Monday, September 20, 2010

What is 21st Century Learning Anyway?

21st Century Learning is in the title of my blog and I’ve come to realize the phrase is rolling off everyone’s tongue. It’s almost cliché. So what does it mean? A reflection written by a colleague on MNW's Summer Book Study Wiki sticks in my mind. Concerning 21st Century learning she said, “Understanding what students are doing as they work on an authentic learning project is not always easily understood for people not involved in this important movement. Bringing the projects into the community as presentations or displays could help to make the learning more evident.” She is so right! We need to educate our whole school community about what it means to learn in today’s world. This includes considering the kinds of skills kids will need in the future for they are growing up in a different world than the generation before them. So, what skills do they need for the future? They need meaningful opportunites within each discipline and across disciplines to develop skills as problem-solvers, communicators, creators, innovators, and collaborators.

Do students and teachers have to use classroom technology in order to achieve these characteristics? No. Does it help? Absolutely. Technology, and in particular the Internet, can eliminate barriers and give students the opportunity to create authentic work that has real meaning in the world around us. It’s the read-write web. They can collaborate literally 24/7 with others across the state, the country and the world, and their products can be published and disseminated at no cost. We just need to give them opportunities to do it.

Helping educators understand and implement a 21st Century vision of meaningful and relevant learning can be a challenge. We can look at our PreK12 Vision for Teaching and Learning and say, “There it is—Manson Northwest Webster has it covered.” Of course, not so. As I suggested in an earlier post, our vision is only the beginning. If it doesn’t move into the classroom, it was a wasted effort all around—teachers’ time and tax-payers’ money. Educators (this includes all educators in the district, not just the teachers) need to:
• Change the classroom environment, leaving behind memories of their own traditional learning experiences.
• Get rid of old, outdated “default” teaching practices.
• Examine the concepts and skills students really need to know and forget the sound bites of information that will be long forgotten.
• Use assessments and timely feedback to guide instruction and learning,

In a recent post in Weblogg-ed, Will Richarson talks about unlearning teaching .
"I think that’s one of the hardest shifts in thinking for teachers to make, the idea that they are no longer central to student learning simply because they are in the room.”

There are great things happening at MNW. Teachers are changing the traditional environment perhaps by "unlearning teaching" and more than ever are involving students in real, meaningful work. Here are a few examples.
• Recently, 3rd grade teacher, Jennifer Pearson used her classroom blog for posting a “homework assignment”. Together parents and students explored a website that she had introduced and blogged about their learning. Jennifer used the postings with the class as a start to a new unit.
Mike Richman, a co-teacher in 9th grade Language Arts, recorded a recent classroom experience. He partnered with Shaelynn Farnsworth and her Creative Writing students at BCLUW. Mike writes, “we called them on a video chat with Google...Yes, we had seniors teaching freshmen about blogging, it was awesome.” I watched the live U-Stream and I agree with Mike. Yes, it was awesome!
Jodi Jacobsen recently introduced her class to their new learning partners, via Skype. Jodi’s 4th graders are partnering with a school in Ohio. They will be collaborating on projects and learning together. I was there for their first “meeting.” The excitement was unbelievable.

I hope this post for now, begins to answer the question—What is a 21st century learner? What are your thoughts on the topic? I’d love to hear from you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's All About Learning

I’ve been recently working with district and building professional development plans in addition to re-examining how we do professional development at MNW. Our board has always been very supportive of our inservices because they know they are a critical component to improving. Our professional development goal has always been to increase teachers’ knowledge and skills to improve student learning. That will remain the same.

As I reviewed and learned more about current best practices in professional development, I found a quote by Linda Darling-Hammond that sums it up well. She says, “Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific content (reading, math, science, social studies);…and builds strong working relationships among teachers.

With that in mind, here are the bullet points of professional learning at MNW:
• All staff participate—it’s not optional
• We choose our content based on what students need. In other words, what do teachers need as a result of what students need?
• Our collaborative teams meet to discuss and analyze what’s happening in the classroom as a result of what teachers are learning and implementing.
• Our initiatives are based on current best practice and are implemented as they were intended.
• Everyone, including teachers and administrators are committed to sustaining our efforts. Our efforts are ongoing.
• Although there is a K12 focus, the inservices meet the needs of the students and teachers in individual buildings.

Where does technology fit into professional development? Technology integration comes with a high learning curve for some staff members. We appreciate this and have had many technology rich inservices as well as informal summer learning sessions (see my August blog post). We believe integrating technology with sound pedagogy is at the heart of authentic learning and preparing students for success in the 21st Century. Integrating technology is also part of our K12 Vision for Teaching and Learning. While technology is new and exciting and very engaging for students, it’s important to keep the goal in mind—student learning.

I recently participated in a live, interactive web interview with George Siemens, a social media strategist and learning theorist. He talked about technology integration and suggested that whenever you partner technology with anything, for example student learning, technology becomes the dominant partner. If this is true, we must be very careful about what our technology integration looks like. It should be based on the strong content of the Iowa Core and implemented with a sound instructional foundation such as the Characteristics of Effective Instruction.

Even though there is some angst around the technology integration and a 21st Century Learning emphasis, there is also excitement with students and teachers alike. I think most teachers will agree that we are learning with and from each other. Our professional development is about learning. Our inservices are learning environments.

Henry Ford says, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.” Since I consider myself a learner first and an educator second, does that mean I’ve stopped growing old? If that’s the case, anyone want to join me?