But Why?

[Using the idea of asking ‘why’ five times, I have an imaginary conversation with a hypothetical teacher about the need to do things differently.]

I’m a good teacher. I don’t have behaviour management issues in my classroom, and my students get good results. Why do I need to shift my practice to this ‘future learning’ thing?

  • Can we start with the assumption that good teaching = good results and therefore = good learning? I think we can all easily fall into the trap of thinking that when our students get good results in their assessments that is because we are good teachers, but when students don’t do so well, then that’s because they experience some kind of barrier to their learning. I think that if we’re being honest we can admit that sometimes our students learn despite us.
  • I also worry about the equation of assessment results with learning. I think at times we’ve all decried the ‘credit-accumulation’ mindset of our students; that they don’t seem to want to learn for a love of learning’s sake. I worry that assessment, like we have here in NZ with NCEA, whereby discrete content areas or skill sets are assessed in an oftentimes fragmented way, doesn’t actually allow for the kind of learning and skill development that we’d like to see in our learners.

Why? What kind of learning do we need our students to have?

  • As we know, we have moved out of the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age. Wikipedia knows more than it is possible for one teacher to know. The pace of change has increased with a corresponding increase in knowledge. It is no longer really possible to define what we need to know, and it is no longer necessary to store knowledge in our heads in case we need it later on. If we need it, then we’ll Google it. Therefore a different model of education is needed.
  • There are different ways of looking at the future. One of these ways is to discuss so-called ‘wicked problems’. These are problems that are complex and interconnected, such as climate change, food security, the ethics of biotechnology, poverty, etc. These require solutions, but the nature of them is such that they are not easily solved, and in fact implementing a solution for one facet of a problem may well even exacerbate other facets.
  • Therefore we need learners who are capable of dealing with these problems. There have been many attempts to define the skills needed, such as this framework. I also like the ‘4Cs’ of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. The change here is an emphasis is on skills, rather than content.

OK, I can accept that the world looks different today than it did when I was growing up. But why does my classroom practice needs to be different when I can cover the 4Cs within my subject area?

  • I agree that traditional, siloed education can cover the 4Cs, and the NZC’s Key Competencies, but we know more about the way the brain learns these days, and we know that a diet of only traditional, factory-style lecture from the front of the room isn’t it.
  • Just like wicked problems are interconnected and complex, we need to offer our learner the means by which they can learn to apply their understanding in interconnected and complex ways if they are going to make an impact on society. To do this authentically will require a shift away from a subject-siloed approach.

What role does technology play in all of this? Why do I have to be a teacher of technology as well as my subject area?

  • Luckily, you don’t. Technology is an enabler. We’ve already acknowledged that Google knows more than a teacher can possibly know, but the search results are massive. We need to teach learners skills to deal with information, how to be critical and discerning with information, how to apply information, and how to make new information.
  • Rather than looking for cool new apps, we should ensure that we use the right tools for the task. But the tasks themselves may well need to shift in order to focus on the skill building we’ve been discussing.
  • Models like SAMR and the eLPF suggest that technology allows us to offer more authentic and genuine learning experiences than have before been possible.
  • Redefined tasks that focus on skill development within an authentic, problem- or inquiry-based context also helps young people to learn how to tackle wicked problems.

If it’s all online, why do my students even need me anymore?

  • I’ve been thinking about timetables. I’ve decided that a timetable can be both a literal and a figurative structure. It is the schedule that organises a school day, but it has become a mindset. As adults we know that the world, and even our brains, don’t work in perfectly scheduled 55 minute slots. I believe we do a disservice to our 21st Century learners when we offer than a 19th or even a 20th Century-style education model like this.
  • So, if the emphasis shifts from content to skills, what else can you offer your students? A positive learning-based relationship, encouragement and motivation, learning opportunities, an expert network to tap into, access to you; the most experienced learner in the room. You know, all the stuff that does make you a good teacher – which is where we started. You are absolutely a good teacher. Now, what steps are you going to take in order to be even better?

(Need some ideas of where to start? Start by getting connected and learning:)

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Shapes

I had a fellow teacher friend who was really interested in the area of gifted and talented education.  He completed a paper in it, and as he was studying, he joked that all he needed was to find a new shape to present the same ideas in, market it as something new, and hey presto!  Millions!  Now, I don’t think for a minute that that’s true, but it does seem that teachers and educators like their shapes, models, scaffolds, frameworks or (new take on same thing) infographics.

Cynicism aside, the framework below is actually one I think that has the best potential.  What I particularly like, and what I think will have resonance for the staff at my school, is that it does acknowledge the ‘traditional’ subject areas that high schools are generally still quite committed to.  I also like that I can see where our NCEA and formalised assessment slots in.  Furthermore, I think there is clear potential to use the words of our school’s vision to adapt to our specific context.  It’s a great find.

Framework for 21st Century Learning

Universal Design for Learning

This is another concept which I need to spend more time thinking about – particularly: how does it relate to future learning principles?  However, I definitely agree with the idea of universal design for learning – that students should be able to show their understanding in a way that best suits them.  The principles of UDL seem to be around making knowledge accessible, and making the assessment fit the learning.  I think English as a subject is particularly well placed to do this – we might have more freedom in an English classroom to allow students to present in writing, orally, or visually.  This way we can assess both content knowledge and production skills.  Success criteria therefore need to be flexible, or perhaps even co-constructed with students.

I do think that there is a challenge (albeit not an insurmountable one) to balance the concept of universal design for learning against the demands of meeting NCEA assessment criteria.  Something we’re looking to try at Whitby next year is to focus on teaching key skills in the first half of the year, putting aside various pieces of student work as they go.  Then, in the second half of the year, these pieces can be crafted into items for assessment, playing to the strengths students have exhibited.  It will be interesting to monitor how this approach works towards meeting the needs of students.

As I came to appreciate at ULearn, and as this YouTube clip makes clear, it is about opening doorways for students – and technology has the power to do the same.  Technology can be used to make knowledge accessible to students, and it can be used to help students show their understanding in a way that best suits them.  The New Zealand Curriculum talks about ‘diversity’, and some of the reading I’ve started to do unpacks this idea to not just be about catering to students from diverse backgrounds, and not just a diversity of learning styles, as UDL can do, but it’s also about coping with and managing a diversity of ideas.  In this way technology can be both a boon and a burden.  Perhaps this is also where TPACK and careful, clever learning design comes into play – providing a specific context but flexible success criteria so that students don’t flounder and lose their way.

Today I gave my Year 8 students an independent reading assignment.  Within reason, they can choose their own fiction book to complete the assignment on, and while I have given them a range of activities and questions to complete in relation to their chosen text, I have set them the challenge of finding a creative and original way to present their final product.  They can complete it in their exercise book, as a poster, as a blog, as a podcast, as a YouTube video…it’s up to them.  The girls have embraced the idea and are hugely enthusiastic.  And while, yes, it will be interesting to see the final products, at least it has them excited about learning, and they feel they can attack the task.  And perhaps that’s a real benefit of trialling something like universal design for learning.