Archives For 21st Century skills

I teach English in a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) school, and that means that there is  wireless for all kinds of devices: notebooks, Kindles, laptops, and phones. Internet access is also open for social media sites, except Facebook, since many teachers use them for resources or to communicate with students. There is a school policy  requiring a 7″ screen on a device for classroom use, but students access their cell phones throughout the day.

Once class has begun, students can be online for tasks assigned by a teacher. What is not surprising is that, like students of previous generations, they might drift. For example, while their parents may have passed notes on bits of paper, this generation texts their notes. Their phones are a continuous source of temptation, the same way that their phones will be a temptation in the real world when they leave school. Educators recognize that students must be trained in the effective and appropriate use of technology, yet, with the exponential changes in the use of technology in education, educators may not know or practice the best strategies.

Students, however, often develop best practices in the use of technology themselves. Students can surprise us.

The good example of this sort of surprise is the message of recent holiday ad by Apple. In the ad, a Christmas family reunion begins with the arrival of a family including a teenager preoccupied with his iPhone.  He looks to be missing out on all the festivities: the sled-riding, the cookie-decorating, the dinners, the snowman-building (although he does have the carrot for a snowman’s nose in his pocket). But, on Christmas morning he presents his family with a video he has filmed to celebrate the reunion. In a twist of perception, the video shows that he has not been distracted by the phone; he has recorded and edited all the family events in making the “Harris Family Holiday”. He even makes Grandma cry in gratitude.

The short commercial is brilliantly cast; the teenager looks like any one of a number of my students. His head is constantly bent over the glowing screen; he looks up only briefly to acknowledge a word or gesture thrown in his direction. He could be in my classroom…so is he an example of the distracted  student or is he an example of creativity in my classroom?

The commercial is both an attempt to sell iPhones as well as justify the perception of distraction. “You are mistaken,” Apple is telling the viewer, “the iPhone is not a distraction; the iPhone is a tool.” In an advertising paradox, Apple is telling the truth…the iPhone is both.

I have witnessed students in my class be completely distracted by the cell phone  and other digital tools. I have also witnessed them use these tools to complete assignments beyond my expectations. I have been as surprised as the family in the holiday video. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from Apple is that the “every-teenager” featured in the commercial does the video on his own. There is no assignment. The video is his gift to his family. His choice to use this particular tool for a specific purpose illustrates the goal of a 21st Century education. The commercial also provides teachers with an example of a student practicing 21st Century skills.

The word surprise is derived from the past participle of Old French surprendre meaning “to overtake”. There is no surprise that Apple’s promotion of the iPhone in this commercial overtakes the heart in an attempt to overtake the competitive cell phone market. There should be no surprise that a cell phone is already in most students’ pockets or book bags. Those cell phones need not overtake the classroom if educators encourage their use as a tool and let the students surprise us with what they can do.

Tuesday nights are #edchat nights on Twitter, and educators across the country, even across the globe, discuss topics of general interest for an hour. Last night (5/7) the topic was posted: What is BIG Shift in ed that everyone is looking for? Is there 1 idea that can positively affect education? While I was surfing the column of tweets that piling up, I was alarmed by one of the “tweets” in one of the sidebar discussions that break out between tweeters.The topic began with a comment about high school teachers by one tweeter”

Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?

The response to this question caught my eye and made me a little concerned: 

 HS Ts need not be content experts, but rather good directors and literate within their subject.

The brevity in Twitter-language communication often makes the tone in tweets sound dogmatic; many read like proclamations, and this was a proclamation I found startling. Yes, teachers need to be good directors, but the standard for literate is “being able to  know how to read and write” in a subject area? That definition sets a low bar for teachers.  My own experience in school guided my response; I tweeted back:

I respectfully disagree; my best HS teachers were content experts. Made me want to know what they knew.

The return tweet by was unsettling:

Good T[teachers] facilitate learning & help S[students] engage. With tech, a content-expert is less imp. 

Captured in the dialogue above is a contemporary problem in education, a growing separation between skills or content created by the exponential growth of information.  For example, in 2011, The Telegraph published “Welcome to the Information Age – 174 Newspapers a Day” which began:

The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986.

