Are We Preparing Students for the 21st Century?

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.

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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.

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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.

Dr. Sherrell Walker writes:

“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
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All Design Thinkers Ever Need To Know They Learned In Kindergarten

Building upon what I wrote last week about what I want to teach the world, I would like to suggest that all Design Thinkers ever need to know they learned in Kindergarten.  As I read the articles and blogs and watched the videos this week, I couldn’t help but think that in Kindergarten we DO this.  It is not defined or labeled as such, but intrinsically and intuitively Kindergarten teachers and their students are Design Thinkers deep down.

One of the frameworks for Design Thinking that resonated with me is the DEEP Design Thinking Model.  The following graphic from DEEP creator, Mary Cantwell‘s website DEEPDesignThinking.com illustrates the DEEP model in very kid-friendly terms that I can relate to.  Let’s face it…I teach Kindergarten and Grade One, not Grade 12 Physics or Philosophy (what I would consider the most difficult high school courses for me).  Everything has to start somewhere and in Kindergarten we develop the building blocks of knowledge, skills and attitudes that students will demonstrate in higher grades.

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http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/

For each of the four letters in DEEP there is a connection to what we do every day in Kindergarten.

DISCOVER: inquire, explore, research
Every day there is something new to DISCOVER in Kindergarten. Whether it be discovering how play dough feels when it squishes between our fingers, or watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, children daily explore their environment in the classroom and out in nature. There is no greater joy than observing a child making new discoveries about the world around them!  To see a child an interest, ask questions, look for answers in books and online and begin to research is such a wonderful sight to behold.

EMPATHIZE: understand, needfind, define

With every task in Kindergarten, whether as simple as learning the formation of letters or as complex as critical thinking and inferring meaning into texts or social emotional situations, everything is a search for meaning and definition.  Why do we do things the way we do?  Why do we learn things in a particular order?  Why do we stretch our brains and “think outside the box”?  Everything we do is to promote understanding and empathy. Empathizing with each other puts a framework around the fact that each learner is at a different place on the continuum of development.  Knowing that each classmate does not learn at the same rate, nor has the same capabilities or expertise allows the children to have a broader scope of appreciation for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

EXPERIMENT: prototype, ideate, hmw

A large part of Kindergarten is creating and making things.  Lego, blocks, sand, water, elastic bands, paper, crayons, paints and whatever other materials the children can get their hands on are all materials that young children can use to demonstrate their Design Thinking. It is this experimentation through PLAY that children learn. My students will often create, build, break-down, rebuild or recreate during their play time.

PRODUCE: storytell, feedback, iterate

My students have become very proud of the products of their designs.  Whether it be their blog posts to show their learning, or their creations, they have developed a sense of the importance of sharing and making learning visible.  Before Christmas, one of our activities was “Santa’s Workshop” where my students had to design a toy that Santa would make, draw it in 2D, then produce a prototype in 3D from the materials we had around the classroom.  I can’t think of a better example of Design Thinking. My students were given a task that they felt very strongly about, and used their design knowledge to produce an end product. You can see an example of a finished blog here where my student has uploaded a photo of her green prints (Santa doesn’t use blueprints 😉 ) and a photo of her finished product.  For those of you who don’t read invented spelling, her title says “Scaredy Squirrel” and is based on the books by Melanie Watt.  Notice that Scaredy Squirrel has a nut just like in the books?  What took about three days of very hard work could be seen as “just play” to an outsider, but it shows me that my students are truly learning the fundamental building blocks of education.  These students are digging DEEP (pun intended) and are becoming Design Thinkers.

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I’d Like To Teach The World…

…to sing in perfect harmony!

When I read our first blogging assignment for EDCI 335 Learning Design, that 1971 Coke commercial was ALL I could think about for a few days.  I literally would go to bed and wake up with the song playing through my head.  That and “What Does the Fox Say?” which happens to be my students’ favourite song du jour.  Imagine the mashup in my head!  No wonder I haven’t been sleeping well.

For those of you too young to relate to my title reference, please take a moment to watch this video.  For those of you old enough to remember, come with me for a walk down memory lane:

Catchy, isn’t it?

But seriously, I would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.  Or, more specifically, I would like to teach the world the importance of building community.  For 24 years I have taught at Prince Charles Elementary School in Abbotsford: ten years teaching Grade 1, a few years of a mixed bag of Library K-7, Music K-7, ESL K-7, and now Kindergarten.  Ok, this year I have a K/1, split, but my heart really lies in teaching Kindergarten.

Through all of my teaching experiences, the most important message that I hope I have taught my students is that we are all part of a large, caring community within our class, our school, our city, our province and our world.  No matter who or what I am teaching, I try to demonstrate to my students the respect, caring, and compassion I hope they will take with them as they create relationships throughout their lives.  We all flourish and prosper more in a loving, positive environment.

A favourite book of mine is Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten (1988). It was published the year before I started teaching and his Credo is something that always stays in the back of my mind as I am journeying along through this wild adventure called life.  I think Mr. Fulghum’s wisdom is worth celebrating.  He knew the meaning of building community.

“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

Wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

 (Robert L. Fulghum, 1988)

So, that in a nutshell is what I would like to teach the world.  Hold hands and stick together. Build community and become connected. Technology can help with that, don’t you think?

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A little bit about me:

I’ve been married to Shawn for 23 years, we have two teenage boys, David (17) and Matthew (15) and those three amazing individuals are whom I love spending time with most of all. I love to eat great food.  It gives me immense pleasure to share a meal with family and friends. I love to travel to Maui (check out My Guide to Maui if you’re ever heading to Hawaii), and love Disneyland, but that’s not where my twitter name, @MauiMickey, came from.  You can read about that here. Twitter has become a great professional resource and I have made many great friends there…some of whom I have met and some of whom I hope to meet in real life someday (yes, that means YOU, #tiegrad!). #kinderchat is an important part of my Personal Learning Network and you can see why I love #kinderchat here. Most of all, I am thankful for the relationships I have formed with all the incredible people who have become part of my life.