Are We Teaching For The 21st Century Learner?

“Kids are born curious about the world. What adults primarily do in the presence of kids is unwittingly thwart the curiosity of children”
-Neil deGrasse Tyson

It is with a heavy heart that I answer this week’s blog question: Are our current schools/teachers/curriculum preparing students for the 21st century? I have to say that no, I do not believe we are. I do not mean to imply that there are no teachers and schools trying to teach for the 21st century, but I think as a whole, we are not preparing our students for the world they are inheriting.

I don’t say this flippantly or without any trace of hope. I see pockets of people who are trying to investigate and explore creative ways of thinking and learning. I see teachers taking steps out of their comfort zones to try new things, and do some inquiry based learning in their classroom. I do not, however, see the overall support for these teachers. There are those who are too afraid to try inquiry based/play based/design thinking in their classes, because they fear the “curriculum police” and the possible discipline for not teaching the Prescribed Learning Outcomes. There are many teachers out there who have their rooms crammed with students and are so busy putting out behaviour fires that are quite literally in survivor mode. These teachers are just trying to make it through day by day. There are teachers who do not know about these ways of teaching, and need to be given the support and encouragement to go to workshops, conferences, and do reading to support their further growth. I do not think these opportunities are being supported by our governments, locally or provincially. Professional development is becoming very tied to district goals, and is often given in a “talk down” formula.

I look at my own classroom with 21 Kindergarten and Grade 1 students. During the past month, several have come down with the flu, and I have had about 16 five and six year olds in my class. On those days, I was able to have conversations of meaning with these children. We had more room to explore, time to create and conversation flowed about our discoveries, not about self-regulation and behaviour.

Our very classroom and school buildings do not promote 21st century learning. Classrooms are often too small for the number of children, and are often too inclusive. Larger, open areas where students could meet comfortably with other older or younger children for collaboration, inquiry and community do not exist. Outdoor areas are concrete and so well groomed, that the opportunity to go out and experience nature is non-existent in many schools. Parents often see “play” as nothing more than children having fun. They do not see an exploration outdoors as a learning opportunity, and believe that school is for sitting at a desk memorizing facts. The paperwork to simply go into the community is often overwhelming, so teachers stay in their little, dark rooms and survive as best they can.

I feel the current curriculum also doesn’t support 21st century learning. The number of fact based outcomes and skills we are required to teach is often daunting, especially in a split grade. We are provided with information to present to students, but not a lot of experiences. I realize that our curriculum is moving towards more exploration and “big idea” learning, so I see hope in that. Our assessment tools, however, need to be overhauled to fit this new way of thinking. Letter grades and numbered systems do not seem to fit the 21st century learner. I read and hear about schools giving up the letter grades and trying new ways of reporting “achievement” and I look forward to seeing how that develops. Our younger learners are recorded as “minimally meeting, meeting, exceeding and approaching” expectations as their “grade”. I find this system demoralizing to my young students, who are sometimes only guilty of being born in December instead of September.

I am not trying to be all gloom and doom. I see glimmers of hope in my peers and in the discussions teachers are starting to have about change. I look forward to seeing what we can do with the new curriculum.

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7 thoughts on “Are We Teaching For The 21st Century Learner?

  1. Tracey says:

    I don’t see your blog entry this week as doom and gloom… I see it as a ‘wake up call’ and it draw attention to the areas that need to change. I am very much trying to implement passion and inquiry based learning into my French classrooms. However, there is always a voice inside my head saying, “Thorne, make sure they are prepared for Grade 10” with conjugations and the necessary verbs, because I can’t guarantee that their Grade 10 teacher will have the same philosophy. I don’t want to feel like I have failed my students. Although I know there is a gradual shift from the ‘top down’, I also want to make sure that my students are prepared to ‘get the grades’ needed, or will they be presenting a portfolio? There are so many questions, and such a grey area, that it is hard not to question ourselves daily!!!!

    • I absolutely agree with your statement, Tracey! It is always worrisome that the next person to teach our kids won’t have a similar philosophy and that the kids won’t get what try need to “survive” future years. I have the same worries about my students whenever I go off on a “learning adventure”. That inner voice is in my head too. I’m so glad that I’m not alone on this journey. Thanks for your response 🙂

  2. Nick Zap says:

    Hello Liane. I wonder if the change needs to be lead by example – at the grass roots. The dirty word of ‘reform’ has been around for so long it means nothing, and those who attempt to reform at the top don’t know what that other side looks like. I know when I implemented Hybrid learning in 1999 in my high school classes (web and f2f) it was met with scorn. I made few friends in trying to innovate. But, the success of those classes spread, and soon it caught on, with other teachers began trying their hand at building 21st century classrooms with 21st century experiences for their students. Amongst the doom and gloom is possibility – which is exciting!

  3. mardelle says:

    You nailed it – the physical environment is a huge factor in ensuring deep and varied learning.

  4. Angela Dop says:

    I agree with your point about the physical space of schools. Isn’t it funny how we, as teachers, have gone through many changes to the way we approach teaching and delivery of education, yet our schools look the same as when our parents and grandparents went there? They are designed for teacher-centred instruction and don’t have the space for students to truly break off and collaborate. Going outdoors to just explore is not an option at my school: we have to have a specific reason to be outside (like measuring some external structure), otherwise we are expected to stay in our classrooms! I know that there is a safety issue at the heart of it, but it is a frustrating bit of red tape to deal with!

    Thanks for your post!

  5. Thank you for your comments, everyone. I have so much to say, but because of the Social Media Policy in my district, I am wary of saying it on here.

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