The article written by Richard Alleyne, illustrated the explosion in the increase of information using a variety of statistics:

  • Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase. 
  • We now each have the equivalent of 600,000 books stored in computers, microchips and even the strip on the back of a credit card.
  • In 1986 we received around 40 newspapers full of information every day- this rocketed to 174 in 2007.
  • The ability to process all this information with computers has doubled every 18 months.

Today’s information overload is the major reason that many educators are promoting 21st Century skills; there is little hope that any human could manage the amount of information available. Instead there is every reason to believe that developing the necessary skills to access information is critical in education. However, to declare that teachers do not need to be content experts is a step in the wrong direction. 

Would anyone want a doctor or lawyer who was skilled but lacked content knowledge? Would anyone want a business manager or a craftsman who had content knowledge but no skills?  Why then do respected educators suggest that there should be a preference for skills over content in the teaching profession ? The problem appears to be that many people, educators included, connect content knowledge in the classroom with “lecture”. This association is evidenced by another tweeter who continued the conversation:

Content I agree, but just trying to focus away from “content expert” = lecturer. That’s not best role.

Really? For thousands of years, information was passed from one generation to another through the lecture format. Each subsequent generation added more knowledge in lecture formats, preparing the next generation for an undefined future. So did the Socratic method (5th C BCE) which encouraged debate and inquiry between teacher and students in order to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. Instructors used dialectic methods, arguments to persuade and inform. Now, suddenly, because there is an over-abundance of information, the lecture is dead?

Well, certainly the long and dry lecture delivered to students without their participation has always been deadening. Contemporary educators have adapted and improved the lecture by delivering content through different strategies to accomodate different learning styles.  Successful instruction is not delivered from the podium, but delivered in mini-lessons, project-based assessments, literature circles, reading and writing workshops, and labs. Yet, there was one more concern about the teacher as content expert, a concern about teacher control:

T[teachers]s direct content. S[students]s don’t have total control, but the emphasis needs to shift to the S[students]s.

While this tweet sounded blunt, the reality is that teachers do direct a great deal of content in delivering content knowledge as outlined in curriculum, and that content could be lost in turning control over to the students. There are many ways students can be offered choice in content: choice in independent reading, choice in research, choice in project presentation. Students must first have some content to make decisions and to take control of their learning. This sentiment was reflected in one of the last tweets in the conversation:

I agree content experts are important, but not as important as allowing S[students}s to access and struggle to understand.

I added my final comment:

Sure, if they [teachers] give them [students] the answers all the time. But a content expert knows questions-what to ask & where to help guide.

That struggle for understanding is exactly what has happened for millenium, from instructor to student. This Twitter conversation had come full circle, a full Socratic circle. Through Twitter’s #edchat, educators discussed the teacher as content expert or as a skilled instructor. We were participating in reasoned debate from our different points of view about a subject in order to establish a truth.

balanceThe sidebar conversation on #edchat had begun with the question, “Do they [teachers] need to be experts OR can they be great teachers instead?” This answer to this question is not a choice between content knowledge or being “great” with skill. Furthermore, the skill to dispense knowledge is enhanced not replaced by technology.

In determining what makes a teacher great, on #edchat or in any other forum, there is no “or”…the balanced combination of content and skills is what makes a teacher great.

To all those who claim that all students today are digital “natives,” I beg to disagree.

Digital natives are defined as those people who have grown-up using technology daily beginning in the 1960s, but the term is more commonly used to describe those born in the 21st Century. According to the PBS Frontline Website, 

  • Digital Natives aged 12 to 24 spend 4.5 hours a day viewing screen media (TV, Internet, Internet video, mobile video), excluding games;
  • 82 percent of seventh- to twelfth-graders “media multitask” while doing homework, e.g. IM, TV, Web surfing, etc.

The NYTimes 2010 article, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online” discusses the use of digital devices stating, “Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices.” Certainly, use by our students has increased since then.

Despite  these statistics, I am convinced that many students are not digital “natives, ” they are digital “tourists.” Really bad tourists. I’m talking the “standing in line to see the Mona Lisa on the busiest day of the year and then leaving the Louvre once they saw it” kind of tourist. The “only want to eat at McDonalds in a foreign country because I don’t like food I don’t recognize” kind of tourist. The “I have no idea what kind of money this is” kind of tourist. In other words, bad tourists.

