Learning, technology, literacy and the 21st century

We tomorrow we have our first face-to-face session of the Australian group in the Powerful Learning Practice program. Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson will introduce us to the concept and help us form the connections that we will develop to from part of a learning community.

I often like walking and thinking, and the past few weekends have been great weather for doing just that. I have also been reading many blogs that contain musings and comments about education as well as a few major articles in our daily newspapers, especially over the holidays and have been trying to

  • What is 21st century learning?
  • How does technology fit in?
  • What is the role of the teacher today and in the future?
  • What role/responsibility does the wider community have to play in the education of our young people?

I don’t have the answers but here are some of my random thoughts.

Whether we like it or not, our students are on-line and using and participating in a very dynamic and social way. They are not passive users but are participating and collaborating together building up all sorts of connections and social networks. They inhabit this world and find it engaging and interesting. When they come to school many students feel that they are isolated from the real world, that they are dragged away from what is interesting to learn things that they find difficult to understand the relevance of.

Many students are polite and pleasant and behave appropriately but comment, in surveys and polls, that they feel held back by the 20th century practices, that the curricular in their schools are seemingly less relevant to their lives and the outside world. This is where we can use the technology. Whilst there is some basic content that everyone must learn, there are mostly skills that we should be teaching about. To me it is these skills, that can be applied to many situations and across rather than within the subject areas, that secondary schools seem to still prefer, are the most important part of the education.

Today information is easy to obtain, almost too easy and, dare I say it, most people can feel bombarded with information. It is the knowledge of how to sort through to find the “best”, most relevant, most suited information that is required. The ability to read, evaluate and reconstruct the information into personal knowledge is vital in today’s world.

Where does this leave teachers? When I was at school the best teachers I had asked me questions, encouraged me, started up conversation/discussions/debates about”stuff”. They allowed us to be engaged in a topic, not putting down our burgeoning ideas but encouraged us to develop our ideas, research topics and come back to the class to continue on. What do I remember best about my schooling? Those discussions and ideas, not the raw data I once knew. I can get the data again, it is easier now than it ever was, but the confidence to analyse and put forward my ideas comes from those classes, those teachers. That is still the role of the teacher today. The teachers that all students like to remember were those who were passionate about learning, who encouraged learning and made the students feel they had a stake in their own learning.

It seems that today many classroom teachers feel pressured to finish the content contained in the course, indeed many courses seem to be about content and the assessment of how well students remebered that content. The pressures on teachers comes from the outside community, the politicians, the media the future employers, who all hark back to what happened when they were at school last century. It is easy to take pot-shots at education, we were all once at school, everyone has their own personal memories and many have children of their own. The welfare of children is always of paramount importance to parents, and nothing will get parents fired up more than a threat to the well-being of their child. In many ways the schools and education hierarchy have not done enough to bring parents along, explaining about strengths of the new technologies. Many teachers have fallen through the cracks, for whatever reasons, and are also wary.

The aloneness felt by teachers and the pressure can be alleviated if they followed their students lead and started to use the technology to help. They need to start reading the blogs and wikis of other teachers/ educationalists, and there are many great ones. Agree or disagree to what is being put out there, it doesn’t matter as much as being a participant, reading and contributing to the ideas. It is not about keeping knowledge/ideas to yourself (for whatever reason) but about contributing to the sum of knowledge. I have been in schools for along time and the stronger, “better”, more engaged teachers are the ones sharing/collaborating with colleagues. The energy of others is infectious, you can’t help becoming interested and excited when others are. This also goes for the students in the classrooms. We all know that the interest and energy of the teacher has a huge bearing on the students. My best teachers gave me the sense that they enjoyed teaching and liked students. They loved it when students weer engaged/passionate enough to discuss the subjects they were interested in. My belief is that you can’t be a good teacher if you don’t like students questioning ideas and theories. The quality of the questions however often depend on how engaged the students are. Technology has a role in this.
The technology we have at our fingertips today offers us a huge number of ways to engage students at many levels. To quote a post “it’s not about the technology”(David Warlick). Read this for a lot of comments about technology and education.

To me, education in the 21st century, is many ways, what it has always been, about learning; learning concepts, developing deep knowledge, the ability to criticise and analyse. Used well the technology available to us today can increase student engagement, facilitate problem-solving, decision-making and creativity and develop critical thinking. It can also make learning enjoyable. The teacher is the enabler in all this. The teacher is the person who encourages, guides and prods students into active learning. The teacher can develop a sense of confidence in the students so they are encouraged to develop into confident adults, with the knowledge that they have the skills to live in this complex and rapidly changing world. Are our students learning in spite of us, or because of us. Schools, and education departments, must start facing up to what the 21st century is and develop along with the outside world. This means not banning much of the read/write web but teaching students how best to use it and how to avoid the traps.

This is a long post and the last sentence could lead on to a whole other rant.

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