Science Opinion

Redefining Boundaries: 21st-Century Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 26, 2015 6 min read
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We write often about the 21st century demands that schools, teaching and learning be reinvented. Some of our readers disagree. But, on this one thing, we are convinced we stand on solid ground. The era of isolation is over.

Leaders were expected to develop and manage a vision and align the learning environment to actualize it. Today’s leader understands that vision is a collaborative endeavor, with permeable boundaries and moving goalposts. These leaders can enable the conditions that support new types of relationships between teachers, teachers and students, teachers and leaders, and school and the broader community. This includes:

  • understanding and articulating the vast changes needed in pedagogy, supporting and encouraging them while joining the search for new ways to measure learning
  • defining and advocating for the proper place standardized testing may have in the accountability systems
  • establishing an environment in which risk taking for teachers and students is viewed as learning rather than winning or losing, success or failure
  • accepting and using technology, recognizing its role in expanding resources and new models of engagement for teaching and learning

A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, a 2014 publication by Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy, stated:

Through the combination of the ‘push’ of traditional schooling that fails to keep students or teachers engaged, and the ‘pull’ of new pedagogies unleashed through digital access, the transformation of education systems on a broad scale becomes not only possible, but inevitable...Premised on the unique powers of human inquiry, creativity, and purpose, new pedagogies are unleashing students’ and teachers’ energy and excitement in new learning partnerships that find, activate and cultivate the deep learning potential in all of us.

The environment in which these new pedagogies can exist is a different one from the 20th century one in which schools currently rest. This is a call for leadership to advocate for new structures, requirements, assessments and relationships. The old framework just can’t hold the new potential. Books digital and in print, webpages, weblogs, and articles, are so prolific that it is certainly impossible to keep up. The work being done to inform the public about new and emerging pedagogies can be the lever with which educational leaders can advocate for the structural changes to crusty old 20th century model.

At what point will educators call for legislatures to change the limiting structure under which schools exist in order to open the possibilities for these new pedagogical interactions within which students flourish? It is not enough to push back against the Common Core Standards or the use of standardized tests. As a matter of fact, it might even be a distraction. What if all of that energy was pushing toward something? It is spring in the natural world and new life pushes forth; what about in our field?

School districts and school buildings have residency lines from which students come. Mandates and regulations, budgets, and union contracts form boundaries around minutes of instruction in separate courses, length of school day and year, credits and course requirements, qualifications for teachers and leaders, professional development, and evaluation systems. Nothing rewards creativity.

Lead Relationships Between Teachers
Where in this ocean of need and possibility can one start? It is with relationships. If the school, even with the existing boundaries and structures, created the arena in which relationships changed, teaching and learning will change. Changing the schedule to allow for common planning times, for example, doesn’t guarantee that teachers would begin working together. Nor does it guarantee that they would be working on any new pedagogy. First the expectation for those new relationships has to be clearly communicated, taught and modeled. If teachers haven’t been working together, the reason for it has to be identified. Is it that there is a culture of individualism or isolationism? Do teachers see their classroom as theirs, rather than a part of a living larger entity? Is working together seen as some kind of risk? Does there need to be a protocol or training in place for how to make decisions together?

The Relationship Between Leaders, Teachers, and Students
The change in relationships between teachers must be led by a change in the relationships between boards and leaders and between teachers and leaders. Risk must become a step toward a new objective or goal rather than a potential for failure. Can we picture failure becoming a rich learning opportunity, not an embarrassment?

In response, the relationship with students will change, as teachers experience and learn in a collaborative environment in which risk is encouraged, the manner in which teaching and learning takes place in their classrooms will evolve. As leaders and teachers learn together, the hierarchy dissolves into a functional model in which everyone is a questioner, teacher, and learner. In the 21st century, classrooms with access to the computers, Internet, 3D printers, and a flurry of current events offered ‘real time’, teachers can’t know all the information...and so a system in which the relationship between teacher and student can change, where the student can be the teacher, and the teacher the learner, a new kind of trust and respect will support the learning environment.

Building Relationships Among Schools, Business, Healthcare and Higher Education
A developing relationship among schools and business, healthcare, and higher education is required in the 21st century. The leadership skills required to make these connections and maintain them is not something learned in certification programs for school leaders. Business, healthcare and higher education can only benefit from partnering with prek-12. Scientists, bankers, and mechanics working alongside teachers in classrooms open an enormous vista of possibilities. Collaboration between a teacher and a field professional creates learning opportunities for students that connect the ‘subject’ to the real world application; it results in a different kind of learning for the student and more authentic assessments. The difference between writing an article as an assignment graded by a teacher and learning the process, for example, from collaboration between teacher and local newspaper reporter in designing and evaluating a project is vast.

Why should business and higher education want to do this? They get to contribute to their future students’ and employees’ education resulting in better prepared students and employees. Why wouldn’t a school want embedded professional development and help in developing authentic teaching, learning, and assessment?

We have said this many times before, the current model of schools can no longer hold the changes in pedagogy that are needed in the 21st century. Advocating FOR the changes in the structure of schools, leading forward into the future is needed now.

In this video, Maria Langworthy shares what she has seen around the world as education systems transform through the use of new pedagogies.

Connect with Ann and Jill onTwitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.