Thursday, December 22, 2011

What is 21st-century Learning?

Cartoon by Bill Browning, from his webpage:
How do our students learn, anyway? And how should we adapt our teaching practices to accomodate the way or ways that students learn?

The hard science of the brain behind any claims of a scientific foundation for one teaching approach or another are surprisingly vague. There have been so many fads in educational research over the years, and so many problematical notions have passed into popular culture that we really have to look askance at this sort of thing, whether it be based on the supposed opposition between right brain and left brain functions or something as abstruse and variously defined as learning styles.

Molecular biologist John Medina summed it up well in his book "Brain Rules." Talking about the many studies in neurology and brain science, he asks:

"What do these studies show, viewed as a whole? Mostly this: if you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear both down and start over."

Working as a change agent in education is all about starting over - in whatever small or incremental ways you can. I don't mean that in a perjorative way, though. Classroom teachers are often limited in what they can realistically hope to change. If I see a given class of twenty-two 16-year-olds for two hours a week, Mondays from ten to eleven and Fridays from nine to ten, then that is my margin for change - unless I can actually get my school principal and the other 80-odd teachers on board with my change agenda.

I also have to keep reminding myself that changing the learning environment isn't just a question of technology. Regardless of the tech tools we have at our disposal, both hardware tools like videoprojectors, computers, media players and interactive whiteboards, and software tools of dizzying variety and complexity, there are questions about teaching and learning practices that need answers before we even think about the place and role of technology.

One of the first items on my agenda as a change agent is the classroom itself. What does your classroom look like? And where are you, the teacher, in this classroom? Clich├ęd as it is, I still have to ask whether you are "the sage on the stage, or the guide on the side"? The classrooms in my school, regardless of the subject taught, look pretty much like this one: students sit in orderly, well-aligned rows, eight across and five deep, with as many as 38 students in a classroom that can just barely contain them. Teachers, by and large, stand at the front, talk a lot and write a lot on the whiteboard, while students listen, copy things down in their notebooks and occasionally raise their hands to ask questions.

Sound familiar? Does this look like 21st-century learning? No, I didn't think so. More like 19th-century teaching, where teaching is defined as the transmission of information from the teacher who knows things to students whose main goal is memorizing knowledge. I am reminded of one of Edward de Bono's favorite neologisms: "Ebne."  Excellent, but not good enough. Especially given the changes we see every day in the student body: shortened attention spans, reliance on (or even addiction to) cellphones, video games and so on, and the ever-present spectre of boredom and disaffection with anything that even remotely resembles real work.

Our classrooms need to change. The way we teach needs to change. And this change needs to be deep and far-reaching, not something as cosmetically superficial as "flipping" the classroom. In my next blog post, I hope to pull some good ideas out of John Medina's "Brain Rules" and see how I can adapt my own classroom. 21st century learning requires us to re-think so many aspects of our work as teachers. How far can we go?

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