The 21st Century. Robot servants. Flying cars. Teleportation. Based on the films I saw at the time, these are things that I expected to be readily available to me by now. There was another thing I want added to the list: Technology fully embedded across schools and in classrooms. I grew up with Amstrads, Spectrums, Commodores, and Amigas, and fully expected that schools would naturally be filled with more advanced technology by the time my children were in school themselves.
Just to be clear, I’m am not just talking about teaching technology to children. It’s not even about using technology as a legitimate teaching tool. It’s about not seeing technology as something novel, strange, or unexpected. Technology should be taken for granted, just another tool in every teacher’s kit. Tools to be used as and when necessary. ICT should be as normal as using electricity to switch on the lights, using water to wash hands, and using the telephone to call a parent. A lot has to do with the actual infrastructure, but a lot also has to do with the attitude of those that work in a school.
So, what should a school in the 21st Century look like? Well, it’s more than just filling a classroom with tech. It’s about ensuring that five year olds are getting ready for a future that no-one is really be able to predict until they are much older. That also means supporting teachers and giving them the skills to help their students achieve this. Helping teachers understand why it is important for them to use it, so that they can provide useful experiences for their students.
What are today’s students like? What technology do they rely on? What skills are they already using? There are some key facts that we can rely on. Kids have never been so inundated with data or information. It comes from everywhere. As adults, we may be used to our information coming from a few key places, such as other people, books, television, and radio. Students today have all of those, plus some internet-related alternatives, but with mobile devices in particular, information is now pushed to them, whether they want it or not. This has been encouraged by social networks, in particular. And if certain information is not available, it can be requested, or even created as needed (wikis are a great example of this).
This is a key difference, I think, between how schools used to work, and how they could work today. In the past, information had to be looked for, something that someone had to give you – but in today’s world, information comes to you. There are great benefits to this, but it can become somewhat of a race – who ever gets to an individual first, gets to be “true”. (This is only applicable when it comes to asking for subjective information, on a forum, for example, where peoples opinions can have a profound effect on a reader.)
And when information comes to students so quickly, they need to make a choice as to how reliable and valid that information is. Sounds like a job for a teacher.
Do teachers add to the “noise” that is already vying for a student’s attention? Do we try and help children decided how they can identify trustworthy information? How good are we at doing this? Or are we hindering their learning?
Personally, I think that any teacher must have first-hand experience of anything that they teach. Can you imagine being taught how to swim by someone who has never swum? This means that teachers should have some idea of what it is like to be in the world of a 21st Century student. Teachers should be part of a social network (a professional network might be more useful), and they should use & model lots of internet tools – only then will teachers be able to encourage students to build their own learning support networks, and begin preparing them as digital learners.
Yes, this means that teachers may have to change the way they work. Yes, it means that teachers will have to learn something new. All teachers must be students themselves. They must love learning new things. This is a powerful way of showing their students the value of education, and will give their students the confidence to make mistakes, and keep on trying. I think it is worth reminding every teacher once in a while that they are learners first and foremost! And, as such, no-one is too inexperienced, or too set in their ways to learn. They, too, just need the right support…
John Dewey once said “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Today’s new trends will be become tomorrow’s normal practices, and we needed to integrate them in to our classrooms yesterday. After all, schools should aim to be the first place that a child experiences new things, concepts, and ideas.
What skills should we be encouraging in our students? Should we be focusing on theory or practicals? As mentioned above, students can already get all the information they want, when they want. Teachers and schools are no longer the exclusive font of knowledge. Having said that, students will always need direction, guidance, explanations, motivations, and examples. More then ever, students will need to know how to work with others in a variety of situations, conditions, and locations, as well as learning how to be self-reliant and independent. No wonder, with all these seemingly contradictory skills, schools can become confused.
We can simplify things. We can focus on a few things now that will pay dividends in the future.
- Sharing knowledge between students and staff is a massive benefit that may not be fully appreciated by everyone yet. Not just sharing resources and experiences, but sharing ideas and concepts. Taking advantage of the fact that feedback can be instantly received, or that lessons can be saved, analysed, and digested at the convenience of the learner (young or old).
- Take advantage of the fact that technology allows almost every student access to the same information. There is no competition between who gets to the library first, and who doesn’t. (I appreciate that for some students, access to the internet, for example, is a real problem, but the gap is shrinking.) Technology like mobile devices allow everyone to access knowledge like never before.
- Technology is getting cheaper. Just look at your mobile phone. It is possible that it is more powerful than the laptop you owned just a couple of years ago. Schools are investing in wireless networks more than ever, as costs have lowered, systems become simper to manage, personal experience gets stronger and there is more kit to take advantage of it. Of course, this means that more funds can be directed to supporting staff. As more of a school’s system moves to a more digital and online persuasion, money can be saved in a more traditional sense, like less paper being printed.
Of course, this is just what I think a 21st Century School should be like. What do you think?
Image courtesy of Flickr, paul bica