Posts Tagged ‘21st century education’

Computing our way into the future?

March 4th, 2009

I’m just back from a conference in Rotorua—Learning@schools. It’s a CORE conference and there are heaps of people thinking about technology and learning and it’s got me thinking about what we mean about 21st century schools and how technology interacts with what we mean about that. The principal I was sitting next to on the flight home was reading a wide variety of tech magazines, and she and I got to talking about the way technology fosters 21st century learning but does not create that.

So I’ve been thinking about that interaction. Could you have a totally wired school with nothing that I might recognise as 21st century learning at all? I think that’s a clear yes.  You could use computers to drill facts and to be the medium for ordinary learning; that would be a very technologically-advanced school without any real 21st century ideas. I fear, in fact, that this is most of what we usually mean. “Works like a regular whiteboard!” trumpets one of the signs around an electronic whiteboard. “Bring fun into the classroom” says another ad. What is educational technology for and why does it buy us anything more than shiny toys? If we’re just using technology to have the same relationship to knowledge—but this time with a kind of video-game feel so that the kids won’t notice that they’re memorising spelling words—what have we done really? It seems to me you have all the electronic equipment in the world without ever doing a single 21st century thing.

So then my question becomes: can you have 21st century learning without a single thing that plugs in? I have wondered about the difference between 21st century schooling ideas and John Dewey’s ideas, for example. He, writing towards the beginning of the last century, certainly didn’t have his finger on the pulse of 21st century education. And yet there are so many of his ideas that carry on into our thinking about what a future-focused school looks like.  He emphasized the importance of educating children in real world experiences, connecting with the community, caring for the whole child. He was hands-on and based in a cycle of experience and reflection that would look quite familiar to us as modern learning theories. This leads me to wonder what part of 21st century schooling is really new and what part is actually just what we have thought of as progressive education for the last 80 years? Certainly we who think about 21st century ideas wouldn’t say they are the same as Dewey’s, would we? We would think there would have to be something, well, more 21st century about things, right?

This leads me to wonder: Could you have a school that had no access to computers or any connectedness and still think of that as 21st century education? I think that for me, the answer is No, but I’m not sure exactly. I guess it’s that to my mind 21st century education has to be connected to the web of information and interaction in some way, would have to be making sense of the world as it exists digitally as well as the world as it exists outside.  I guess it seems to me that the world is now bigger than just (just?!) the things we can touch and see and explore. Now the world includes the ideas and facts and stories and relationships and 21st century schooling needs to include them too. But I’m still confused about what technology adds to the possibility that people will be able to change their teaching to be more future-focused. I’m confused about how we can use 21st century technology to get closer to 21st century ways of thinking about knowledge and teaching—without creating video-game experiences that let students interact with older forms of skills and information in new ways. Do you have any ideas about that?

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Teachers’ work research project

February 25th, 2009

What are the skills, attributes and dispositions that teachers need to work successfully with 21st Century learners? This is the question that a small team of us has been thinking and talking about over the last year. To start the conversation we advertised for interested teachers to attend a workshop where we explored ideas about the qualities teachers might need to work with students in an increasingly complex, connected and fast-changing world. From that initial workshop we then invited some teachers to talk to us more about their views about the purpose of education, what is changing (or needs to change) in schools and teaching, and why.

We are now at the stage where we have quite a lot of data to think about. Today Jennifer and I met to talk about how we are going to write about what we have found out so far—not an easy task! The main problem is trying to pin down what we are actually looking for in this project and recognising “it” when we see it. How can we (who have been conditioned by our current education system) know what the characteristics are of successful teachers of the future? Yet this is an important thing to do if we are to produce the teachers we need for the future.

From the workshop and interviews it became obvious that the words that people used were not going to be good indicators of the qualities teachers need to work successfully with 21st Century learners. Phrases such as “life long learning”, “engagement” and “enquiry” for instance, were used by many participants but as a research team we sensed they had different meanings for different people…and anyway how could we differentiate between those who say they do this and those who actually do it?

