I just finished reading Margaret Wente’s article “The brave new world of 21st century learning” in today’s Globe and Mail. I’ve read enough of Ms. Wente’s stuff to get her schtick. It’s fairly routine, really. Pick an issue (or make something into one), attack the issue/theory/person/organization with out-of-context details pulled from a few web pages and blogs, call for accountability, and repeat. Her work is not meant to be creative or helpful to anyone. It is meant to foster accusation, not conversation. It is meant to garner attention through the angry division of people. And while I feel that it is the very lowest form of journalism, it certainly works. Why else would the Globe pay you to create works that do nothing positive for anyone? It even got me to write about her! And now, rather than spend another second on her, I’d like to comment on the important aspect of her article. I’m going to explain why I want to be a “21st Century Educator.”
Well first off, I don’t. That’s right. I am not, nor do I want to be a “21st Century Educator.” I have no desire to conform to some monolithic theory of education that demands I immediately change all aspects of my practice regardless of evidence or common sense. And neither do any of my friends, family, or colleagues who have shown an interest in adopting new teaching strategies and leaving so-called “industrialized teaching” behind. The fact is, teachers are doing what they have always done; examining their teaching for areas of improvement, incorporating new tools, trying to reflect the changing needs of their society and students, and working to support the next generation. Don’t believe it? Talk to the dozens of teachers I know who are taking courses over the next two months (often on their own dime) for no other reason than it makes them better educators.
I’d be lying, however, if I said that I had not begun to revolutionize my way of teaching over the last few years. As an active participant in the TCDSB’s Project NeXt, I have tried to focus on making sure that my classroom and teaching encourages development of my students’ skills in Creativity, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Communication. Over the next few days, I’m going to try to explain what has lead me to this way of thinking and why I think that these strategies are the right ones for my students.
1) Real-world Vs. Rote
When teaching the addition of integers to my Grade 7 students I recall the way they were taught to me (and before I proceed, let me first say that I have only the fondest memories of my elementary and highschool teachers – they were professionals working within a common framework to teach me as well as possible!). I learned a simple formula that we all memorized (well, those of us who could do so) and I can still recall it to this day. The problem, I explain to my students, is that while this made me perfectly able to answer questions on a test, I had no idea WHAT integers really were or how I could use them in a real-life context. I see this all the time. Consider the student who meticulously memorizes the formula for area of a triangle, but is stumped when the triangle is turned upside down. The student who memorizes the various states of matter, but can’t figure out an example that wasn’t in the textbook. My students who use the word ‘bet’ when trying for the past tense of ‘beat.’ These students are not lacking grit or drive. They have worked hard with the information they have been given. What they are lacking is a real-world context that would make their knowledge meaningful and memorable.
I recently pulled out some essays I completed during my Masters Degree in History. I wanted to show some students the type of complex wring that would one day be expected of them if they attended university. As I examined them looking for a good example, I was surprised when I realized that I remembered almost none of them. For each essay, I had read multiple books, written for days, and often presented my findings to my professor and peers, and yet, I barely even recognized the content. Why? The reality is, for all my hard work (I did the two-year course in 12 months), it didn’t matter to me. My goal was always to complete a good product on time. I was always accountable for my work. I had a lot financially riding on my efforts. I cared. But the minute it was done, it no longer mattered. Deep down, I knew it would be read and graded by one person, and then never see the light of day again. 12 years later, I would have to re-learn it all if I needed to use it.
While I often have to deal with disengaged students (more on them in a later post), I worry most about my high-achieving, driven students who long ago learned that academic tasks are just a means to an end. I worry that their many talents and skills are being wasted. I worry that they will consistently sacrifice learning for grades. They are the students who ask me “How many pages does it have to be?” or “Do we have to show our work?”. They will be happy with an “A” whether they truly learned anything or not.
I want my students to be able to solve the many problems their generation faces. Memorized knowledge alone will not give them success. I reject the notion that creativity and competency are somehow mutually exclusive of each other. My best students are able to meld the two into something new and meaningful.