Tag Archives: 21st Century Education

The Student, Number 6

I am not a number, I am a free man.

I went in to school to ask about my daughter’s education. Out came a laptop and up popped a spreadsheet. There was my daughter: neatly bound in row 12. A tidy little string of numbers explaining just how she is performing as a student.

I’ve written before about the horror of grading by the numbers. Our school has moved away from that. No longer does a child get a 2 or a 1 scrawled across a paper or a report card. Teachers now use the standards-based scale of “approaching,” “proficient,” or “exemplary.” (Or, sadly, “Does not meet.”) It’s much more child-friendly and less off-putting …I guess.

However, the school has joined the worldwide craze for being data-driven. It’s no longer enough for teachers to teach, they also have to justify their teaching by producing data showing their students are progressing. And the principal and head of school must justify themselves to the school board and parents by showing students and classes across the school are improving.

So how do we show that students are improving? Testing. My child will take the MAP test three times this year. (She needed a mid-year checkup to see if she’s making enough progress to reach the end-of-year targets.) She’s also being assessed on her reading ability by testing her on her comprehension of levelled readers. (Not real books, you understand: these are only slightly better than “See spot run.”) And there are math tests. And spelling tests. And…

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.

Where is the passion? Where is the exploring? Where is the joy?

Dare I say it – where is the 21st century learning? Where is the creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Where is the collaboration? Where is the communication?

Is it there in the numbers?

Can anyone show me in that spreadsheet where my child is? Can you show me her gleeful love of life? Can you show me her obsession with sports? Can you show me her inconsistent memory? Can you show me her sensitivity? Her caring nature?

When teachers find ourselves in this new data-driven world of school, we must each decide for ourselves how we react. Do we embrace the dictate and collect as much data as we can to track our students’ progress? Do we rebel and fight against it, resisting any effort to test or quantify our students? Or can we find some middle ground?

As educators, we need to serve our students. Their success and well-being is in our hands. It is imperative that we make intelligent decisions so that not only do they succeed and improve in their abilities, but they also see learning as a positive experience. If we are not building life-long learners, then we are not doing our job well. It is simply not enough that students grow while they are in our classes, but that they will continue to grow throughout their lives.

So in this brave new world of data-driven education, who do we serve? Who is Number One? And are you prepared to serve Number Two? Or will you try to escape?

We want information.

Note: for more on The Prisoner, see: Six of One, or the BBC

Future-proofing my child

I look at my daughter and wonder about what her life will be like when she’s an adult. What kind of job will she have? Where will she live? What type of lifestyle will she have?

I’m determined to help her be ready for whatever kind of life she’ll have. It’s a daunting task. As both a parent and educator, I’ve done plenty of reading and thinking about how the world is changing and what schools can do about that. I’ve recently read (and am re-reading) the very excellent book by David Price,  Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. Price reflects on the changes in society brought about by technology and how that impacts learning and working. It’s a great manifesto for any concerned modern educator and it puts into context some of my concerns as a parent.

In particular, I’m concerned that school – my school and any school – is failing to prepare my child for what she will have to face in the future. I feel guilty about that as a teacher, and I hope that my work helps to improve the situation in my school at least. However, it really does seem to me that the institution of school is not & can not change fast enough to make a difference to my child.

In particular, there are a few areas that seem to be lacking in what schools (or at least my school – and most schools I know) address and emphasize in the education they provide.

Financial Literacy

Sure, school gives children some money problems in math classes, and perhaps some attempts at financial education (my school has an elective Economics class in High School), but for the most part there is no real teaching of skills needed to succeed or excel in the world of money management. Some schools may have some Home Ec classes in which students learn to balance a checkbook or prepare a household budget, but even this isn’t enough. Children need to know about and understand the stock market, investments of various types, retirement funds, etc. Ideally, there should be some learning and practicing of skills that would help them become – or at least have the potential to become – entrepreneurs.

