Education Teacher Leaders Network

Are Teachers Ready for 21st Century Learning?

March 05, 2008 10 min read
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An unprecedented level of discussion about 21st Century learning and its impact on teachers’ work has taken place in the Teacher Leaders Network discussion group recently. Among the many topics covered: Internet safety and cyber-bullying; growing up online; the risk of teachers becoming “irrelevant”; the frustrations caused by school firewalls; and the distinction between digital tools and digitally-infused learning. We can only offer a small sample of our community dialogue here. If you’d like more, download this transcript.

We think these are important conversations, and they are taking place more and more frequently in our Network, in other online teacher communities and, most importantly, in schools across the nation. If they are not taking place, they should be. The rise of the Internet, Web 2.0 tools, and instant global communication— and the demand by powerful lobbying groups for more focus on “new skills”— is going to change teaching and learning in profound ways.

Bill posed a provocative question to the TLN discussion group: “Are you technologically illiterate?”

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

I’m catching up on a bit of my professional reading, and I finally had a chance to read Karl Fisch’s “Is It Okay To Be a Technologically Illiterate Teacher?” post, which was voted the “Most Influential Blog Post” in the 2007 EduBlog awards.

And I’ve got to say that it’s pretty remarkable reading. In it, Fisch points out an all-too-troubling tendency on the part of teachers to take great pride in their inability to be efficient users of technology. He also wonders whether being technologically illiterate today is analogous to being unable to read or write in the early 20th Century. Fisch ends with a statement that I pose here to you as a question:

“If a teacher today is not technologically literate— and is unwilling to make the effort to learn more— it’s equivalent to a teacher 30 years ago who didn’t know how to read and write.”

Whaddya’ think?

Cindi replied:

My sister-in-law is also a teacher, and it’s really frustrating when she wants a document I have. I usually jump right into “I’ll e-mail it to you” (like I do with the rest of the civilized world), but she’ll say, “Oh, I don’t do e-mail.” She also doesn’t do cell phones, digital cameras, or any of the tools that even some who would call themselves technologically impaired use.

As difficult as that is to understand, I have an even harder time with teacher colleagues in my building who don’t respond to e-mails, check their voice mail, etc. And these are just the tip of the technology iceberg they seem to be encased in.

Laurie, a special education teacher, talked of overcoming her own fear:

I remember when our new schools were being built, six years ago, and I learned my classroom would have several computers in it, along with Internet access. I was intimidated and scared, because the only machines I knew about were ditto machines (anyone remember those?!), movie projectors (!), and copy machines. I realized that I needed to keep up with the times. I didn’t have Internet access at home and my spouse generously gave it to me as a 3-month trial service for my birthday. I remember thinking, “What will I do with this?” Well, you know the rest of that story (smile).

I think as educators, we must pick and choose what is most important for our students, in terms of what will benefit them and their learning. I realize now how using technology to teach a child with writing and reading disabilities will benefit them tremendously when they learn how to type a document, listen to information through our computer’s speakers, or e-mail me when they are confused or troubled.

Renee, a high school teacher, reflected:

What fear exists among educators (teachers, administrators, etc.) toward technology is, I suspect, part of a larger, older fear of loss of control. For many in the schooling enterprise, education is about me [authority figure] showing you [student, employee...] what I know that you don’t. This is the source of the power-kick some people get out of lecturing. It’s not that they really believe talking while facing the board and writing is the best way to help students learn; it’s being able to look smugly over the shoulder at the expressions on the faces of the hapless note takers who are being made to feel dumber by the minute. It’s a comfortable pedestal that some will not yield without a fight.

But when it comes to technology, many in education find themselves wading into waters where it’s the students who are more competent and comfortable; where they [who are used to being in front— literally] are already behind, and the conditions keep changing. Some find it exhilarating; others are so afraid of drowning they panic— which, of course, causes them to sink faster.

Lisa worries about technology’s impact on the early development of creativity.

The Waldorf School in my community keeps students off of computers until they are teenagers, because they don’t want the technology to hinder the development of the imagination. I respect this school, and each child becomes immersed in art, literature, retelling, and creativity. The children become artists and creative thinkers and attend the very best universities across the country.

Schools can’t keep up with the latest technology because a newer invention is always coming along to replace the old, and the newer isn’t necessarily better, it just replaces the older. Are we too, stifling our imagination, language and social development, and letting technology interfere? I get real concerned when I converse with my students and mostly the stories they generate about their own lives involve getting a PlayStation and then playing with their PlayStation. Yet, another child unexposed to technology generates thousands of ideas about any topic.

Yes, technology has its place, but I’d rather be the teacher responsible for the learners that show great creativity, problem solving, and imagination.

Ariel, a middle school teacher, replied:

I have two close friends who went through Waldorf K-8 schools on opposite coasts, then went to other high schools. I was really impressed with the art-based education they received. They really got a chance to develop fine and gross motor skills, basic drawing skills, and a wonderful eye for color and layout designs.

I also was one of those kids to get a television very late in the game, and spent most of my childhood playing outside or cutting and pasting and drawing inside. My little brother loved to play with toys, some electronic, take them apart, and then figure out how to put them back together.