We haven’t been into classrooms to see what teachers do and in any case the current context of schools may well be constraining what teachers are able to do, so looking at practice is also unlikely to help us identify this elusive “it”.

Yet, amazingly, when we have talked about our data as a team we have had high levels of agreement about which teachers seem to display what we are looking for, even though we can’t (as yet) define it! What is it that we believe we get a sense of in some places and not in others?

Given the exploratory nature of this project and the difficulty we seem to be having in identifying what exactly “it” is that we are looking for, Jennifer and I thought we might try making our wonderings about this project more public as we think about writing the article—and invite your input. By sharing our emergent, fledgling ideas maybe collectively we can get a handle on this slippery beast. We invite you to think with us and to tell us how these things make sense to you and to take this conversation about 21st century teaching and what it looks like into your experience and your life. As we publish this on the website, we look forward to hearing from colleagues we know and people we don’t yet know as we all puzzle through.

Teachers' work ,

It’s a tragedy – or is it?

February 25th, 2009

The traditional academic curriculum – powerful knowledge for all in the 21st century?

Recently I had to give a talk to a group of secondary principals. I was supposed to be talking about personalizing learning – what it is, why is/could it be good, and what, if anything, it has to do with 21st century learning.

When I was thinking about what I should say, I came up against a problem that has worried me for a long time now. It’s a problem I thought about a lot in the past and left it for a while, but now, in the context of all this talk about 21st century learning, I want to come back to it, to think more—and write—about it again. This problem is a very hard problem (and I don’t know the answer to it – yet), but I think it’s a problem that, because it leads us into some very unproductive (from an educational point of view) blind alleys, is really worth trying to think our way through..

What is this problem? It’s the problem of the traditional academic curriculum. In particular, how and why is it—or should it be—important in schooling? What role does it play in producing (or not producing) equal opportunity? What—if anything—does it have to do with 21st century learning? Does this kind of knowledge still matter, and if so/not, why?

Two stories about the school curriculum debate occur to me as a way of beginning this discussion. The first story is the source of the title of this piece.

The front page headline of a recent[1] Saturday edition of the Dominion Post newspaper read “It’s a tragedy. Teachers fight to save Shakespeare“. According to the text, school principals are “alarmed” that the new curriculum will “axe” Shakespeare and other “basic content” in a drive to make school subjects “achievable” by more students. This, they say, will “dumb down” school children, and we will see schools offering “lightweight courses” that “deprive pupils of key knowledge”.

The second story is about something that happened more than fifty years ago. In his book The biography of an idea, Dr C. E. Beeby (Director-General of Education in New Zealand for more than twenty years) tells the story of a trip he made to Te Araroa in the 1940s to attempt to persuade local Mäori of the merits of a new District High School for their area. This new school would add a ‘top end’ to the existing Native School. It would offer a curriculum emphasizing practical/technical subjects designed to prepare students for agricultural and/or domestic work. This, Beeby argued, would help to keep young people in the local area when they left school. At one hui Beeby was challenged by a kaumätua who asked him if he had learned Latin at school. On hearing the reply—that Beeby had in fact learned it – for six years, the kaumätua simply replied “and look where it got you”. Beeby comments in the book, published in 1992, that fifty years later he still hadn’t thought of a suitable reply.

Putting these two stories alongside each other allows us to see some key tensions in the secondary school curriculum, tensions that have been around for a very long time, and that we seem to have no idea how to resolve. Why are they there, and what could we do about them? Why does it matter that they are there? It is these questions that I want to raise—and invite discussion of—here.

I’ll start with two ways of looking at these competing sets of ideas (but there are many more).

Focusing on ideas about what schooling is for, this tension might look like this:

Idea 1: Schooling provides the conditions for equal opportunity by allowing everyone access to powerful forms of knowledge and powerful ways of thinking. These forms of knowledge and ways of thinking are powerful in themselves, and mastery of them gives access to powerful positions in society…


Idea 2: Schooling is an important way of sorting and selecting people for the roles they will occupy in their lives beyond school.