An interesting analysis of financial literacy and education was published in the New York Times by Economics professor Richard Thaler. While decrying the state of financial literacy in the American population and the lack of financial education in schools, he discusses a meta-analysis of financial education which indicates that financial education doesn’t necessarily make financially knowledgeable people. One of the main points he & the study makes is that doing more of the type of training (schooling) that’s currently being done will not be effective. This is exactly the same point David Price makes in looking at learning in Open.

Practical Skills

While the Maker movement is helping to resurrect and revitalize the development of  hands-on skills in children, the reality is that many schools have no venues for students to learn practical skills. Any reasonably capable person should be able to perform basic tasks such as changing the plug on an appliance, checking and maintaining a car engine, changing a bicycle or car tire, and similar such skills. In addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, schools really should be teaching soldering, calibrating and repairing. The excellent book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, argues that such practical “trade” skills not only are intellectually stimulating and inherently valuable, they also guarantee permanent employment: while technology has and will continue to replace or outsource many jobs from call centers to offices, there will always be a local need for plumbers, electricians, and repairpeople of every kind. Besides, if we are truly interested in “teaching the whole child” and “creating life-long learners,” then schools must help children develop the skills that will help them to become competent and capable adults who are not only knowing but handy.

Mastering Technology

Schools have adopted technology full-tilt, and my school is no exception. The use of technology abounds in schools: 1:1 laptop programs, classroom tablets, student and class webpages, etc.  However, the typical use of technology in schools is just that: using it. Teachers and students build a website using a template or form, in which they fill in the boxes set by others. Students use laptops to blog or tweet or other forms of digital writing. Students create Prezis or edit videos to give reports. None of this is particularly technological: it’s the same old projects & activities merely carried out using computers. None of this requires any fundamental knowledge of or understanding about how computers (or networks, the world-wide web, etc.) work. Some schools are starting to bring back programming and computer science as subjects – I’m pushing hard for our school to do just that – and that is important for our students’ (my child’s) futures. Work will continue to be mechanized and computerized, and the people who can actually program the computers and make the machines work will be the victors. Derek Thompson from The Atlantic has written a brilliant article about the fastest growing jobs of the decade and the robots who will steal them. If robots are taking jobs, then the students who know how to build and program the robots will be the ones in demand.

 I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.  ~Mark Twain

As a teacher and as a parent, I know that I cannot rely on School to teach my child everything. I know that I have my responsibility to her to teach her a wide variety of skills. I welcome that. I’m happy to educate my child in these as well as other areas.

What concerns me is that School is not interested in putting these kinds of areas at the forefront of education. Despite numerous intelligent arguments put forth by respected individuals, School remains entrenched in a structure of learning that is centuries old. There’s no space for programming or tinkering or entrepreneurship in a curriculum locked into Mathematics, Science, History, Literature, etc.

So, like all parents, it’s up to me.

Come here, Nadia. Let me show you how you can earn more interest on your allowance…

What does offline 21st Century Learning look like?

sparksIn a recent post, I argued against the assumption that 21st Century Learning requires a constant, always-on connection to the Internet. Such a requirement assumes that 21st Century Learning consists of blogposting, wiki editing, research, etc. This always-on connectivity would doom large chunks of the human race to old-style learning: many countries in Africa, South America and even Asia, rural areas in the US or Australia, various parts of Europe, etc.

In my view, “21st Century Learning” is more than just getting on to the Internet and using Twitter or Voicethread or WordPress or whatever. It’s a far richer experience than that. There are various definitions of what “21st Century Learning” is, but a quick summary and often-used convention is the 4C’s: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration & Critical Thinking. This moves beyond the basic “3R’s” of content (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic) into a skillset that is needed in the post-industrial, digital & connected world.

Can this be done without 24/7 connectivity? Certainly.

