Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rethinking My 21st Century Classroom

So, what exactly makes a 21st-century classroom?

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning identified a set of four essential skills they call the "4Cs": critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. In the late 1990's, 21st-century teaching and learning was all the buzz. We were on the cusp of a new millennium and the term was synonymous with cutting edge technology and pedagogy. Now, 17 years into the 21st century, the four C's have become the norm and no longer about the latest trends.

Or have they really?

Although seating arrangements and instructional deliveries in many classrooms have changed, I frankly question whether we are really reinforcing the four C's or if, in fact, our learners are still doing nothing more than memorizing information just like learners of the past.

Based on what I've observed in both my own classroom as well while visiting other classrooms, I've compiled a list of common assumptions that are causing me to rethink 21st-century teaching and learning.

Critical Thinking
Assumption: Because today's learners have increased access to information via the internet, they are thinking more critically and making more informed decisions.
Reality: Today's young people are bombarded with information but they aren't necessarily thinking critically about all the information that's available to them. It's essential for learners to be able to compare and evaluate resources, distinguish between fact and opinion, discern between fake news and accurate news, and make informed decisions based on careful analysis not just on what is perceived to be true. It's interesting that after all the mini-lessons I've taught on digital citizenship, many still cite "" as a source for information and images. Sadly, many of my learners are quick to believe and share fake new stories circulated on social media without checking for accuracy and often times reading nothing more than the headline. We may have access to the internet in nearly 100% of classrooms in America, but are students thinking critically about all the information accessible to them?

Assumption: Creativity is a talent and some students just aren't creative. And because it's difficult to measure, why bother? 
Reality: Webster defines creativity as "the ability to make new things or think of new ideas."  Creativity is more about creating, than it is about a talent. Many people associate creativity with art or design and yet it's really about newness and risk. In my experience, I have found that when we foster an atmosphere of safety and security, students will feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone and thinking outside the box. Creativity cannot only be developed, but it must be modeled and coached.  When I give students the time and freedom to think their ideas through even the most uninspired will blossom. It's an essential skill that helps students adopt a new perspective on innovation, problem-solving and adapting to change. And while it may be difficult to objectively quantify, we have to remember that not everything that counts can be counted.

Assumption: When students work in partners or small groups they are collaborating.
Reality: First, let's distinguish between cooperation and collaboration.  I'll again refer to Webster for clarification. In terms of group work, cooperation is "a situation in which people work together to do something."  Inarguably, anytime my students work with other students whether it be brainstorming, problem-solving, reviewing for a test or just answering questions after reading a passage, cooperation is occurring.  Conversely, collaboration is defined as "to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something." That something is a common goal, not an individual goal.  Furthermore, when one person carries most of the weight while the others watch, there's no collaboration. This certainly is not a new phenomenon and rather just human nature, but if collaboration is an essential 21st-century skill, as a facilitator of learning, I must ensure that students are collaborating not merely cooperating, much less being passive spectators. This will only happen if I plan activities and lessons that require every participant to have an essential part and of course, when I hold each group member accountable.

Assumption: Communication is not a problem for my students. And thanks to digital media, they can communicate with anyone anytime and in many different forms. 
Reality: Despite the ubiquity of social media and other communication technologies, I find that many of my students are lacking effective oral presentation and interpersonal skills. They share their life story with the world on social media, but they stand in front of class and freeze, or much worse they want to read straight from the screen. And when it comes to interpersonal communication, many of them feel very awkward - and I'm not just referring to English learners. Interestingly, many of my students have expressed an interest in pursuing careers in service-oriented industries where communication skills are vitally important. Additionally, in today's global marketplace, students must be able to communicate both linguistically as well as culturally. Technology has given rise to global work teams that span time zones, nations and cultures, which may translate (pun intended) into multilingual communication. This is where skyping with students in another part of the world or field experts would greatly benefit our learners.

So what's the solution? There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but I wrote this post in the hopes that we all reflect on what is happening in our classes and see how well we are equipping our kids to thrive in the real world. While I may be officially charged with the responsibility of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I am essentially responsible for preparing them to be successful, productive members of a technology-rich global society.  Their success (and mine) may mostly be measured by English language proficiency growth,  however, if I fail to weave the 4C's into my instruction I'm doing my learners and society at large a huge disservice.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Image Credit: Eric Patnoudes @noapp4pedagogy