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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Using Social Networking to Build 21st Century Skills

By Peter DeWitt — November 17, 2011 5 min read
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“Good people know that high stakes testing has limited value and they keep operating anyway. They don’t let testing get in the way of doing the good work they want to do to get kids prepared for life.” Todd Whitaker

In education we have a habit of using terms so often that we push staff to a place where they do not want to use them anymore, which means they are in jeopardy of not being engaged in the process. We have seen it with terms such as “differentiated instruction” and “hands-on learning.” If we’re not careful it will happen with a very important term which is “21st century skills.”

The tendency to dislike a term after it is used too often happens because many educators are concerned that it’s merely a new twist on an old idea. We have all heard countless staff and administrators say that if we spend enough time in education we will see old ideas recycled with new names. Too many times those “new” terms are used in sentences that begin with, “You’re not using enough...differentiated instruction or hands-on methods of learning.”

The race to nowhere is paved in countless mandates and new ideas. We can become overwhelmed with the amount of educational information that we see in journals and cyberspace. New ideas are being proposed all around us. Some of which are just creative advertising on the part of textbook publishers, while others are creative ideas that will help us keep up with our younger generation.

However, are they really new ideas? 21st century skills are critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. For those of us who have been educators for a long time we have always taught our students how to think critically, communicate with others, collaborate on projects and be creative. Long before the 21st century, that was the basis for education for many years.

In addition, one of the best 21st century skills that we can teach students is the art of reflection. Through reflection students can assess their critical thinking skills and creativity. They can also work in collaboration with other students to reflect on the work that they completed. Reflection is an additional 21st century skill that would be beneficial for all students, staff and administrators.

Social Network Generation
As adults, we grew up in a time when we had to work as a team, think critically and communicate with others, at the same time that we were all being creative. We all had to do it during a time when we did not have computers. To make life more difficult, we had chalkboards and lacked many other resources that we have in modern times. Although our opportunities to be creative were limited, we tried our best to engage our students and we did not have to worry about the distractions we do today.

Back then, we worried more about what television programs students were watching, which distracted them from doing their homework. Today’s students are surrounded by many more distractions than we ever thought were imaginable. Those new tools that educators often see as distractions need to be used to positively engage the social network generation.

With an increase in handheld devices, does the social network generation have the same communications skills that we do? Or do they just communicate differently? Many times I hear adults say that students do not know how to talk with one another because they spend too much time texting, using e-mail and Facebooking each other. Whether we like it or not that is how students communicate with each other these days. They actually thrive on connecting with their peers in numerous ways.

One time I wrote a blog about the social network generation and someone posted a comment that they thought it was ironic that I cautioned people about social networking and then asked people to follow me on Twitter. I actually found some irony in the situation as well! The truth is, I have become a huge fan of Twitter and I’m inspired by some of the tools that my students have in our schools.

The other day I was on Twitter and happened upon an elementary chat group. It was inspiring to talk with educators from around the world through Twitter. My favorite leadership expert Todd Whitaker joined into the conversation. We built an instant community of learners and ended up creating our very own professional development session that lasted about an hour. I had the opportunity to follow up with some educators in one-to-one conversations. They sent me blogs that I never would have found on my own. If you’re an educator who loves education and connecting with other educators, you should seriously consider joining Twitter.

Great conversations force us to think deeper. They inspire us to put in some extra effort to reach a goal. Won’t students benefit from the same kind of experience? If social networking provides such a great learning experience for adults, can’t we find ways to engage students the same way? The answer is yes! However, just like any tool, students need to understand how to use it properly.
Social Networking...The New Way to Collaborate
Not only do we have the opportunity to teach students how to interact with peers sitting next to them. We have a great opportunity to teach students how to interact with peers that are all around the world. For students who are growing up in a non-diverse area, this ability offers students a great experience.

Using these amazing resources allows us to really teach students to think critically, communicate with others, collaborate on projects and be creative. In addition, students will see that we are not behind the times because we are suing tools that we know students enjoy and use every day. It also provides us with the opportunity to educate students in a teacher-centered and student-centered way, which will increase collaboration between students and teachers.

In education, the biggest concern is whether our present situation of high stakes testing and test prep diminishes our opportunities to focus on 21st century skills. When students are taking an exam, they are not fully engaged in the process. They are not showing their critical thinking skills, collaboration techniques and creativity because they are simply picking up a pencil and filling in bubbles on a test.

However, there are all of those other times when our students do not have to take tests and practice test-prep. Those are the times when students could be fully engaged in using 21st century tools and learning 21st century skills that have really been around for a very long time.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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