Science Opinion

We Have 21st-Century Learners Who Need 21st-Century Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 09, 2014 7 min read
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If your school, and your school day, is not about students collaborating, connecting, and building knowledge and understandings together, why would anyone come?” - Ira David Socol

Collaborative knowledge building has been the path from which most innovation has emerged. Jonas Salk, whose work virtually ended the polio epidemic, began thinking about a cure when he was working with his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis on an influenza vaccine. From there, Salk’s innovative thinking spearheaded the research. He was not in a lab by himself. Research labs are places in which the best work is done with others. In these labs, teams of researchers work together asking questions, doing research, constructing hypotheses, experimenting, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and communicating results to each other. Patience, disappointment and excitement are all part of the process. Surely, there were those who asked questions, challenged thinking, and proposed alternative solutions. Answers to difficult medical problems come from labs of researchers working together. Some are doctors, others, technicians, other researchers, all with different educations and backgrounds working together to solve problems.

Architects, people in business, educators, politicians, all solve problems in concert with colleagues from the same and different fields. No one works alone, especially now that collaboration is made even more accessible due to technology in this, our 21st century. Innovation is necessary. Can we develop a better way to vote that minimizes error and maximizes accuracy in the count? Can we develop a better way to provide information and learning opportunities to students at a lower cost without compromising the extraordinary assets teachers have to offer? Can we find a way to provide energy to the grid without relying on oil from foreign countries? Can we make nuclear energy production safer? Where will we store spent fuel? Will genetically modified food have a long-term health effect? Will the legalization of marijuana offer much needed value to those with illness, enduring pain and nausea and /or ultimately cause a “national high”? How do ethical decisions impact the bottom line? And, how should the decision be made if ethics, “advancement” and financial success are in conflict? Can we survive without ethics leading our choices? Who will we become? These are some of the issues our students are going to have to wrestle. We must teach them how to do it...but first we must learn how to teach it.

The research on learning reveals that “Studies of students’ discussions in classrooms indicate that they learn to use the tools of systematic inquiry to think historically, mathematically, and scientifically” (Blansford p. 189). We need to be sure to offer ourselves, as leaders, the opportunity to participate in such conversations. And, of course, PD opportunities for our teachers that support them in the redesign of the learning environments is essential. Learning can no longer rely on ‘talk and chalk’. Teachers can no longer remain a ‘sage on the stage’. We must shift to a way that maximizes opportunities for investigation, problem solving, and collaboration while maintaining assurance that each child is gaining knowledge, and is able to apply it both alone and with others. This is a huge shift. While it might begin one teacher, one classroom, one school at a time, no one can succeed alone when pushing at our long established traditions.

An immediate problem is the bias and emotion associated with the use of technology as a facilitator of learning. Polarized strong opinions and emotions exist around technology. In a shallow way, some drive its use as if it were an end in itself. Others more thoughtfully have become experts and advocates for it as a tool for students and educators. The ‘techies’ know, understand, and employ the many opportunities technology offers to better engage their students, by blending the world and the classroom while increasing communication between and among teachers and students and parents. These folks feel at home with technology, learn it easily, see applications for it in their work, and simply move ahead. There are those who are less comfortable with technology and tend to hold tight to traditional methods of teaching and communicating. These are the ones who need to be led from caution and reluctance to the beginner’s mind of interest and excitement. Without that leadership...and yes, accountability...they will shy away from entering the learner’s place and become cynics about the value of these new and emerging technologies.

There are teachers as well as leaders occupying these two ‘camps’. But, the leaders hold the responsibility for designing and managing the strategic implementation of these technologies for learning. Its success requires collaboration and skill. It is not unlike creating the classroom or school with the research lab purposefulness. If the leadership stands aside and allows one or the other of the ‘camps’ to have a louder voice, the result can be paralysis. If the leadership allows those comfortable with the technology to use it while others stand aside, then students and parents become involved in the division and continuity for students is lost.

Eric Sheninger‘s new book, Digital Leadership, is a must read on this topic. Leaders cannot be trapped by the past. Our learners have changed.

...current learners inhabit a world in which multimodal communication, face-to-face and virtual teamwork, self-initiated problem solving, and creative solution finding have fast become the normative expectation, not the exception, at work, in homes, and across communities (p.24).

Along with that acknowledgement comes a realization that for some, this is a celebratory moment, while for others it is a moment of fear and loss. For some, it is a moment with great creativity and innovation, and, for others, it appears to be a diversion from what is truly important for students.

So, the challenge for the leader is two fold. If the leader is not a ‘techie’ him or herself, there are some serious barriers to overcome, questions to ask, skills to learn, and decisions to make. If the leader is a ‘techie’, that tech bias presents a leadership invitation to become the master teacher, with sensitivity and invitation, for the non-techie group. Barriers will continue to grow if we don’t bridge the gap. In this effort, we call upon the initiative of the techies.

If we believe what authors Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager say,

Failure to embrace the kids’ competence, capacity, and creativity leads educators to deprive children of opportunities to achieve their potential. Worst of all, it cheats children out of the rich 21st century childhood they deserve (p.199)

then we must expand our use of technology focused upon the communication and idea generation. Social media, ranging from 140 characters, to a movie, courseware, email, webpages, all offer ways to learn and share. Design, invention, and problem solving follow. This level, for many, becomes far more complicated.

A seventh grade girl completing an assignment to write a program to solve a linear equation will come to understand her math topic, perhaps better or quicker because she was able to add computer graphics or an animated story or musical composition to her program. Programming supports a range of expression and learning styles (Martinez & Stager. p. 134).

How many teachers in grades k-12 know enough about programming to integrate it into their lessons? Programming and coding are mainly skills that exist in the ‘techie’ group. And if we are to begin to expect that our teachers, for example, will be integrating programming in order to help students understand concepts more deeply, then we better start teaching our teachers.

So what is demanded of the leader of 21st century schools? Essentially, the 21st century leader has to develop a renewed understanding of how children are learning now. It isn’t about using technology because it exists. It is about how the technologies of the world have already influenced how children are learning. Bringing a technology agenda forward with the intention of improving student understanding and demonstrated success is essential. Leading the transition from 20th century to 21st century schools includes attention to the human toll it takes when such large changes are being required. Ongoing professional development, constant review and analysis of successful attempts at the changes in learning opportunities and the increasing use of technology offer momentum. “Bold leadership is needed to continue to move schools forward while increasing engagement, enhancing learning, and improving student achievement (Sheninger p. 177). We need to learn, model, teach, and lead a change in thinking, learning, and the use of technology. The 21st century leader does this.

Sheninger, Eric. (2014). Digital Leadership. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press
Libow Martinez, Sylvia and Stager, Gary. (2013). Invent to Learn. Torrence, California: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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