It’s All About Learning

Successful teaching of an objective requires two things: a deep understanding of the content and the ability to choose the most effective strategy to deliver it. Today, teachers are challenged to address twenty-first century skills and prepare students for the future, but unfortunately, not many succeed in doing so. If we ask teachers to define or list twenty-first century skills, how many will struggle with the task? And those who are able to name them, most likely, will scramble with deep explanations and specific examples of what each looks like in a classroom. Even if teachers know and clearly understand what these skills are, how many of them are successful in choosing effective strategies to teach them? Such methods were not introduced in their college pedagogy classes. Certainly, they did not experience this type of learning when they were in school and, most likely, did not observe it during their internship. I cannot agree more with Will Richardson (2010) that teachers “cannot honestly discuss twenty-first century learning skills for our students until we [teachers] make sense of them for ourselves” (p. x). 

Teachers must initiate personal professional development in order to be able to serve students of today. They need to connect with other educators, investigate new possibilities and ideas, try them out, reflect, and do whatever it takes to polish the craft of teaching. Technology is the tool that allows teachers to develop personal learning network full of learners invested in their passion. From blogs to Twitter, online communities are buzzing with new ideas and strategies for educators. The only obstacle teachers encounter is themselves! It is not mandatory to be a part of an online learning community, but it is a sign of a passionate educator who walks the talk of 21-century schooling, experiences new ways of learning, and does so along with students. Before they can educate, teachers must experience what it feels like to be a part of a learning community in which people share ideas, provide specific feedback to improve own work, collaborate, and create content that matters to others. For instance, most teachers allow student to publish their work online, but not many realize that the real learning takes place after the publishing. Richardson (2010) calls it the real power of “The Read/Write Web.” Through communication and collaboration with others, a published piece continues to be a “working draft.” It is revised, reflected on, and questioned by multiple readers. With real audience, student are invested in their work and want to continuously clarify own thinking and revise writing. Learning is not about product, it’s about the process: engaging, collaborative, challenging, and relevant. 

Submerging in the world of instructional technology while working on my Master’s six years ago enable me to learn more about Web 2.0 tools and develop powerful strategies to implement them. I fell in love with wikis, Voice Thread, Wixie, Storybird, Voki, and many other tools. They helped me turn my class into a “buzzing” community of students who began work harder than I did. Collaboration and communication gradually replaced lectures and flipchart presentations, and I watched my students’ creativity and individualities bloom. Of course, it was not a smooth transition for me! I made many mistakes, changed lesson plans every few hours, listened to my students, assessed their progress, and continuously researched. Even the physical appearance of my classroom changed: round tables and clusters of seating areas supplanted the rows of desks and “teacher’s area.” It was a painful growth for me, and I could not have done it without connecting with educators passionate about the same things. Because of them, I was brave enough to “tap into the potential that these [Web2.0] tools give us for learning” (Richardson, p. 9). 

This year our district is integrating itsLearning, a new online learning platform. From the start, I want my teachers to view this tool as a place for students, not teachers. Teachers need to avoid uploading files and study guides with answer keys for kids to print out because an online learning environment should not be a static place! I encourage them to let students take control of learning, collaborate, engage, and communicate with each other. Teachers should become facilitators and co-learners instead of being gatekeepers of the content. Every imaginable Web 2.0 tool can be easily integrated in each course to help students connect with peers and professionals around the world. And more than anything I want teachers to be practice weaving strong pedagogy into “The Read/Write Web.”

Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, wikis podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. California: Corwin A SAGE Company.

If We Stop Throwing Glitter in the Air…

Every time I observe technology being used for the sake of using it, it makes me think of glitter thrown in the air. The effects are amazingly similar – the shiny substance blinds and excites us at the same time. But before we know it, the fun part is over and it’s time to clean up the mess. At this point, students are “checked out”, and teachers are stuck with remediation groups since kids didn’t learn much from the lesson. 

In a glittery classroom, I see students sitting in front of laptops, completing template-based projects that answer only right-or-wrong questions. Each product looks exactly the same as other 25 in the classroom. Well, the clip art may be different since students had a “choice” for images. I see teachers who believe they effectively integrate technology in such lessons and it defines them as 21-century educators. Then why, when the lesson is over and projects are proudly displayed in the hallway, don’t students even remember what they’ve learned? Was it just a glittery illusion and there was no more “substance” to think about?

What does a classroom look like if we stop throwing glitter in the air?  

  1. Teachers seem to be invisible. We don’t see them lecturing in front of the class. They are in the midst of group conversations – coaching, listening, checking for understanding, challenging young minds, and providing support. 
  2. Kids own their learning. They understand (not just recite) learning goals, know what must be done to achieve them, and are able to self-assess personal progress towards these targets. Students view the teacher as a source of guidance and support on their journey to success, not as a direction and grade-giver.
  3. Children become producers of knowledge. Their work has purpose and real audience. It makes them contributors in the world of information. They are not passive “sponges” anymore who absorb every word in their teacher’s lectures. Students develop their own voice.
  4. Students are involved in constant conversations with each other. Practicing isolated thinking and answering multiple-choice questions are not effective strategies. Instead, children are expected (not just allowed) to talk, bounce ideas off each other, revise their own thinking, and come to consensus. They learn to be effective listeners and persuasive speakers and understand the power of collaboration. Students realize that powerful ideas and new knowledge can be born only in a conversation.
  5. Authentic learning is the classroom atmosphere. Teachers never know what student products will look like. One thing they are sure of is that none will look the same! No more template-based, cookie-cutter like projects! Different tools, formats, and ways to express thoughts allow students to be authentic. However, essential questions and learning targets of the lesson maintain student focus on the same learning objectives.
  6. Learning expands beyond classroom walls. As soon as students own their learning and have a choice of how to demonstrate their understanding, they never stop working. Kids choose to spend more time engaged in learning at home, which rarely happens with worksheets sent home. With no directive from the teacher, students revise and edit their work at home, on the way to a ball park, or at grandma’s house. Learning never stops! With BYOT and online tools, students are able to do so at anytime. I’ve witnessed many purposeful conversations happening among students outside of the classroom – in Edmodo, Wixie, Wikispaces, Voice Thread, etc. Kids learn from each other!

Day in and day out, I challenge teachers to stop throwing glitter in the air and revise their instruction. They must increase rigor and encourage creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. Only then will the glitter become precious gems, full of priceless “substance” of kids’ unique creations!