21st Century Learning is all the rage in education these days. Many people still haven’t a clue how to define 21st Century Learning including many of its proponents. I see it as good practice that capitalizes on student interest and inherit willingness to adopt technology. Student engagement is the underlying key of 21st Century Learning as it has been for countless other educational initiatives that have been introduced throughout the years. Maria Montessori had as her basic foundation student engagement. So the concept is not new but the packaging has changed. Instead of wooden manipulatives we have plastic cases and glass screens.
Another aspect of this wave of educational reform around tech integration is the top-down nature of its implementation. Ministries, school districts and schools are making the decision to go tech and teachers are being asked to come along for the ride. Now many teachers are willingly if not enthusiastically embracing this change but many are hesitant if not reluctant to adjust their practice. Students are a major factor in driving this technological bus as they come to school with any number of devices capable of complex calculations once only possible in large desktop machines. The ease by which students obtain information and digest content makes the acquisition of factual information seemingly obsolete. Teachers today recognize this paradigm shift and are making the appropriate adjustments to their practice. This is no different from a surgeon learning a new surgical technique or a mechanic taking advantage of computer diagnostics to troubleshoot an engine problem. Professionals are constantly revising and improving upon their practice… this is part and parcel of being a professional.
So does the need for educational change need to come from the grassroots or can it be a top-down initiative? I propose that the reason 21st Century Learning has been met with such resistance is because of the way it has been introduced to educators. It assumes the system is broken and that change is necessary for its continued survival and relevance. Now let’s take the obvious budgetary problems public education faces these days out of this argument for a moment and only discuss the day-to-day practice of educating children. How would you feel if you were told that you are not keeping up and that your ways are old and out-of-date and unless you embrace this new approach to teaching you will be left behind or potentially out of a job? That was the approach, maybe not so blunt, that the Ministry of Education took when introducing their education plan for the province. My first reaction to such a statement would be to put my back up and defend myself. Whatever comes after a statement like this is irrelevant as you have already lost your audience. Videos shown to teachers exclaiming the backward nature of today’s educational system serve the same purpose. How can you encourage someone to change when you start the conversation in such a negative fashion? Perhaps a more appreciative approach to educational reform is what is required.
Let’s start with the fact that the system is not broken and that teachers are doing an amazing job of educating today’s student with fewer resources and dwindling budgets. Move on to the reality that technology is here to stay and is becoming an integral part of our lives. Then ask the question how education can take advantage of this technological revolution and have both teaching and learning benefit. The conversation has begun. There is no greater joy for a teacher than to see students engaged in meaningful conversation related to something you have introduced. Conversation is necessary and must be had in a genuine way to truly allow ideas to blossom. The trick afterwards is to have the resources in place to take advantage of the ideas generated.
Technology integration, as with any educational initiative, can start as a top-down introduction but then must be quickly handed over to the grassroots so they can morph it and make it work within their practice. It cannot be force-fed or mandated. It must be encouraged and fostered. Champions must be allowed to flourish and must be provided the resources (time, money, etc) to truly thrive. A clear rationale must be given and backed up by respected professionals in the field. A wholehearted attempt to truly embrace this change must be taken, including upgrading infrastructure, providing release time and resources. Concrete examples of what this may look like in a classroom should be provided so that educators can see what their colleagues are doing and perhaps found a way to make it work in their own class.
Ask yourself this question… have you been asked to define 21st Century Learning from your perspective? If not then we have a long way to go.