I too notice many students who want to write about their PlayStations. It takes a lot of prodding to get them to find a real story in their PlayStation experience. I think part of the problem with PlayStation is that it structures or prepackages the experience of the participant, whereas, playing outside or messing around with art supplies requires that participants structure their own experiences. At the same time, I think PlayStation compels kids, because it creates a virtual world in which kids (who are essentially not in control of their own lives) feel a degree of control over what happens.

My sense is that technology can also provide forums through which users can structure their own experiences, play with ideas, communicate, and create— but we need to know what these are and have time to experiment with them.

Then there’s the question of need. Is this learning something educators need to do? I’d like to say “no” and think that kids today can benefit from and satisfy their curiosities with the same forms of play that I did 20 years ago. But I have to deny myself that instinct. Things have changed so much in the adult world; it’s not fair to leave kids at the side of the road with no wheels. It’s like my father (or anyone’s father) saying, “When I was your age, I used to walk two miles to pick up a carton of milk.” I remember telling my dad, “That’s because you didn’t have a car. We do, so give me the keys!”

Now and then, my dad made me walk, just to make a point. As a teacher, I love once in a while to give my students a play period, old school style. We break out the board games (some of which come from my mother’s attic): Monopoly, Clue, Checkers, Scrabble, Uno, etc. It’s great fun and no one complains. But realistically, I think for my 1995-born 8th graders, it’s the equivalent of us going to an antique car show— beautiful, novel, even educational, but not the real world.

Nancy F. pushed back a bit:

I’m not anti-tech. I do believe technology is re-shaping education, and it’s mostly good. What angers me— in Fisch’s blog, as well as an uncountable number of other blogs, op-eds, books, and columns— is blaming TEACHERS for the fact that schools are (yet again) behind the curve. (And, yes, I know I’m shouting.)

There needs to be space to value teacher judgment (like Lisa’s thoughtful comments), and for teachers to think collaboratively about how to best use the fabulous new tech tools and communities emerging. Teachers who refuse to use e-mail or learn simple programs may simply be reacting to yet another no-training mandate from on high. Most teachers learn fluent technology use on their own time, their own dime, and out of their own motivations.

Fisch wrote: If a teacher today is not technologically literate— and is unwilling to make the effort to learn more— it’s equivalent to a teacher 30 years ago who didn’t know how to read and write.

Here’s the thing: teachers all knew how to read and write 30 years ago. The question is, whether reading and writing and other associated skills (evaluation, synthesis, and creativity), have improved through use of technology in the classroom. The analogy doesn’t work and feels like yet another opportunity to punish and demean an already beleaguered profession.

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind is the best book I’ve ever read on future-focused learning, and the only one that I didn’t slam down in disgust when some author went into flights of rapture over what those crazy kids in Tokyo are doing with iPhones.

Many tools have been declared transformers of education including, notably, television— which was certainly an enormous, world-shaking leap forward in transmitting information and images. And did TV transform classrooms? Well, it had some modest influence in educational practice (making “be good and you can watch a video” possible), but hardly quickly or across the board. TV did transform social practices and beliefs, however— swiftly and radically.

So technologies transform the world, and schools “catch up.” And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I believe teachers have a moral responsibility to model what it means to be an educated person, an active learner, curious about the world, and passionate about their discipline. But I don’t believe that a teacher who doesn’t Twitter and Skype has abdicated her responsibility. As model educators, we should choose our tools with great discretion.

In my world of music teaching, clarinets, and trombones are the technologies, and way too many teachers are focused exclusively on how to use instruments correctly, spending too little time on making music creatively or how the arts influence great cultural movements. Tools are not the important things. What matters is the content.

Sheryl says we’re still sorting this all out:

The 21st Century trends and shifts point to the need for education to become more of a learning ecology where there are just as many conversations taking place student-to-teacher as there are teacher-to-student.

Additionally, teachers in this changed landscape need to talk to each other in deep, meaningful ways. Today’s student needs to be multi-literate, understanding how to communicate and collaborate visually and digitally, as well as through text. There is so much more than “tool literacy” to preparing teachers or students for the future.

Teachers do need technical aptitude, but more so they need to be open, flexible learners, who are willing to become (and help their students become) adaptive experts with the ability to embrace ambiguity. We are living in a time where we will continue to see both old and new literacies intermingled and continually reconstructed. People will not only become literate in new forms but will also be constructors of their new literacies.

Teachers who continue to think of any literacy as a predetermined check list of facts and skills to be learned (whether that list is “soon to be outdated” digital tools or non-contextualized core content) have lost sight of what it means to be wise in the age of conceptualization.

Remember, we are still sorting this all out. But we need to face up to the fact that technology is not additive— it does not change some things, it changes everything. Computers did not become just fancy typewriters, as hard as some of us try to use them that way. Rather, they became digital canvases and transportation machines that can take us across the world in seconds. Some of us are already taking our students on that journey— others will increasingly find the need to do so.

—Compiled by John Norton


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