We Talk About 21st Century Learning While Looking In The Rearview Mirror!

Schools have always been under-rated! Politicians and some media outlets like to concentrate on the problems while ignoring the fact that they’ve educated vast numbers of people. Yes, there is room for improvement, and no, the occasional spelling mistake does not make that person (and an entire generation) “functionally illiterate” !

So, in a profession where one is constantly given harsh feedback – forget the media, think Year 8s on a Friday afternoon – it’s only natural that when teachers are presented with the “new, improved” model of education called 21st Century learning that there’s a certain amount of cynicism. Of course, some teachers will point to the distractions of technology and suggest that it’s just being pushed by people who love their toys and gadgets, while others will complain that they don’t have the capacity to embrace it due to poor resourcing and Internet access. When concepts such as “20% time”* are suggested, some educators often react as though “100% time” has been suggested for student projects.

While much of what people call “21st Century learning” is just what good teachers have always done in one form or another, but repackaged and rebranded, the phrase itself suggests massive change and disruption. And while most people find too much change stressful and threatening, we now live in the twenty-first century and the world around schools will change no matter how much individuals want to cling to the “way we do it here”.

Some of you will have heard the term “disruptive innovation”,  which describes how many companies continue with their old business model and ignore the threat of new ideas or inventions because it doesn’t seem a threat to them. By the time they understand, it’s too late! Think old large computing firms ignoring the PC; think Kodak ignoring digital cameras. For schools, the innovations in the world around them can either by “disruptive” or  made “sustaining” by adopting and adapting them to suit the needs of education. At first, some maths teachers wanted to ban the calculator, but it’s become a compulsory item. Similarly, many teachers have embraced word processing in order to allow students to draft and improve their work. These innovations have sustained and supported what teachers do.

However, the main problem with the way schools are looking at learning in the current century is that they’re looking at what WAS, rather than what IS, and very few educators see at as their role to help shape what WILL BE. Schools often merely take textbooks and put them online, rather than embracing the potential of the technology.

For example, just forget education for a moment. Let’s look at life in the twenty-first century: many people have a fitbit or smart phone which tracks all sorts of things from the steps you take to sleeping patterns. Google and Facebook are  constantly recording the sites you go to, your preferences, your habits. We live in a world where all sorts of things are tracked. Yet, apart from a few standardised tests, most teachers would find it hard to access information about what Johnny did last week, let alone last year.

Historically, being able to access what a student has done in the past would have had two concerns: Privacy, and workload for teachers recording the data. But while protocols and safeguards around privacy would need to be addressed, how much information could we be collecting now about where students are having difficulty and falling through the cracks by simply using existing technologies in an education setting? And when the technology that allows us to see when a person looking at a screen is losing focus or concentration, should schools embrace it or not?

Oh wait, technology like that is already here. Just not widely available.

Yes, as William Gibson said, “The future is here, just not evenly distributed”!

Whatever your views on software that can track kids progress, whether you think that Big Brother is coming or whether you think it really is a brave, new world, these are the sorts of conversations we need to have now.

What is the potential of the technologies that will be here before we know it and, just as importantly, what are the ethics of the coming technologies?

*In simple terms, giving students free rein to work on any project of their choice. Based on Google’s one day a week to work on projects.