This week’s EDCI 335 blogging assignment is: “Are our current schools/teachers/curriculum preparing students for the 21st century? Why? Why not?”
I’ve had to let this question steep in my brain for a few days. The optimist in me wants to say “YES!” because I feel that what I do in my classroom is helping to shape those students. Am I preparing my students in Kindergarten and Grade 1 for the real world? I’d like to think that what I teach them are the building blocks of being prepared. I’d like to think that what I am doing is making a difference in their lives. I’d like to think that my students are learning something of value when they are spending their days with me. But am I preparing my students for the 21st century? The best I can say is , “I hope so,” and I am relying on the rest of the system to finish the task I start in their early education.
I do focus on the seven skills that students will need in the 21st century as Dr. Tony Wagner identifies in his TEDxNYED Talk (Those skills are: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination) and attempt to teach those skills at a level appropriate for my students. But certainly my students at age 4, 5, and 6 are not ready for heading off into the real world. I know the colleagues in my school also focus on those skills, but as they leave us in Grade 5, are they ready for Middle School? I think the answer is as varied as each child we teach.
The more I think about the question, the more disillusioned I become. Often when I have an assignment, I talk it over with my family. My husband and two sons often give opinion on what I write, or what my thoughts are even before I start typing. This blog is no different, and I found that I could answer the blogging question more fully by drawing on the school experience of my own children, both of whom will graduate to “the real world” in the next two years. Have my boys been prepared for the 21st century by their schools, teachers or the curriculum they have been taught?
My boys have allowed me to quote them to share their opinion about how to answer the blogging question:
“No. It seems like teachers teach us what curriculum is set. We don’t get any actual experience to relate our schoolwork to the real world.”
– Matthew, Grade 10
“No. I think we are learning in an outdated system. We are not learning about 21st century technology, events, or anything related to the future. We are learning about the past and nothing relevant or current. I have not been given the chance to be creative or innovative in any of my classes. I am not given any real choice about how or what to learn. Exploratory learning of any kind is discouraged. We are given a generic education and are expected to get through it without tapping into our passions. All of the learning I have done in my favourite subject area (astronomy) has been done outside of school.”
– David, Grade 12
As a frame of reference:
Matthew is 15 and loves creating. His passion is designing and creating costume armour and is interested in possibly pursuing a career in costume and prop design in the entertainment industry. Not one of his school assignments has involved creating, other than his metalwork or woodwork classes and those have had very specific materials used, obviously. Matthew’s medium of choice is foam floor tiles. He creates a pattern, fits it to his model (usually himself or his brother) and cuts, shapes, glues, paints and finishes an incredibly complex puzzle together to make his projects. I am amazed at the complex thinking that goes into the designing of Matthew’s projects. He is really a design thinker at heart. You should see his workshop aka my basement. It is a literal explosion of prototypes and iterations.
David is 17 and wants to be an astronaut. I have blogged previously about how he spent his last summer taking Physics 11 online so that he could finish all his prerequisite courses by graduation time. He hadn’t found his path until Chris Hadfield ignited a passion David had had as a little boy in Grade 2 studying space (prescribed curriculum). His high school does not offer courses in astronomy, but he is getting a solid education in scientific background and processes. However, David is also very creative and would love the opportunity to show his learning through a medium other than an essay or a prescribed lab report. When Chris Hadfield recorded music in space, David realized he didn’t have to choose between science and the arts, but that he could combine all of his passions and make a path that would take him in a direction that only a few have walked before. There is power in a message coming from someone you respect and admire…someone other than your parents.
Please note: In NO WAY are my boys or I criticizing their teachers. I am very grateful that David and Matthew have had a literal army of amazing educators shaping how and what they learn. I believe that they have had the best quality education possible within a system that needs big changes. They are on the tail end of their provincially mandated education and I think they have had the best possible experience in that system. Nothing in curriculum replaces passionate teachers, and I believe that my boys have had some of the best teachers to guide them along the way.
Where I do think that David and Matthew have found something akin to what we hope for our learners in the 21st century is in their time as Musical Theatre students. Both of my boys are dancers and singers and have had wonderful opportunities to be involved in their school’s Musical Theatre program. The greatest thing they have learned from Musical Theatre (in my opinion) is confidence and adaptability. The rehearsal and performance process demonstrates the closest thing to 21st century learning in their school experience. As actors they must create, adapt, and work collaboratively to produce a finished piece of work aka “The Show”. Shrek the Musical is this year’s project and David will be performing the part of Shrek and Matthew will be performing as Pinocchio. They have also taken on the role of Dance Captains, so their leadership skills are honed as they help choreograph, teach and help the other performers with their dance moves. I am very glad that my boys have grasped the opportunity to learn through the arts and hope that the skills taught them by their theatre teachers will help them as they head off to post-secondary learning wherever that may be.
So, back to the original question…do we, as a school system, prepare our students for the 21st century? My answer at this time is no. There needs to be a massive change in the way that our current education system is more like a factory producing “graduates” rather than an environment that fosters the seven skills Dr. Wagner identifies as necessary for the 21st century. I think (and hope) we are starting to see a shift in how schools are addressing this. It is small adaptations taking place with project based learning, inquiry and a complete overhaul to our curriculum in the BC Education Plan that will hopefully address the needs of our students as we prepare them for the future.
“Once we begin to consider the possibilities of the 21st Century classroom, our schools become more than just places for preparing students for the next level of education. They become places where we truly prepare students for lifelong success and personal fulfillment.
And as educators, isn’t that our real goal?” (Walker, 2012)
Are we there yet? Certainly not, but at least there is the acknowledgement of the need for change. And isn’t the world changed in a series of small steps? I hope that we are beginning to take those first small steps towards big evolution in our school system.
References:Sherrelle Walker, M.A. (2012) 21st Century Learning: Preparing Students Today Retreived from http://www.scilearn.com/blog/21st-century-learning-preparing-students-today.php