council website.

  4. Ally
    | #4

    I think you have captured our emerging themes from our discussions really well Jennifer. I’m interested in having another look at the data from interviews I did to see how many examples I can find illustrating those themes. Just a quick thought though – This is not really a disposition but I was struck by how many of the people we interviewed were in some ways “outsiders”. Many had taught overseas, or in a variety of situations or come to teaching after other careers. Perhaps that sort of “otherness” allows the fish to see the water as you put it!
    Also I agree with you, Chris, I think that modelling being a life long learner is probably another important characteristic. Will look for examples of that too in our data. Thanks!

  5. | #5

    I was thinking, late at night, so the thinking might not be that good, that there did seem to be something important that wasn’t covered in the list above. Something about practising learning, embodying the notions about learning as a way of espousing them. Joining students in the learning process… engaging in teaching AS learning. Maybe that is included in the categories above. I’ll see if I can make this idea coalesce into something clearer and come back to this. This entry made great reading. Wicked. C.

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