Or: from another angle:

Idea 1: The knowledge that underpins the traditional academic curriculum has been chosen because it is powerful knowledge. It is powerful knowledge because it is universal, timeless, and objective knowledge: that is, it is powerful for—and applies to—all people in all times…


Idea 2: The knowledge that is the basis of the school curriculum is a selection from all available knowledge. It is a selection that reflects and maintains the values and interests of particular social groups and, because of this, it marginalizes—oppresses even—individuals from other social groups.

Thinking about all this again raises some questions for me: for example…

1. Is the traditional academic curriculum, still powerful knowledge? Is this kind of knowledge still linked with powerful ways of thinking? Does mastery of it still provide access to power? Or has the power shifted in the 21st century?

2. If we think ‘rigor’, ‘standards’ and ‘’quality’ are important, does this have to preclude equality and/or inclusiveness? Why does this issue polarise people?

3. What, in the 21st century, does an ‘educated person’ look like? What sort of person should our education system be attempting to produce? Why? Does this person have the same features as one educated in the 20th century? Do we just need to add some more new things – or do we need new, qualitatively different things? What issues does this raise for the curriculum of the future?

What do you think?

If the number of letters to the editor in the Dominion Post in the days following the appearance of the Shakespeare story is any indication, lots of people really care about these issues.

Do you? If so/not why? Where do your ideas come from? Have you thought about them lately?

[1]  15th November 2008.

Shifting schooling , , , , ,

Drawing pictures to shift thinking

February 24th, 2009

When I’m trying to understand something in a new way, or trying to communicate my ideas to other people, I often start by drawing a picture. In my experience, visual metaphors are great for generating discussion, and they can enable us to take our thinking in interesting and unexpected new directions. Below is a metaphor I’ve created to represent ideas about “shifting thinking” in education from the 20th century to the 21st century.
ship metaphor

The boat represents the education system, which is sailing from left to right – that is, from the 19th and 20th century, into the 21st century and beyond.
What moves the boat along? Well, this boat is special because it has several methods for propulsion. (However, as we shall see, this doesn’t necessarily help the boat to move more efficiently! In fact, it can have the opposite effect). These are:
The wind –what we might call the influences of “the 21st century world”. For example, all the shifts in society, economy, new technologies, and so on, that inevitably influence the direction our education system is sailing.
The propeller – Educational policy, which can also propel us towards change – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes with the wind, and perhaps at times, in the wrong directions (or even backwards!).
The oars – These are the influences of the people “on board” the system. This could include teachers and school leaders, as well as students, parents, and society at large – in other words anyone who has an opinion and a voice about how education “should” be. As you can imagine, we might have people rowing in different directions, or “putting the oar in” to steer the boat to port or to starboard, or to create drag to resist the efforts of the winds and the motor…

There are two other significant things in the picture: the anchors, and the buoys.

The anchors are meant to represent certain ideas about the education system that we’ve inherited from the past – again in this metaphor they show up as something that is maybe creating “drag” on our boat, keeping it from moving in spite of the wind and the motors which are trying to push us forward. One example of such an idea is that education is most efficient as a “one size fits all” system, much like a factory or production line.

Out in front of the boat we’ve got our buoys, representing aspirations for the future of education. These represent the goals and ideals that are often articulated about what kind of education we think matters, and what kinds of young people we want our education system to help shape. For example: “developing lifelong learners”, “developing active citizens”, “developing learners equipped to deal with the challenges of the 21st century”, and so on. So we’re tossing a line to these buoys to help pull our ship in a bit closer.

The question this visual metaphor is designed to provoke is: how is the ship going to move towards these aspirations? Do we need to cut our anchor lines in order to get there? If we do, what would happen? Would the wind, the motor, and the oarsmen and oarswomen start to carry us in the right direction, or will we end up travelling in confused circles?

Maybe the answer is that we people on the ship – all the oarsmen and women, and the policymakers – need to get up on deck with our telescopes, barometers, and other navigational equipment. We need to study the winds carefully, and plot our course intentionally. We need to pull up our anchors and see whether they are holding us back, whether it’s time to cut some of them loose. Then maybe can start to agree what direction this boat should be moving in, and actually start to head it towards our goals…..

What do you think?

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