21st Century Teaching without Computers?

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One Room School House, Stratton, Vermont by Redjar on Flickr

I had an article published in the current edition of Principal magazine.  This magazine is published to the members of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.  Unfortunately I cannot post a link to the article because it is for members only, but I did want to take a few moments to discuss the idea I put across in the article.

In my article “What If All the Computers Were Broken?,” I argued that teaching the 21st Century skills of communication, critical thinking and problem solving did not depend on the use of technology.  To be sure, I would never turn back the clock and throw all of our digital devices away – they are critical tools for learning.  My argument is that having technology in the classroom does not replace good teaching and that many education pioneers taught the critical skills we currently still seek.

It is critical that we embrace the true definition of 21st Century Learning to ensure that teaching and learning in our classrooms is transformed.  Too many of our schools are still built upon the factory model of education with a one-size-fits-all approach to students.  The traditional classroom were all students studied from the same text toward the same results might have been well suited for a society where most students joined a factory-based work force, but our current economy clearly shows how inadequate this type of education really is.  We know all too well that possessing a narrow skill set aimed at a particular job leaves one vulnerable to job loss due to downsizing when jobs are outsourced.  While we know a rigid teacher driven, text based education is not the best solution, the current pressures of assessment and accountability push us towards narrowing our focus and keep us from truly realizing 21st Century Learning.  We have known this for quite a long time.  The American philosopher and education reformer John Dewey spoke to the roots of 21st Century learning back in the nineteenth century.  Dewey called for the student to build his or her own capacity to deal with situations and to pursue his or her own interests.  Student centered approaches to education continued to be part of our landscape as evidenced by the free school movement of the 1960’s.  While far from perfect, the free school movement encouraged studies centered on critical thinking and problem solving.  Student progress was not narrowly defined by  a letter grade but, rather, by considering a portfolio of student centered work created over a period of time.  Considering that we have history of progressive education and the fact that that modern computer resources have been in our schools since the 1980’s, we need to sharpen our focus on true 21st Century learning.

Since we want to provide 21st Century Learning, using technology seems to be an automatic good fit.  I argue that it takes more than buying a set of computers, interactive white boards and tablet computing devices to realize 21st Century Learning.  In my own quest to learn about the best use of technology in education, I traveled across the country to visit a model school district.  To be sure, I saw some great examples of technology use and this district had an excellent strategic plan to make sure all of its classrooms were outfitted with technological resources.  I also remember being disappointed to see some groups of students being escorted to a computer lab for rote lessons on the use of different word processing fonts.  Back home in my own school, I have realized that it is infinitely easier to organize the purchase of technology equipment and software than it is to build the capacity of my teachers to provide 21st Century Learning.  As much as I am a die-hard “techie,” I have come to realize that the essential concepts of 21st Century Learning do not hinge on technology alone.  Our students need enlightened teachers who embrace the power of the learner.  Our students do not need someone to teach them about the 21st Century as much as they need teachers to guide them through this exciting time.

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