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Re-Tooled Teaching for 21st Century Kids

I love teachers. The respect I hold for them, and my regard for the near impossibility of the tasks that confront them, are not only commendable, but deserving of unanimous support.

Teachers are heroes in the eyes of many of their charges. (Who was your favorite teacher?) They know their stuff. They love our kids. They do what the general population would profess not being able to do. (An eighteen month experience with parent guided virtual schooling will support this notion.) Miracle workers? Yup. Super-heros? In many cases, probably.

Quite naturally, teachers fall back on what they know. There was something about the schooling that they experienced that worked for them. They felt confident. They felt nurtured. They respected their teachers who seemed to be “all wise and all knowing” as they doled out the relevant content in doses that seemed appropriate to the comprehension of their students. At the same time, these teachers were mindful of the broader expectations of the standards and the learning targets expected of their kids, making adjustments where necessary. Today’s teachers, as students, were increasingly exposed to teacher-dominated classrooms as they progressed through the education system: classrooms where the content was the gospel, the teacher was king (or queen), and the learner assumed a generally passive, and compliant role; recipient of all of “that smartness.” It worked for them. Most of them thrived in that environment.

Fast forward to their own careers, their classrooms, their daily practices. Why wouldn’t they transpose what had worked for them into their daily interactions with kids? Why wouldn’t they emulate what had worked so well for them from the teachers they admired and offer similar strategies to the students seated before them? (After all, isn’t imitation the greatest form of flattery?) And why wouldn’t university teacher preparation programs perpetuate similar practices?

Because, these kids, the ones occupying the classrooms today, require and deserve something different.

I can’t, and won’t, offer a graduate course in 21st century instructional pedagogy within the constraints of a 1,000-1,500 word blog post. (I would refer curious readers to the library of 150+ blog postings on topics related to this on my website, including last week’s article that cites the specific skills, attributes and characteristics of adequately educated 21st century learners.) But, I can cut to the chase and be very clear in the following statement. As endearing and comfortable as our practices have been, teaching as we were taught will no longer suffice. The world has changed. So have the students in our classrooms. And, so have the expectations that are being placed upon them.

Sorry. Change is hard. But, it is also essential.

We need to re-think the role of the teacher as we re-define what learning looks like in the 21st century. Classroom assumptions and practices must change.

As much as ever, teachers need to be experts in their content areas. They must understand their disciplines, and the resources available to adequately explore them. Not to control the learning, but to facilitate it. This shift in role is frequently described as “no longer a sage on the stage, but a guide on the side.” Guess what? Teachers don’t own the facts any more, or when they are introduced. Google does that. Step aside. No podium is necessary. Expert support is what is required now.

In addition to thoroughly knowing their content, teachers must get to know their students. Who are they? What is the biography of each of these kids, their story, their background, their perspective? What skills and experiences do they come with? What do they know?

While it never really worked, the over-standardized notion of “one size fits all” must now be out of the window.

Use what you know about each child to their advantage. If a child enters first grade reading at a third grade level, don’t bore him with letter recognition exercises just because that’s what the rest of the class needs. Stimulate and personalize his experience, allowing him to continue to be intellectually curious and to grow at his own pace, not hampered by the needs, however legitimate, of his classmates.

Recognize every child’s curiosity and support their creativity. She arrived curious. Let her remain curious. Find opportunities for her to pursue that curiosity throughout her educational experience. And, creativity? We must allow it to flourish, not diminish it for the sake of compliance or conformity.

Remember, in this re-tooled role, teachers are facilitating learning, not controlling it. They are not providing answers by way of causing kids to acquire facts. They are posing questions for students to explore, to reflect on, to collaborate over; which, with any luck, will lead them to their own questions that will require further inquiry. Consequently, it is important to get out of the way. I have seen so many teachers carrying the heavy burden of learning alone. Share that challenge with the kids. They’re up for it.

Finally, states and school districts, and the teachers who toil within them, must re-invent the current reporting systems so that they report with reliable and accurate evidence student achievement. Percentage scores or letter grades don’t really tell the story. 75% of what? Above average in what way? Parents, employers and the students themselves deserve to know precisely what a child understands, has learned and what they can actually accomplish with this learning. And then, the reliability of this evidence can inform and direct the next steps appropriate for each child rather than following a check list in a course syllabus.

So, what might this new job description look like and play out in real time?

Suppose that a teacher is preparing a new unit of study for his or her students. The topic could be anything really so long is it is directed toward satisfying learning targets or course outcomes. For the sake of example, let’s assume the topic is indigenous people. A traditional approach would involve the teacher creating an instructional map (lesson plans), pre-planning the specific content that would be covered and the learning activities and assignments that would be used in support of acquiring this content. Lastly, they would typically identify some system of judging the degree of student success. The point here is that the direction is set prior to the introduction of the topic.

What if we consider setting aside all of that pre-planning for a different approach?

"Today we’re going to work together to build how we will study indigenous people. First, what do we mean by the term 'indigenous people?'" (Record everything they say, even                     incorrect responses. Do this publicly so everyone can see the responses- white board, chart pack etc. Use no judgement or censoring, just listening and recording.)

"What do you know about indigenous people?" (Again, list everything the students have to say. No matter if some of the responses are preposterous. They are very telling.)

"What would you like to know, or wish you knew, about these people?" (Same drill - whatever the students say is captured by the teacher for all to see.)

"Do we see any common ideas or themes in your responses? For instance, I see that several of you wanted to know what indigenous people eat. Are there others?" (Capture it all, marking up the lists, drawing arrows, connecting dots.)

Now the instructional mapping will look very different. The teacher can lay the student responses along side the standards and learning targets and make some informed decisions on how to approach this topic with this group of kids. There’s no point in re-teaching the things that they already know. However, the misconceptions that the teacher uncovered should be instrumental in assisting him or her in the general construction of this instructional unit. AND, the students told the teacher what they cared about, what they wanted to learn about this topic, creating a viable edge in the design of learning activities that will be relevant and engaging for the students, while still satisfying the curriculum.

This becomes informed planning rather than a typical shot in the dark. The diverse input from the kids will also contribute to assigning collaborative groupings if that is a direction the teacher would like to pursue.

I can already hear secondary teachers lament “I teach four sections of this. I can’t possibly go through this exercise with four different groups of kids, capturing what they would like to know.” To which I will respond - yes, you can, and you should. The teacher is the expert, the one who will ultimately decide the common themes and points of curiosity across the four class sections that will satisfy the standards and targets, while calming their own instructional anxiety. But, we can never loose sight of an even bigger prize. When the students see their ideas in the evolution of the unit’s design, they will be invested; excited, having a degree of ownership.

"I took your ideas (display their brainstorming), and the thinking of my three other classes in deciding what the major topics in our learning about indigenous people will be. Looks familiar, doesn’t it? Thanks for your great work - this should be fun!"

"We’re going to explore our first topic in collaborative inquiry groups. For this round, I’ve assigned each of you to a group. So, consult the group assignment sheet, move the tables and chairs around as necessary, and let’s get started, together."

And so begins the conversation.

“He who does the talking does the learning.”

Jen York-Barr


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