This past year was a eye-opening experience with my bad tourists. There was a  1:1 integration of student to netbooks in the English and select social studies classrooms. Initially,  members of my department and I were nervous about how we would need to keep up with what we imagined would be an onslaught of tech-savvy teens. We  prepared ourselves by practicing various software platforms that we thought would be used successfully. We played with Google Docs, Edmodo, Edublog, WordPress, Blogger, PBWorks, Twitter, and Quizlet.  We reviewed presentation software: Prezi, Animoto, Glogster, Voice Thread. We made decisions as to how to integrate these platforms gradually and at various grade levels to help us transition students to a paperless classroom. We imagined our classrooms would be full of students investigating and testing which software would best suit their needs. We were ready for the digital natives to collaborate and teach us about this “undiscovered country” of educational opportunites.

Instead what we discovered was that many of our students were reluctant to try new platforms that differed even slightly  in organization or layout. A login in a different location was perplexing; an embed code or link could not be located.  We found our students were not naturally tech-savvy, save the requisite number of computer geeks per class. They did not want to move out of their comfort zone in technology, partly because they knew that work was involved, but, in fairness, partly because they were intimidated.
For example, in every class, a few students would have problems logging on.

“It’s still loading, Mrs. B.” says Student A
“Did you try shutting down and starting up again like I showed you last week?” I respond.
“No,” a flat statement.
I sigh.
Of course not. Student A who knows how to quickly log on to her computer at home to check Tumblr and Facebook, considers this contraption on her desk as a foreign object. She is a digital tourist waiting hours on line for the same roller coaster ride she rode on yesterday.

There were always problems with software.

“Google Docs isn’t showing my changes,” says Student B
“Are you using Firefox or Google Chrome as a browser?” I respond.
I see a glazed look. He is a digital tourist who is having a hard time with trying alternate routes in a foreign city without asking directions.
“No,” a flat statement.
I sigh, again.

They failed to save word documents, adjust file extensions, and rarely took advantage of the spell-check or grammar check functions. And they were always losing their passwords….their “passports” onto websites. They acted as though we had co-opted their toys for unnecessary purposes.

In retrospect, I don’t blame them entirely for their hesitations in traveling through unfamiliar digital territory. Because of their proficiency with social media, there is an expectation that all students attending school today, at any grade level, are endowed by their creator with a new strain of technology enhanced DNA. Because they can operate a joy stick or the Wii remote with grace and ease, they are expected to come pre-familiarized with keyboard commands that would make them more productive (“What do you mean ‘Paste Special’? What’s unformatted text, anyway?”) Our anticipation that our students  are capable with all things digital has led a combined sense of frustration.

That is not to say, however, that student can return home to the land of the pen, pencil, and worksheet. They need to be travelling on this Internet highway, but our digital “natives” need to stop acting like reluctant tourists safely traveling on a prescribed tour bus that never ventures into TCP/IP’s  backcountry. Educators have plenty of support in meeting newly adopted standards. There are a number of organizations who support the development of 21st Century skills-ISTE, 21st Century Partnership to name a few. Plus, this experience has prepared us for next year when our 1:1 initiative will be expanded.

I believe that our students need to break out of the Magic School Bus model of Internet exploration staffed by Ms. Frizzel, the contemporary Pied Piper, who could transport them effortlessly into new  experiences . While Ms. Frizzel served as the elementary school expert in Outer Space exploration, the study of anatomy and physiology, and all things in  underwater research, the magnitude of information and means to access that information on the Internet today far exceeds the abilities of one teacher, even a teacher with Ms. Frizzel’s infinite patience and wisdom.

A better model to adopt for for our students as digital tourists is the Rick Steve’s model, where “travel is a political act.” In this model, students travel the alternate routes for productivity and interact and collaborate with others using many different software “languages”. They may stumble in these challenging and unfamiliar digital locations, but they will benefit from this exposure to the strange and unknown. They just need to get over their xenophobia of new software platforms. They need to develop a sense of curiosity and adventure in order to make their visits in the Internet productive. To facilitate their exploration, educators need to stop assuming that students are comfortable in the digital world and deliberately force students into becoming explorers out of their comfort zones. We need to convince our students that the double-deckered tour bus playing the pre-recorded soundtrack will not make them independent learners whose future success depends on the ability to mingle and cooperate. We need to encourage each of them to become a digital “native”  rather the digital “tourist” who cautiously picks his or her way through the Internet rather than be  immersed in the 21st Century cultural experience.