Last week I joined over five hundred educators from across the Asia-Pacific region to share ideas on education in the 21st century. The consistent message is that we are preparing our students for success in a world very different to that which was the norm only a short time ago. The implications of this change are immense and require a shift in our thinking about what matters most in our classrooms. Such is the pace of change that within any school there will be multiple generations who normalise different perspective on technology and its place in their lives. What becomes clear that the skills we most need within our schools at every level are those which are critical for individuals to be empowered, self-navigating learners. But what does this mean in practical terms?
For students, the shift in focus is from recipients of knowledge to being literate self-navigators of learning who are able to take charge of their own learning and are able to adjust their skill sets to suit problems as they evolve. In the model articulated by Dr Marie Alcock students are professional learners who are media critics and save media makers. Learning is an active process not something that happens to the individual but a process that the individual is in control of. Teachers are in the same boat and must see themselves as ‘Self-navigating professional learners’ who actively engage in professional learning, seek out appropriate learning opportunities and develop professional learning networks to facilitate continual growth and the capacity to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. The contemporary teacher, according to Alcock, is a social contractor who uses their connections to enable learning for themselves and their students, media critics/creators who bring the mindset of the innovative designer to hacking the systems and structures within which they operate to better serve their objectives. All learners need to become globally connected citizens who are aware of network effects that come with connected technologies. We can publish to a global audience and share ideas at this scale but doing so requires new sensitivities and new literacies.
An important final competency for modern teachers is outlined by Alcock when she calls for educators to become ‘Active Advocates for Education’. As teachers, we need to find our professional voices and utilise the networks and media at our disposal to advocate for the change in education we need. Without strong advocacy for innovative practices in education driven by an understanding of what our students need we should not be surprised if ‘back-to-basics’ rhetoric dominates the political debate.
This shift towards student centred learning where the learner is empowered to take charge of their learning requires a shift at every point in the educational system. This brings challenges within typical systems of control and management. Educational systems at a district, state or national level become huge and control measures are likely to impede shifts towards individualisation. Administrators and politicians who are removed from the immediate routines and practices of the classroom have few options for control and those that have access to are unlikely to support individualised student-centred learning. Increasingly, assessment is used as a measure of control and accountability and governments seek measures of the effect that their budgetary, training and curriculum measures are having.
Noam Chomsky is critical of a culture obsessed with assessing and ranking students and teachers.
“The assessment itself is completely artificial. It’s not ranking teachers in accordance with their ability to help develop children who will reach their potential, explore their creative interests. Those things you’re not testing.. it’s a rank that’s mostly meaningless. And the very ranking itself is harmful. It’s turning us into individuals who devote our lives to achieving a rank. Not into doing things that are valuable and important.”
The danger of this, according to Chomsky is that our obsession with assessment and ranking systems is that they rob teachers of opportunities to be creative and innovative and focus students on the achievement of goals which meaningless. Rather than pursuing educational goals which matter and which connect with personal interests we are forced to teach to the test and it is what the test requires that has perceived value. Carol Dweck agrees and asks:
“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.”
Dr Yong Zhao encourages a focus on the control that educators require to innovate and meet the needs of their learners. He encourages bureaucracies to step out of the way of educators and allow them to get on with the job of educating students for their futures. "Finally, we should invest in education innovations to encourage educators and local schools to seek creative ways to deliver an education for the future…”
The net result is that these are challenging times for teachers but times that offer great benefits for those filled with a passion for education. The success of future generations will depend on the foundation they are given in schools. More than knowing we must empower our students with a love of learning and the dispositions they require to take charge of their lives as learners. The skills of learning that are so central to the art of teaching have the greatest importance in the lives our children are likely to live and it is our passion for these skills, the art of learning, which should be visible in every lesson we teach.
By Nigel Coutts