Learning for the 21st Century- “Now Thinking” Schools

Heidi Hayes Jacob’s recent book “Curriculum 21- Essential Education for a changing World” pub. ASCD.  starts with this paragraph

“What are you preparing your student’s for? 1973? 1995? Can you honestly say that your school’s curriculum and the program you use are preparing your students for 2015 or 2020? Are you even preparing them for today?”

So many schools are taking on this question with help from organizations like Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Curriculum 21 and staff who are excited about change , sadly so many are not. We as educators need to be constantly asking questions not just but the future, but the needs of our students now. You only need to visit websites of schools such as International School Bejing, to see the kind of work is being done regarding forward thinking, or as I like to call it ‘now thinking’ schools. Too many schools are locked into the 20th or even 19th century model of education. At my present school Berlin Brandenburg International School, we are working on a technology strategy which involves hiring a member of staff who is devoted to I.T Learning across the school, as well as devoting staff inservice time to try to mee the needs of our students.

When we think of 21st century learning we often think in terms of technology . Tools for learning; computers, overhead projectors, smart boards etc. These are essential, but equally as important is curriculum, the learning environment, quality assessment, key skills and of course quality teaching.

Schools that embrace Inquiry based learning strategies have the best chance of serving the needs of their students in the 21st century. Our students are entering a world with vast amounts of information at their fingertips, complex problems, technological break-throughs in a fast paced global context. They need to be equipped with the skills, not when they graduate but NOW. Inquiry based learning encourages questioning. It fosters collaboration skills. It considers multiple intelligences. It encourages students to seek the truth and discover knowledge. In essence it encourages a passion, motivation and desire for learning which continue throughout life.

Teaching these students requires a shift away from traditional 19th century techniques such as lecturing, giving facts, right/wrong answers, text book driven curricula, final summative testing and rote memorization and practice, towards student centered inquiry and direction, multiple solutions to a variety of strategies, multiple resources, practical collaborative activities and reasoning.  Teachers also need to be given the tools for the 21st century as well as the training to use them. Training on how to use these tools and applications, computers, podcasts, social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook, weblogs, wikis, video, pictures and so on. Quality teachers are coaches. They guide, analyse, point, and most importantly know when to stand back. Maria Montessori once said “ The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say The students are now working as if I did not exist” She also said “Free the child’s potential and you will transform the world”

The learning environment should not be thought of as the classroom, but rather the whole school. When you enter a school you should feel that learning is all around you, that the staff, students and visitors are all learners. I like to see open spaces being utilized in schools for learning, collaborative design, open access internet, social/learning zones, displays, in short, a buzz of excitement and a space full of energy.

Curriculum frameworks that encourage backwards design; thinking about what we want students to know and be able to do, asking guiding questions and promoting exploration and discovery will help students continue their curiosity and desire for learning throughout life.  Curriculum mapping helps keep track of connections between traditional subjects in schools which offer these. Schools need to integrate technology into their curricula to enhance content and quality assessment. Assessment is simply a means to show knowledge and insight into content, skills and proficiencies. Some educators have focused too much on summative, end of unit/year tests. There is a place for summative assessments but quality teachers explore a multitude of formative options to help them and importantly their students, understand where they are. We need to replace some assessments with more relevant 21st century approaches. For example, power point presentations have become an important tool for presenting ideas and learning, but teachers can also explore film, podcasts, websites,  performances, rap, song, blogs and many more tools for showing, sharing and presenting knowledge.  Technology needs to be integrated across all subjects.

I have talked about quality teaching, quality environments, quality curriculums and assessment but what are the key skills which our students need to be prepared for lifelong learning in the 21st century? Partnership for 21st Century Skills talk about fusing the traditional 3 Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) with the 4 Cs (Critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity). There’s no doubt that the world in 2010 is drastically different to the world even 10, 20 or 30 years ago and that the students in our schools are likely to travel more, have many more jobs and meet many more people (both real and virtual). Professor Stephen Heppell describes 21st century learners as ambitious, collaborative, reflective, embracing individuality and as having the ability to stand back and look at a global horizon. He also says “This is not the information age, it’s not the mechanical age, it’s the learning age”

So what do schools need to do if they want to change?  I believe schools need to have 21st century learning central to their mission. They need quality learning environments, quality curriculum and quality teachers. Yes, the change will in some cases mean a large outlay of money. 1 to 1 lap top schemes (or even 1 to 1 ipad schemes!) cost money. Redesigning learning environments costs money and training teachers costs money, but getting excited about technology, getting excited about change, getting excited about the idea of 21st century learning costs nothing.

One Comment on “Learning for the 21st Century- “Now Thinking” Schools

  1. Love your blog, sorry I haven’t been on it for a while. Totally agree with your comment about preparing the student for future encounters with decision making/problem-solution situations. I’m not sure that the district I’m teaching in we fully grasp the inquiry based educaiton. Often times I miss teaching the concept of the well rounded individual. I know that you did that as a teacher and stress that now as an administrator

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