Thursday, December 15, 2011

Collaboration for the 21st century

Attending the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum last month, I was struck by how far we've come in the twenty-five years I've been teaching. On the agenda for 21st century skills, we find not only creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration, but also knowledge building, ICT skills and digital citizenship.

How far we've come! And yet, so much remains to be done! It's hard not to feel deep disappointment, and even disillusionment with the very profession of teaching, when I see how entrenched the traditional classroom is - you all know what I'm talking about, the classroom where the students sit in orderly rows, quietly taking notes on the Knowledge broadcast by the teacher standing at the board, front and center.

William Richardson's keynote was inspiring. "The world is changing. The role of the teacher is changing." How can this be at once so transparently obvious and so blindingly difficult to understand? At the Global Forum this new role leaped out of every corner, with some 150 innovative classroom projects on display.

Let me take just one example: Kelli Etheredge's "Count of Monte Christo" project She not only found a clever, innovative approach to studying this novel as an English teacher using MS OneNote, she guided her students towards real-life skills writing, researching and speaking in a simulated courtroom to debate the Count's guilt. The kind of motivation and student-initiated learning that went on in this project is staggering. And it was just one of over 150 projects competing for the top global prizes.

I had the pleasure of participating in the Global Forum as a sort of "collaboration coach". Our group of 30 coaches had a number of workshops with Sonja Delafosse and David Walddon on what constitutes collaboration, knowledge building and ICT use. Each of us then went on to coach a group of six educators who were at the conference to present their projects. My team members included Kelli Etheredge from Alabama, Sanjeev Taneja from India, Yogesh Sundoo from Mauritius, David Mercado from Argentina and Wen-Ching Yang from Taiwan, and I accompanied them to the Stanford Environmental Research Center (SERC) where we found great resources for a project we've been putting together, called "Crisis in the Watershed".

The thing I appreciated most at the conference was that we didn't simply spend our time talking about collaboration, we rolled up our sleeves and did it. Collaborating with the other coaches and then with my group of innovative educators was a highly enriching experience, and one that I hope we will be able to continue over the coming months. "Crisis in the Watershed" will involve students from all our classrooms, defining problems with water usage and treatment, then looking for solutions to the diverse problems of the local situations in each site. I'm really looking forward to bringing this international experience to my students, and moving outside the European sphere that most of my past projects have focused on to embrace truly global issues.

But the biggest challenge for me will be finding a way to bring all the motivation and synergy I picked up at the Global Forum to the teacher training circuit here in France. Here, as in the US, truly innovative educators are thin on the ground. Far too many teachers are still stuck in 19th century educational practices, and getting more of them to move past that into the realm of 21st century learning for 21st century skills is a tall order. I'm excited about it though. Nothing in my career has been as rewarding as working as a change agent in education.

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