I started school when I was 3 years old, in September of 1979. I was so excited to jump on the school bus with my older sisters, and see what the buzz was all about. Over the years of my elementary schooling, what I discovered was that, for the most part, school was a place where you went to learn to read and write, to memorize times tables and math formulas, a place where you had to stand in rows, speak only when spoken to, lift up your hand to talk, and where we sat quietly in rows of desks and worked.
As a beginning teacher in 1998, I had very much the same impression of how schools would be run, and in many ways, they still were. Some things had changed; computers and internet were sometimes available in the libraries, rules were a little more relaxed, but for the most part, school life was not all that different in 1998 than it had been in the 70’s and 80’s.
But then, things started to change. Over the 17 years I have been teaching, I have had to ‘unlearn’ what good teaching looks like. The world has drastically changed, and the education system had to change as well. Teaching 21st Century students demands a new and different approach. Gone are the days of sitting in rows, listening to the teacher impart knowledge. Gone are the days of learning only within the confines of a classroom.
For many, the first thing that comes to mind is the introduction of new and exciting technology. Creating a digitally enhanced classroom will provide students with access to information that will enhance their education. This is true on many levels, however, it is not the essential learning that 21st Century students really need. The truth is, the students have already mastered the technology. They grew up living and breathing technology, and as quickly as a new game, gadget or toy is introduced, they have mastered it.
So the thought that a focus on technology is the key to effective 21st Century teaching is erroneous. Technology is merely a tool that students can use to improve their learning opportunities, but what they really need from educators are the skills required to effectively use the tools today, and the skills they will require to tackle the unknown tasks of their future. They will encounter jobs and life events that we can’t even imagine, so what are we doing to prepare them?
The way to approach 21st Century education is to arm students with the skills they need to face these unknown events of the future. Michael Fullan’s “Great to Excellent” refers to these skills as “attributes that parents and the public value, and that employers seek. They position our graduates for successful careers in Canada and across the globe.” (Fullan 2013)
So, it’s not good enough to just teach them the content of the curriculum anymore. It’s not good enough to throw technology in the room and expect that they will know how to interpret what they see and read. In a 2010 article from Edweek titled “How do you define 21st Century Learning ?”, Lynn Munson points out that “being able to Google is no substitute for true understanding.” (Munson 2010)
Research also supports the importance of teaching the 4 C’s . The National Education Association publication “An Educator’s Guide to the 4 C’s” indicates that “80 percent of executives believe fusing the “Three Rs” and “Four Cs” would ensure that students are better prepared to enter the workforce. According to these managers, proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic is not sufficient if employees are unable to think critically, solve problems, collaborate, or communicate effectively.”(National Education Association, 2015)
So, what do we do? We continue to teach students to read and write, to think through their math problems, to learn about history and geography. But we also need to EXPLICITLY teach them how to work collaboratively with others and respect teamwork. We need to teach them to communicate effectively, both verbally and in writing, and to understand the role of effective communication as global citizens. We need to teach them to be creative and innovative so they seek new and different ways to tackle problems, and aren’t afraid of risk. We need to teach them to be critical thinkers so they can effectively sift through and understand the overload of information available at their fingertips.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We cannot build the future for our youth—but we can build our youth for the future.” (NEA, 2015) Layering the explicit teaching of the 4 C’s over sound pedagogical approaches to curriculum can do just that; prepare our students for the future, whatever it may bring.
Fullan, M. (2013) Great to Excellent: Launching the Next Stage of Ontario’s Education Agenda, retrieved from http://www.michaelfullan.ca/media/13599974110.pdf
Munson, L. (2010) How do you define 21st Century Learning? Retrieved http://www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2010/10/12/01panel.h04.html
National Education Association (2015) An Educator’s Guide to the 4C’s. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/A-Guide-to-Four-Cs.pdf