What would it look like? Here are just a few examples:

A Passion for Making and Learning and Sharing

A fantastic “poster child” for 21st Century Learning is Super-Awesome Sylvia. This young woman makes and builds things, creates “how-to” videos and shares them with the world. Simple, yes? What’s so special about that? You’d really have to watch one of her videos to understand. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that exciting? She definitely has talent and skill …and knows quite a lot, too. I predict big success for her throughout life. But how does this fit into education? She’s not doing this at school. (Quick question: COULD a student do this kind of thing in your school? How? When? With what tools? With what supervision? With what encouragement?) And is it really “21st Century Learning”?

Let’s look at the 4C’s:

  • Creativity: Sylvia’s work reeks of this. From her projects to the videos to her performance, she is a true creator.
  • Communication: With her fame and followers, she’s definitely an effective communicator. But even if she was working in obscurity, the way she can clearly and enthusiastically explain how to do something is fantastic communication.
  • Collaboration: Perhaps this is the least “21st Century” area of her work. She is collaborating with her dad to make projects & videos. But this is not group work.
  • Critical Thinking: Sylvia is constantly solving problems, working across traditional disciplinary boundaries, etc.

So how much 24/7 connectivity does she need? None. She’s doing her work offline: planning & working through projects, recording and editing videos, etc. She only needs a connection to upload her work.

Using Digital Tools to Demonstrate Skills – even non-existant ones!

Lasse Gjertsen was a post-secondary student studying animation. He created a video, called “Hyperactive,” as a result of an assignment.  This article by the Wall Street Journal describes his reaction:

The teacher “didn’t like it all,” Mr. Gjertsen recalls bitterly. Academic rejection, both at the British school and back at an animation program in Norway, left Mr. Gjertsen out of sorts.

Then, Gjertsen created the video “Amateur” . Both it and “Hyperactive” went viral. Gjertsen became famous, got job offers, etc. If you haven’t seen  “Amateur,” you really should. Go watch it.

Clever, isn’t it? It’s gripping and funny, too. And, if you read Gjertsen’s final notes, it’s amazing that he doesn’t play the drums or the piano. (He obviously has musical ability!) But what is most impressive is that this young man created something unique and original (“Creativity”) using basic digital tools (music composition software, videocamera, video editing software, etc.), working offline. He had to carefully plan out his video (“Critical Thinking”) and work out how to show himself playing two instruments – that he cannot play. He showed off a musical idea, and was able to produce funny and entertaining video (“Communication”). Weakness? Again, there’s no Collaboration here.

It’s telling, however, that something so unique, interesting and appealing (lets not forget that “Hyperactive” has over 7million hits and “Amateur” nearly 14million) was rejected by teachers.

Using 19th Century Tools in in a 21st Century Way

Another video that went viral was the movie that was made about Caine’s Arcade. Caine was a 9 year old boy who made a game arcade out of cardboard. He spent a whole summer planning games, thinking about what would work and what would be fun (“Critical Thinking”), and then building the arcade out of cardboard (“Creativity”). He got some help promoting his arcade, which then became a viral hit and inspired others to make their own cardboard creations (“Communication” and “Collaboration”).

Is there any question why multitudes of people have donated money to help send this clever young man to college? Do any of his teachers wonder how they can harness this boundless creativity and ingenuity in their classes?

Lessons for schools

The most notable thing about all these examples is the lack of collaboration. These creative people worked on their own outside of school. Collaboration is difficult in such a situation. Within school, however, collaboration is an easy thing to accomplish – it does not have to be collaboration around the world. Collaborating with classmates is an excellent and valuable skill. If these students’ teachers were able to harness their passions and creativity, imagine the phenomenal learning that would happen in the classroom.

Another point: these are all famous people. Their work went viral, spreading out around the internet. While that’s fantastic “communication,” it doesn’t happen to many people. What about non-famous examples? Are there examples of students doing offline creative, critically thoughtful, collaborative, communicative work?

In a forthcoming post, I will share some work that students I know have produced. Meanwhile, teachers  – share your students’ examples.

Is a 21st Century Education even possible in Africa?

