Sunday, July 10, 2016

How Can We Create Authentic 21st-Century Learning?

Is it possible that we learn more from failure than success? Are your students only motivated by grades? To provide you with the hard truth, you simply have a class culture problem. How many real world problems do you solve on the first try? And would you agree that successful people are not the ones that get it right the first time, they are the individuals who remain diligent in the face of their first mistakes? You see, our classrooms have got to shift from seeking answers, to asking the right questions. When this happens then ‘fail’ becomes the “First Attempt in Learning” and students use a productive struggle model to solve real world problems. When this happens, we grow curiosity and end the arduous cycle of content coverage that culminates in a chapter test. What should education do? It must empower learners, develop critical thinking, facilitate teamwork and communication, problem solve, analyze, and interpret. Learning in this sense must prepare minds to think creatively, not fill minds with standardized answers and facts.

Binge Learning. Recently my wife and I started a television series of Netflix. We would lay our son down for a nap (he’s only 19 months, it would be a separate problem if he were 19 years o) and race upstairs to watch the next episode. As soon as it finished, we would wait restlessly for the next episode. What if this was our students? What if we inspired curiosity to the point, where, like binge-watching a television show, our students always wanted to know more and look forward to the next day. This can only occur when learning starts with failure. When the teacher values the productive struggle over the numerical grade. To state one more way, in movies the end is the end. You may watch it one more time (in this case you really need to get a hobby) but for the most part, the end is the end. Now in the event of a television series, they always conclude with a teaser; and in this case, the wait for the next season is unbearable. Grades work in a much different way. When a grade or end is shown, the learning STOPS. But, when you reach a progress check, as at the end of one season's TV series, you understand you place in learning and look forward to the next step.

To view learning from another angle think about this old saying, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. But is that true of our students? It has been my experience, personally or professionally, that education is seen as a system to disseminate knowledge. The end. This outdated model simply uses teachers as the gatekeepers of knowledge. They unscrew student heads, pour in the new knowledge, then wait for it to overflow. But is this what education should be about? I believe we must aspire to something different.

Recently our other assistant principal broke down the word ‘educate’ in an email to staff. The word ‘educate,’ broken down to its origins, means to lead forth. The message was clear; education should be about the process or the journey more than the outcome or the learning of isolated rogue facts. In fact, I would argue that when a lesson only pursues an outcome we reduce a student’s curiosity and alienate any and all 21st-century skills students must learn to be successful.

Let me introduce an instructional idea, then philosophy shift. Years ago I listened to Jimmy V, a legendary basketball coach, give a speech in the wake of announcing he was suffering from terminal cancer. He said, “Everyday, we should do three things: laugh, cry, and think.” His speech was inspirational, and it made me think about today’s classrooms. What if every day our classrooms did four things: read, write, think, and talk (RCU, 2016)? Sounds simple, right? You would be surprised how many classes still sit in rows and wait for the teacher to disseminate knowledge.

If we prescribe to the read, write, think, and talk model then learners begin to enjoy the journey, become curious and form new questions, and develop critical 21st-century skills. When a student performs the “Big Four”, then they access new skills like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, reasoning, disagreeing appropriate, developing leadership, and the list goes on. Most importantly, students take ownership of learning and can use these critical 21st-century skills to face the real world.

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