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Leading a New Order of Things: 21st-Century Education

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STEM as a can be divisive if it is considered only attention to science, technology, engineering, and math. For those within those content areas, there is great receptivity. And if not, for those in the humanities and the arts, there is often less receptivity as they feel their subject areas diminished in value and maybe losing resources. So, let's not call it STEM. Let's call it 21st century education characterized by:

  • inter- trans-disciplinary learning
  • where empowered students learn through project- and
  • problem-based opportunities,
  • that are planned by two or more teachers and
  • often include business or higher-ed partners.

Let's call it the integration of science, technology, engineering, and math, along with art, music, the social sciences, physical education, and any other subject taught in the school. Let's call it the educational approach that responds to today's students.

What skills are required of students in the school environment we just described? Critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are central. So how does this happen? Bringing world inside schools together with that outside begins the student's journey toward sense making...the "why do we have to learn this" turns into "I understand how what I learn is used in the world." This shift in student thinking requires a change in teacher practice.   

Pre-Service Education
How are teachers, who have graduated from these pre-service programs prepared to take this huge step away from traditional teaching?  Most are not but some are eager volunteers.

According to received wisdom, teaching is fundamentally a self-evident practice. What to teach should be obvious if you know your subject, and what to do at any given moment should be obvious from the situation. Therefore learning to teach consists of two main parts: you learn the subject you intend to teach through college-level liberal arts courses, and you refine your technique and personal style through experience in your own classroom. Most versions of the received wisdom end here. Some versions add a small role for teacher education, acknowledging that there might be some benefit from studying child psychology or perhaps research on teaching. But the role of teacher education is still considered to be relatively modest (Kennedy, M.M., 1999).

In-Service Education
Perhaps more of a concern is how are teachers who have some years in the classroom prepared to take this huge step away from traditional teaching? We can't ask teachers to teach with open doors, with other teachers and professionals, change their planning and teaching methods, teach and require communication and collaboration, give more responsibility to their learners, and even include mindfulness as a classroom practice, without extremely well thought out individually designed learning opportunities for them.  There is much they can learn on their own, but it remains the responsibility of the leader to be sure the environment supports teacher learning, becomes a safe place for risk taking and invites learning opportunities as experiences of both success and disappointment.

Each change expected of the faculty requires that teachers be given the opportunity to become comfortable and confident, by offering the learning opportunities necessary. Leaders can offer time and space for worries and even objections to be expressed and heard. Change requires the leader learn also. All become newcomers in a reflective practice where what is observed is shared and the questions are posed in ways that aid everyone. From this type of exchange, teachers refine their practice as they continue to move toward becoming an experts again. 

Districts cannot just do more of the same. They have to develop new approaches to teacher learning on their campuses, approaches that create real changes in teacher practice and improve student achievement. Hence, the real challenge schools face is how to create opportunities for teachers to grow and develop in their practice so that they, in turn, can help students grow and develop their knowledge and ability to think critically (Center for Public Education).

There is only so much time in a day and making time and space for "new approaches to teacher learning" to develop can present a welcomed challenge. Three questions for leaders:

  • Are faculty and department meetings used for information delivery or as shared learning opportunities?
  • Are conversations, even the most informal and unscheduled ones, used as opportunities for learning and reinforcement, listening and learning?
  • How can I consistently use evidence of the successful implementation of a learned method or change to motivate and to contribute to the sustainability of the practice?

No matter the name given, STEM, STEAM, STREAM, or 21st century learning, we need to move into less traditional places...not to get students ready to take tests, but to meet students where they are and to guide them into the future that is waiting for them, not the one that awaited us. Leaders and teachers will have to change and learn. But, we became educators because we love learning so let's embrace it.

Leaders will hold the vision and keep the direction steady, support the teachers on their journey, recognize all successes and failures as learning opportunities and present the evidence of the effectiveness at every opportunity. Leading change is not a new challenge. Some have known for centuries how hard that work really is.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. - Niccolo Machiavelli (1532)

 

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