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Wonder Years: Schools and Teachers Catch Up With the 21st-Century

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I've written here before about the transformation in independent school cultures, shifts in everything from attitudes toward educational technology to professional development to new kinds of assessment. It's sort of an interesting sea change in an industry that could have be accused over the years of napping but is awakening now to discover that times are changing. Not too many schools have yet to figure out that staying the course, holding to tradition and "the way we've always done it," is a more-or-less certain path to irrelevance.

Occasionally I get to witness this transformation at first hand, when I am asked to talk to faculties about it, to provide a kind of "state of the profession" message. My task is to reassure the anxious and alert the complacent about the exciting things that are happening in our profession; I'm the guy who's there to tell them, I have seen the future, and it works.

It can be an interesting gig. Anytime an outsider stands up to tell an entire faculty what's what, there is a reasonable skepticism already in the room, and so it helps when folks are assured that I still work in a school and have been doing so since before an increasing number of them were born. I'm fortunate that my school has its place on the map as a leader in some of the things I'm likely to talk about, and I have some street cred for having been the designated change agent for some of that work. I'm also, if I do say so myself, pretty good at spotting and feeling their pain, even if it doesn't deter me from my message.

We're coming to what may be the end of one era of development in education, the era in which brain research and cognitive theory advanced from what might be called the Stone Age, when brain size figured in how educators thought children learn to the elevation of g as the unitary expression of intelligence and its measurement. These ideas were blown out of the water by the work of Big Brains (ha!) like Vygotsky and Bruner and by new constructs like Gardner's Theory of Multiple-Intelligences. "Brain-based" learning (an unfortunately redundant moniker in the opinion of my neuroscientist sib) is part of how we now think about our work.

The same has occurred understanding of child developmental, where we've moved from the equivalent of Lewis Carroll's Duchess ("Speak roughly to your little boy/ and beat him when he sneezes/ he only does it to annoy/ because he knows it teases") to Piaget, Bronfenbrenner, and beyond. Curriculum design and theories and new models of assessment have moved apace, thanks in no small measure to Bruner, Gardner, and their cohort. Behaviorism is in our rear-view mirror, and now Constructivism is riding shotgun.

But the road ahead appears to be Connectivist. What we are seeing nowadays is the confluence of all these trends and the great, onrushing stream of technology, which is really only the great onrushing stream of connected living, connected thinking, and connected learning. We may be losing some essential face-to-face human connections as we turn more and more to our iGadgets, but we are gaining enormously in our ability to know a whole lot about a whole lot of people and a whole lot of stuff. The trick for us in the next decade or so--maybe we have even less time than that to get it right--will be to figure out how to extract from our online connectedness the warmth and emotional richness and gratification that we, or our forebears, used to get from bowling leagues and community suppers.

This onrush, along with the specter of having to change one's practice, is what makes my teacher audiences nervous as I suggest to them that schedules can change, project-based assessment can expand, and cell phones can be harnessed as educational tools without the world coming to an end. I think it's human to want to think at some point in our adult lives that we're done, we're finally there, and I can't say I haven't wanted that myself. But in every auditorium or "large meeting space" full of teachers I encounter, there are way more who just want to hear about what they can do to become better, more accomplished teachers. I haven't yet swiped Heidi Hayes Jacobs's "Alex," the invisible student sitting on the stage whenever she presents (or used to, at any rate), but I think most of the teachers to whom I speak already have their own Alex, the image of a student for whom things can be better with a bit more intentionality and some new ideas.

The best parts of these events, when there is time (which, alas, there isn't always), is the conversation afterward. Sometimes there's a Q-and-A, often a platform for a cynic or a gadfly who just doesn't want to hear it and who is nervy enough to say so in front of whatever administrators are in the room. I try to respond with empathy, for I know there are teachers out there who are cynical, skeptical, and afraid, and I know that listening to a cheerleader for change makes some of them grind their teeth. But they're going to have to deal with what's coming along, and I can only hope that they can conjure up a few students in their own imaginations to motivate them.

On the whole, however, doing this work is among my favorite things. I believe in what I'm saying, but I'm not so bedazzled by either the techniques or the tools that I don't understand people's honest misgivings. But in the end I'm enough of an optimist to believe that in time all but the most entrenched cynics will come along; it'll be fun, and teachers tend to be okay with that.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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