Supporting The Three New Pillars of 21st Century Learning

In the April copy of District Administration, I came across a great article by Rob Mancabelli: The Three New Pillars of 21st Century LearningHe writes of the three pillars of modern-day schooling (the textbook, the lecturer and the classroom) and explains their historical rationale:

The textbook was invented because information was scarce, the lecturer because teachers were few and the classroom because learning was local. 

However, times have changed:

There’s just one catch – these problems don’t exist anymore. In the 21st Century, the Internet has ushered in an online learning environment where information is abundant, teachers are plentiful and learning is global. If you’re connected, you can select your own content, choose your own teachers and decide the time and place for your learning. It’s a personalized, mobile, student-driven environment that changes the game for educators, but it can’t penetrate the walls of our schools until we knock down the old pillars supporting the current system.

He’s right. We’ve moved (and continue to move):

  • from teacher directed to process and active learning
  • from simple information assignments to individual and collective knowledge construction
  • from classroom learning to networked and global learning
  • from test driven to learning that explores big ideas and concepts
  • from teachers working in isolation to collaborative teaching partnerships

These are Mancabelli’s three new pillars:

Pillar #1: “I’m only one of my students’ teachers, but I’m the most important because I teach them to connect to all the others.” Implication area: Instruction

Pillar #2: “My students should learn from me how to learn without me.” Implication area: Curriculum

Pillar #3: “My students’ knowledge lies not only in their minds but in their networks.” Implication area: Assessment

What I am drawn to is the theme that seems to strengthen the mortar in all three pillars: the power of collaboration. Over the past two years at John Oliver, we have spent countless hours collectively envisioning the role of the teacher in the classroom. The key point in all of these discussions: collaboration in the service of expanding our knowledge base.

It’s very easy for us, like Rob Mancabelli, to say that we want teachers to “create networks that span the globe”.  We want teachers to embrace the roles of facilitator and learning coach; however, let’s not put the cart before the horse.  In a take on the saying, “charity starts at home,” before we start skyping and connecting with a teacher in Helsinki, let’s ask ourselves this: do our teachers in our own buildings collaborate on a daily basis?  Have we, as administrators, provided them the time, the resources and the organizational structure to actually collaborate? Really, how can we ask our students to connect, collaborate and concomitantly expand their own learning experience when they don’t see their teachers or their administrators in their ‘real-time’ physical space doing just this?

One step we’re taking to address these questions (and in so doing modelling the positive impact that collaborative practices can have on learning) is embedded in our new approach to delivering Pre-Calculus 12. What’s the present day issue? Well . . .a new curriculum; a high failure rate; teachers meeting to talk/discuss (when they can find the time) but delivering the actual course in isolation in their own classrooms; an administrator who is not entering the fray and demonstrating educational leadership. Sound familiar? 

So, as a result of teachers and administrators working together (yes, it still happens here in British Columbia) this is what Pre-Calculus 12 and collaboration will look like next year: sixty students scheduled into the same Math block with two teachers.  They will meet every other day and on the weeks that they have a third class, they will have break out tutorials.  Sounds like a first year university course; however, it’s not. It’s much more than that!

In preparation for this course, these two teachers will collaborate and use their collective expertise to create content around their passion for Math.  They will house their content on a LMS and store it on our server where students can access and interact with digital learning objects on demand. They will podcast all of their classes so that students will now come to the lesson with the background knowledge and requisite questions. Class time, with both teachers present as facilitators, will be about real ‘hands on’ learning and analysis. With each podcast, the two teachers will also embed links to sites that will help provide the necessary practice and scaffolding that most of our Math students need (why reinvent the wheel when it’s all out there in the ether). The expectation is that students will contribute to this sharing community by adding their own links and their own podcasted lessons

As the two teachers actively collaborate, so too will the students.  They will video record the hands-on work, review it, reflect upon it and blog it for discussion – deep learning and deep experiences that extend beyond the classroom. You see, in videoing and posting these lessons, we’re not teaching technology, but rather leveraging technology to support and enhance the curriculum and the skill of collaboration while engaging students with their medium of choice – in this case Math.  In terms of assessment, rather than limiting our students to a sit down test/exam format for gauging mastery of learning outcomes, we will also ask them to create digital artifacts to represent their learning in a variety of mediums and share them with the class through an ePortfolio (again that sharing aspect of making knowledge).

All this talk about blended instruction, embedding technology, students leading each other in a labyrinth of inquiry based learning – it all comes down to harnessing the energy inherent within a collaborative culture. It’s about bringing people together to create new ways of doing and yet all I hear is that it can’t be done: we can’t schedule it; we can’t afford it; we need release time; and, worst of all, we don’t have the workbooks for it.  Well, I don’t buy it.  If we’re going to be leaders (in the classroom and/or in admin offices) then let’s start looking at ways to transform our practices. Let’s have the nerve, desire and fortitude to address what is not working and make the necessary changes. Let’s recognize that relationships are the primary medium for success and that in connecting with each other, in truly collaborating, we create networks that enrich us for a lifetime.

In an average size school on the South Side of Vancouver, we’re taking a Math 12 class and transforming that old method (teachers talk a lot, students listen a lot, teachers grade a lot) into a collaborative model of instruction, curriculum and assessement that promotes high quality interactions between teachers, students and peers.  And we’re doing it all with absolutely no budget! So, if we can do it here . . .