Wednesday, December 28, 2011

21st Century Learning: Shifts in our Thinking... Shift #1-RESEARCH IS CRUCIAL

Wordle: CHANGE

Education is constantly in a mode of change.  We all know the pattern:  strategies, philosophies, ideas, etc. come and go and then they come around again and again. This spiraling effect, though, has truly changed.  The technology that exists today was never part of the equation before.  Educators have entered a new era where time is of the essence, and an innovative way of thinking is necessary.  We can only control how we move forward, and on this journey every second counts.

We feel fortunate because we personally travel side by side, in a team teaching situation, and our conversation guides us on this journey.  We are able to encourage each other’s growth on a daily basis.  Through this growth process we have realized that we will always have something to learn, as our world will forever be at an incredible rate of change; a rate that we will never be able to fathom or predict.  Our job is not just to deliver content information, but rather prepare students for the world in which THEY will live.  So, we believe the only way we can be efficient in doing so is to learn and teach how to process this information, and truly value the thinking that is required to be successful in a variety of situations.  It is important to us to understand the skills that will be essential in the future and pass these abilities along to our students, as well. (books)
Anyone who knows us absolutely recognizes our cravings for books- literature of all sizes and genres.  However, many may not understand where this desire to read, learn, and grow comes from.  As our understandings about our present technological world have increased, so has our curiosity. Having a student driven classroom continues to push us into finding new answers for the varying children we share and the world they are accustomed to. How can we better prepare them for success not only in school but in life? Reading is a hobby for both of us, but it has grown larger than that now.  This leisure pursuit has morphed into more of a passion for learning; a desire to devour literature that aids in our own personal/professional growth focused on our student-centered learning environment. 
“21st Century Skills” are labeled, highlighted, and cited in literature and conversations everywhere.  As they should be since it is almost 12 years past the turn of the century.  But really, WHAT is the big idea?  WHY are they important?  WHO needs them?  WHEN do we have time to even use them in our classrooms?  WHERE do we get the information?  If you haven’t asked yourself these questions yet, now is the time…
 Our favorite resource right now, which helped us answer the above questions for ourselves, is 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn.  This book has captured our attention on a variety of issues, so much so that we recently decided to begin writing joint reflections with this post being the first in the series. Our focus will be on each chapter within the anthology.  Absolutely not in order, though, as the resource does not require the front to back research model (nor do our brains J). Instead we will be recording our reflections and application of the ideas presented through our own team-teaching and collaboration experiences together.
We truly, to the depth of our core, believe we have been productive teachers in regards to student learning.  Our focus has always been on student needs and how we can change our practice to better serve the students in their seats.  Through our more recent learning and conversations we have discovered an assortment of strategies to get students out of their seats, and we set out this year with the perspective of creating a student-centered learning environment.  Again, both feeling like aspects of it existed within each of our classrooms in past years, but our instinct telling us there was more to it.  And we found out quickly that we still had mounds to learn.  So we swapped out the fixed mindset (focusing on what had always worked well and relying on our own expertise) for a growth mindset (embracing challenges, learning from feedback, and seeking inspiration from the success of others).
Within the Foreword entitled 21st Century Skills: Why They Matter, What They Are, and How We Get There, written by Ken Kay (President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills) a detail stood out to us.  “In the 21st Century, the true test of rigor is for students to be able to look at material they’ve never seen before and know what to do with it” (Kay, 2010, p.xxiv). In the day and age of Standardized Testing, we sometimes forget that this is the key piece to learning FOR life.  We can easily get caught up in numbers and forget that learning is when they retain the information for use later, not just for applying their short-term knowledge on an assessment.  This statement echoed within our minds and conversations for days- and mind you we hadn’t even read further in the book.  We had been saying this general idea to each other all summer in preparing for the start of our program, as we were creating our foundation and explanation of the learning environment.  Here it was in our face, in print, proving our intuition was indeed on the right course.

As we move forward, each moment of each day, this notion is a reminder to us and our students.  What use is the information (standard/target/goal) if there is not a purpose for using it in our daily lives?  Shouldn’t we (meaning adults too) be able to apply information in new situations?  We encounter these conversations professionally all the time, and understandably so.  Teachers are sometimes frustrated by Standardized Testing and confused by standards vs. curriculum. However, helping teachers understand that if students don’t remember the content from the curriculum 3 weeks (or more) after a unit is complete is a problem.  It should not have to feel like a rat race… instead we should be focusing on students achieving standard and then being able to apply the information in a new situation.  It is really all about APPLICATION.  The current state of the world in which we live is driven by global issues, technology and change.  What students face day to day will change as well, therefore they must be equipped with problem solving and critical thinking skills in order to interpret and adapt to an evolving world. 
Another strong statement from the forward relates to the changing world around us.  Kay (2010) states, “The new social contract is different: only people who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed” (p. xvii).  21st century skills expect the development of creativity and innovation, flexibility and adaptability, leadership and cross-cultural skills –for all students (Kay, 2010).  These are skills for success, ones that will create a dynamic citizenry for the next 50 years.  Without them it is hard to adapt and recreate who you are to suit the world in which you live.  Connecting and applying new learning to real life situations gives richer meaning to the day to day experience. At the same time we must be teaching our students how to think critically, problem solve, analyze and evaluate information, communicate their thinking, focus their learning, and build their flexibility (the growth mindset) that all information is out there and open to be tackled.  Each child can push themselves to be creative, to be innovative and collaborative with others in order to push the boundaries of what they are learning.

Encompassing a growth mindset, as an educator, is essential in order to recognize changes that are required to better serve our customers, research possible solutions, and network to reflect on progress. As we, ourselves, move through this century we will seek opportunities to strengthen our capacity within the 21st Century Skills.  We have begun by building our own technological competence in order to create such a learning environment for our students.  This journey excites us with the potential we foresee, and it dares us to let go and pioneer a student-centered learning environment.  Research and expansion of knowledge is indispensable.  We are in a new age, which requires a new mindset…. or simply a shift in thinking.
~Celina & Ann

Barell, J., et al. (2010).  21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn.  J. Bellanca & R. Brandt (Eds.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Kay, K. (2010). 21st century skills: Why they matter, what they are, and how we get there. In J. Bellanca &      R. Brandt (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn (pp. xiii-xxxi).  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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