Sunday, February 10, 2019

Thinking of 21st Century Education as a Double Helix* (*Two parallel lines that twist around their axis)

Reading the Brookings education blog, Education systems need alignment for teaching and learning 21st-century skills, left me wondering if the challenges it defines, encompass or omit the challenges that, I would submit, are equally impactful on the successful implementation of 21st-century education. The Brookings blog explains that assessment, curriculum, and pedagogy have to be aligned to bring about this new agenda that emphasizes critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, self-direction, effective communication and collaboration. Clearly, a piecemeal fix will not do. And yes, educators have lots to learn about what to teach, how to teach it and what evidence of students’ understanding teachers need to look for. However, when we watch teachers and students working with a 21st-century paradigm in mind, we realize there is another substratum at play that is crucial to the success of that undertaking.

David Perkins is a thought leader who has brought his powerful ideas to bear on teaching and learning that is aligned with today’s complex and quickly-changing world. He frames the task of education this way: Students have to have the ability and the initiative to actively use what they are taught as each new situation requires. Teachers, therefore, have to begin to teach for the unknown. (Perkins, 2010) Students must be nimble learners who can use information with independence and flexibility. Requiring them to remember and replicate information just won’t suffice.

Planning for such an agenda has to go beyond constructing carefully designed hierarchies of skills, modules for instruction and benchmarks for mastery. (How do you judge a point in time when creativity or problem-solving ability is mastered?). When original ideas and flexibility in problem-solving are the order of the day, teachers would have to nurture those behaviors with intention. They would have to walk the talk. And what would teachers need to do to bring about a 21st-century genre of students that would replace the genre that occupies the seats in most of our classrooms today – youngsters expecting to be directed, corrected, selected or rejected by their teachers? Teachers will have to afford 21st-century students the ability and opportunity to initiate, monitor, regulate and evaluate themselves and their efforts.

What are some of the crucial factors that will prepare students to thrive in a complex 21st-century world?

  1. The primary school years must lay the foundation for problem-solving and self-direction when teaching beginning reading and writing. After all, isn’t reading and writing all about problem-solving? Higher-level thinking (H.O.T), which young children engage in all the time (e.g., questioning, predicting, inferring, comparing), has to be an integral part of basic literacy. (Figure 1.)
  2. Teachers have to welcome opportunities to problem–solve in the face of the unknown. They have to share their own perplexity, their flexibility and their strategies with their students by thinking aloud and encouraging metacognition. 
  3. The curriculum has to put the processes of reading, writing and thinking alongside the subject matter because knowing how to gather, analyze and synthesize information (just to name a few skills) is the life-long learning children take with them. The facts are a mouse click away.
  4. Teaching has to be transactional. Students have to know that their thoughts and their answers are valuable and worth exploring. Not knowing is where the coaching begins. Sharing approaches to learning builds repertoires of strategies for future use.
  5. Twenty-first-century classrooms are not in Mastery Land anymore. Some knowledge can be locked down with a hundred percent on a test but creativity, problem-solving, hypothesizing, communication and collaboration, are moving targets. 
  6. Teacher education has to accommodate learners’ needs. It must treat preparation for teaching as a building process, not a wrapped package. Learning has to be layered, starting with the broader strokes and moving towards greater and greater expertise. Where better to provide that kind of preparation than in the pre-service setting with ample opportunity to move back and forth between fieldwork (the practicum) and college classes with reflection and guidance? 
Preparation for 21st-century schools should not lose sight of the fundamental differences in the teachers’ agenda. As Lucy Calkins, a seminal teacher on the Art of Teaching Writing told us, “Teach the writer, not just the writing.” Extending that wise advice for the 21st-century teacher, we need to teach the learner, not just the thing to be learned. Teacher the reader, not just the thing to be read. Teach the problem-solver, not just the solution to the problem. That’s the double helix we need to think of as we move forward.

Figure 1: Recall and higher-level questions for beginning readers

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