21st Century Overkill

Recipe for a trendy educator’s blog post:

1. Take the term “21st century”
2. Add one of: learning, learners, education, skills, classroom, or school
3. Sprinkle in some of the following: higher order skills, critical thinking, collaboration, or networking
4. Whisk in a generous helping of: digital literacy, student-centred, real-world problem solving and active learning
5. Knead together with grammar, syntax and a hint of style.
6. Result – yet another article with lots of buzz words and little substance.

At least, that’s what I’m finding.

I started to do some research on one of the most popular neologisms in education I’ve encountered – 21st century learning. It’s a phrase that is extremely overused and also, I feel, overwhelming. Is it about using technology in the classroom? Does it have to do with digital citizenship? I needed clarification and a better understanding. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

1. I already knew 20th century schools were ineffective, but now I know why they exist.
This doesn’t get blogged about a lot. Ok we can (mostly) all agree that traditional teaching methods are antiquated, but where did they come from? Were they ever effective?  Why is it so challenging to shift this ancient educational paradigm? There’s actually a pretty interesting history behind it! The idea of schools being modeled after factories was an attempt to make them more “efficient.” After the industrial revolution, an engineer named F.W. Taylor popularized the assembly line approach for all facets of daily life from hospitals to offices. If you want more details about it see the pdf I attached at the end. Students were regarded as raw materials meant to be shaped and molded by their teachers. Knowledge was represented by a set of facts transmitted by teachers to students who were then tested to see if learning had occurred. In order to make this process efficient, standardization was essential. And so we have the remnants of this model still around today – teacher centred classrooms, isolated disciplines and standardized testing.

2. Core knowledge and content are still important in the 21st century.
A lot of criticism of today’s education system is that it is too focused on curriculum content and not enough on skills. I often hear the expression that course content is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” If a student can just google the function of the placenta then what is the point of having them memorize it? I will agree that there are some “learning outcomes” let’s call them, that I feel are completely useless and downright a waste of brain space in the biology curriculum that I teach. I don’t have the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of organisms memorized so why should my students? However, I think that core content is still so important. Without a basic understanding of knowledge to draw upon, how are students supposed to create solutions to complex problems? How are students supposed to be creative with no tools? How would an artist paint with no brush?

Despite the fact that in the 21st century are stressing the importance of learning skills that allow students to access information, there is still value in having a basic foundation of facts and concepts. It’s how we deliver and assess that knowledge that needs to change. And that brings me to my next point…

3. Content is easier to assess than skills – even in the 21st century.
Right now, if you asked me to, I could whip up a pen and paper test to evaluate a student’s understanding of the circulatory system in about 10 minutes. Then I could mark it, assign it a grade and move on the digestive system. It’s easy to assess how many facts a student has memorized about a particular topic. However, I think it is a lot more challenging to devise a tool that would fairly assess entrepreneurialism, cross-cultural understanding, and some of the other 21st century skills we expect students to have. And so we stick to traditional educational programs that culminate in externally moderated standardized tests. If these programs expect to stick around, they need to allow for better, more relevant assessment methods. When are multiple choice tests EVER used to assess proficiency in the workforce? The last time you had an evaluation as a teacher, did you fill in a bubble sheet? Or did your principal come to your class and actually watch you teach? Our students deserve multiple choice alright, but multiple choices of authentic assessment.

4. 21st century skills are those that prepare students to be successful in some unknown future.
It has often been said that students today are being prepared for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Children in kindergarten now will be in the workforce all the way into the year 2060. Therefore, 21st century skills are not just about using technology which will ultimately become obsolete. They are skills that allow students to be adaptable. They are skills that produce creative and critical thinkers that can solve emerging world problems, not fact regurgitating robots. They allow students to access, analyze and evaluate the vast amount of information that was not available many years ago. A 21st century learner is collaborative, not competitive; knows when to lead and when to follow; is connected locally and globally with other students and experts in the field. They are social, they can communicate in a variety of ways and they are lifelong learners.

In an ideal 21st century school, students are not sitting at desks passively absorbing information from a teacher. They are actively engaged in interdisciplinary projects that require cooperation and independent work. Their education is research driven and based on real-world local and global issues. They are using higher order thinking skills and multiple forms of technology. Their outcomes are assessed by an authentic audience. They are not just learning information, they are creating it.  

Enough buzz words for you? So a 21st century student is basically a PERFECT HUMAN BEING. No wonder I feel overwhelmed. No wonder change seems impossible. We are being asked to reach quite a lofty goal. Even without time and budget constraints, huge class sizes and other challenges we face as teachers, I feel extremely unprepared. In previous blog posts I discussed how when I first started teaching I was using some of these techniques. I created project based units with an attempt to make them relatable. I created student-centred activities. I tried to differentiate instruction. But I realize now that there is so much more I can do. The question is now HOW DO I DO IT? Where do I start? It’s been three years since I went back to the dark side and I’m feeling a little rusty. That’s why I want this blog to be more than me waxing philosophic. I want it to be a practical guide for teachers trying to make a change. My next blog posts are going to be about techniques, methods, ideologies etc…that I plan to implement next year in order to create my own 21st century biology classroom.

The last thing I want to leave with on this topic (geez this went on for a while!) is that we are all 21st century learners – not just our students. We need to think about how we learn, how we gather information and how we create knowledge for ourselves right now. I’m pretty sure it’s not sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture. But just in case you are in that scenario right now, then get off your computer and pay attention!

Here are just a few of the articles/blog posts I read on the topic that helped me write this post.
PDF file: wncp 21st cent learning (2)

Next blog post…Simpson’s did it.


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