Recently, ICS hosted Jeff Utecht for a week-long inaugural COETAIL course. Teachers and staff members discussed connected learning, web tools, student engagement, etc. They created blog sites, collaborated on online documents, and more. It was a week of thought-provoking and engaging materials – a successful start to an exciting program here in Addis Ababa.

There were a few hiccups. Our connection to the internet is good, but can be subject to slow-downs and interruptions. We live with that & work around it. We use locally-hosted services and tools and have backup plans for when we need to use cloud-based services. It works for us, and we do some great work with our students. It can be problematical for a visitor, however. Jeff no doubt experienced that and showed his frustrations with a tweet: “Question: Can you be a ’21st Century School’ without a stable internet connection?”

He got a few responses, all a hearty “no!” All the respondents were from the United States. (Comically, one of them was saying “no” while complaining about his own connectivity frustrations in the US.) Connectivity in the US – as in Europe and much of Asia – is pretty much a given for many people. It’s so widespread that it is pretty much taken for granted and assumed – like the air, clean drinking water, or the presence of a nearby Starbucks.

Here in Ethiopia – like much of Africa – it is not so much a given. Connectivity here is definitely growing and improving, but it is a long way from being omnipresent. People do get on to the internet and get access to online tools, but it is not always reliable. If you depend on getting connected at a specific time and date, you might be disappointed.

technology & tradition

So does this mean that Africa is doomed to be forever behind the rest of the world? Is the hope to provide a 21st Century Education to our students a quixotic one?

I say, emphatically, “No.” And I disagree with the underlying assumptions of the people who think otherwise.

What is a 21st Century education? Does it mean an always-on connection? Does it require 24/7 access to Twitter, Facebook, GMail, etc.? Or is it something different? Something more?

There are varying definitions for “21st Century Education” – there are almost as many different definitions as there are educators. There are plenty of sites and organizations that will give you a definition, a list of skills, a set of teacher tools, and a curriculum – sometimes for a very reasonable fee! 🙂 In the absence of a definitive explanation, here’s one typical list from 21st Century Schools :

21st century skills learned through our curriculum, which is interdisciplinary, integrated, project-based, and more, include and are learned within a project-based curriculum by utilizing the seven survival skills advocated by Tony Wagner in his book, The Global Achievement Gap:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

Funny, nowhere does that say “constant connectivity.” Sure, “Accessing Information” implies a good connection, as does “Collaboration” But what about “Adaptability” or “Initiative”? Don’t those almost imply an unreliable connection? Or how about “Problem Solving”? If everything just works smoothly all the time, then what problems does one solve?

I’m being too flippant. That’s really unfair to Jeff (who I admire and respect) and other high-quality educators. (Sorry, Jeff! Chalk it up to my decades living on this continent. I love the places & I love the people and I put up with the frustrations because the joys of living here far outweigh them.)

When people talk about a “21st Century Education,” they’re not really talking about getting online. They’re talking about a more creative approach to education, one that people have experimented with for the past century but have never been able to make mainstream. Maria Montessori was a 21st Century Educator. So was Seymour Papert. So was Piaget and Dewey, if you think about it. When we talk about 21st Century Education, we’re really talking about constructivism, inquiry, collaboration, problem-based learning and the like. The nemesis of 21st Century Education is not an unreliable connection to the internet. It’s lecturing. Teaching to the test. Multiple-choice quizzes.

So if you want to offer a 21st Century Education in Africa, you may have to problem-solve and be adaptable. The web-based tools that served you well in New York City may fail you in Nairobi. What is effective in London may be unavailable in Lusaka. A technique that succeeds in Beijing may be unworkable in Brazzaville. Instead, you may have to show your agility and try some other tools. Funnily enough, you may find these other tools to be just as useful …perhaps even more so. (We don’t have Starbucks in Addis Ababa, but I think you’ll find that a good cup of local bunna is infinitely better than anything you’ll find in Starbucks any day!)

researched, written and posted in Africa!