Teaching Opinion

Changing Instructional Mindsets for the 21st Century

By William J. Tolley — December 17, 2013 4 min read
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As teachers, we seek to nurture creators, inventors, and discoverers—the kind of men and women who will build and sustain our shared future. We try to synthesize effective traditional learning models with contemporary learning design. And we recognize the wisdom of Chris Lehman: “Technology in education must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.”

But the kind of contemporary learning environments we aspire to create are, well, different. They’re different in space (design), practice (management), and time (workflow). They’re different—often dramatically so—from our own past educational experiences as well as those of parents, school board members, administrators, and others. Often, the changes we foresee are not supported by current policies.

What does this mean for our work? Teachers committed to creating 21st-century learning environments must rely on the same growth mindsets we seek to cultivate in our students. We must be committed to inventive interpretation and growth in practice as we push on in the face of outdated notions of what “teaching” looks and sounds like.

And so we hack our way through the frontiers of modern learning, convinced that the rewards outweigh the risks. We work around the obstacles and use what tools we are able to secure—including our mindsets. I’d like to share some of the strategies that have helped me transform “management” in my classroom.

Management Mindset #1: Do as I Say and as I Do.

Set the tone and model appropriate behavior and use. Want students to use technology professionally? Model that behavior yourself. For example, don’t browse when others are speaking (not even to coordinate the lesson!), and make sure your device is always charged. Find ways your device can accomplish tasks efficiently; for instance, photograph, record, and store student work digitally. Let students “catch” you using the same apps you require them to use, like Evernote, Google Apps, and Explain Everything. Monkey see really is monkey do.

Establish accountability measures. Co-create discipline systems with your students. Invite them to help determine what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior, as well as the rewards and consequences for each. Students are far more likely to remember accountability measures that they help to create. A bonus: As technologies transform ever more quickly, your students will offer insights about the use and abuse of technology that you would never have generated on your own.

Document student behavior rigorously (using technology). At our school, we use the log function on Jupitergrades to keep track of student behavior. Whenever a student exhibits inappropriate behavior, I mark it in the corresponding infraction category and briefly describe the circumstances. Then, at the end of the week, I send a quick automated email—highlighting all infractions—to the student’s parent(s). The technology helps me tap into parents as resources, and it often results in changed student behavior.

Management Mindset #2: Manage Mobility With Mobility.

Our students need learning environments that are managed in dynamic and fluid ways, that will provide order while also fostering interaction, innovation, and invention. Establishing order through movement may seem counterintuitive to those of us educated in an environment that attempted to achieve stability by being static. However, compelling arguments suggest that movement can be a learning stimulant in the classroom. (Interested? Check out this TEDxTalk.) And experienced teachers will recognize most of these techniques as tried-and-true, just adapted to the modern learning environment.

Move, move, move! Keep students moving between individual work, pairwork, groupwork, and whole-class activities. Direct them to go to stations, to the four corners, outside, back inside. In short, give them no opportunity to go off task and open the latest seductive app.

Give clear instructions about mobile devices. When students are moving, be clear about whether to take their devices along. Most often, you’ll say “take ‘em” (for notes, photos, and recordings). But when I need a few minutes of clear, focused direct-instruction time, I tell everyone to leave their devices at their tables and come to the center of the room. It won’t hold their attention forever, but it cuts down on distractions. Similarly, try setting up simple commands so students know when you want them to be working with devices (“Lids off!”) and when you don’t (“Lids on!”). (“Lids on” can also be “face-down” for mobile phones.)

Juggle teams regularly. Every few classes, I have students count off in threes, fours, or fives. I then reassign their classroom stations based on the numbers (making adjustments as needed for the usual suspects and their partners in crime). This varies up the teamwork dynamics and ensures everyone gets to know and work with one another.

Use “screens center.” This directive tells students to sit with their backs to the middle of the room and their screens facing the center. Then, patrolling from the center, teachers can easily monitor students’ activities. This won’t work with every classroom arrangement, but it can be very helpful, especially during assessments.

I smile at this statement by educational futurist David Thornburg: “Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer deserves to be.” Yes, teachers’ roles are changing—as slowly as policymakers and the public may be to recognize how and why. But with healthy mindsets and the willingness to adjust our approaches to meet 21st-century students’ needs, we are every bit as irreplaceable as we have always been. The only danger may be in waiting for policy to catch up to practice.

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