Sunday, October 31, 2010

To Change or Challenge?

Education has undergone many shifts throughout time.  Likewise, the notion of 'effective teaching' has changed as well.  So, just what qualifies as 'effective teaching'? And more importantly, how would one identify examples of it?

Traditionally educators were seen as imparting knowledge to their students.  Their responsibility: take a group of students, transmit as much information to their students as possible and send them into the world more knowledgeable than when they arrived at school.  It was seen as the role of the teacher to ensure that the students who left their classrooms were different than when they entered.  In other words, teachers were responsible for changing their learners.  Teachers were the ones who caused the learning to occur.

But, is this really the case? Of course not.  While we would all agree that student learning is dependent on their teacher's teaching, we also know that a teacher's teaching does not determine student learning.  To take this a step further, the teacher does not cause his or her learners to change.  Students, like any set of learners are self-determining individuals who draw from their own history of experiences. (Sumara & Davis, 2010, Education Canada, Vol 50)

So, if effective teaching isn't about changing students, what practices are common to the classrooms where the greatest and most powerful learning is occurring?

I would argue effective teachers are consistently challenging their students.  These teachers are not relying on a teacher-centred approach where the 'filling up of students' brains' is the common practice. The most effective teachers are stimulating learning and inquiry by posing relevant challenges for their students.  They are challenging their students to look at the world in ways they may never have previously done so.  They are forcing them to ask and answer the deeper questions of 'why' and 'how'.

Today, we live in an information and knowledge-based society.  Knowledge remains important, however with the overabundance of information that exists and the fact that it is growing at an exponential rate, it is impossible for an individual to ever know enough.  When we need to know something, what do we do? We turn to our laptop, BlackBerry or iPhone and let Google find the information for us in mere seconds.

With so much information at our fingertips, our focus should be on challenging our students to analyze and think critically about the information in front of them.  We should be encouraging our students to create new information and to share this information with others.

So, why do so many educators continue to apply such a traditional approach, overloading students with photocopies and handwritten notes that include more and more information?  We know that newer and more progressive student-centred approaches exist, yet step inside many classrooms and you can still see teachers at the front conducting class.  Are we afraid of taking a risk and altering our approach? Or do we hesitate because we feel we may lose some control when we turn the focus over to our learners?

At the end of the day, we all want what is best for our students and we all want what is best for the global community.  So I urge us all to reflect on our current practice and ask ourselves whether our teaching is preparing our students for a 21st Century world that will require them to be adaptable, creative problems-solvers who can lead our world forward amidst the countless challenges they will face in their lifetimes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Celebrating our Successes

Over the weekend I was reminded of the importance of celebrating our successes.  So, as much my comments are about the need to emphasize 21st Century skills, they are also about highlighting the excellent work of the staff in Delta Secondary’s Work Options Program.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to observe a class in the Work Options Program.  The program consists of a small group of students who take their lead from one teacher and two educational assistants.  The consistent grouping of students and close contact with staff allows students the opportunity to develop trusting relationships with each other and with staff.  This was very evident today, as the students and teacher engaged in a deep discussion that was relevant to students ‘real worlds’ and can only happen in an environment where there is a high degree of trust and confidence. It was a great example of the type of learning environment that we should be striving for at all times.

What intrigued me most was the students’ discussion about the skills, characteristics and competencies that they feel their future employers would be looking for in them.  The students shared words such as social skills, work ethic, technology skills, working with others, initiative, motivation, responsibility, resilience and problem-solving.  As I reflected on their discussion, I realized that much of what the students identified as key skills, characteristics and competencies are similar to the new 7 C’s (critical thinking, creativity and innovation, collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, communication skills, computing skills and career and learning self-reliance) suggested by 21st Century skills proponent Bernie Trilling (Author of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in our Times).  

How could one disagree with the value in students developing these skills?  As educators, we are preparing students for a rapidly changing and rapidly evolving world.  It is our responsibility to intentionally provide opportunities for students to develop these 21st Century skills so that they are equipped for the challenges they will face in the future.