With the advent of the Internet, knowledge has become a commodity. It is everywhere, all the time, in any form. The teacher’s role no longer lies in disseminating information and being the stewards of that information; it lies, or at least should, in engaging students in that knowledge to help them make meaning from it. If all we offer to our kids is memorization tasks and rote repetition, we are failing them.
Let me explain.
When I think back to my education, I sat passively in the classroom, diligently taking notes, filling in worksheets, staying whisper quiet, answering questions at the end of a piece of literature, listening to teachers pontificate, and regurgitating information to earn my A on any given test as best my memory allowed. Sound familiar? I will argue it’s the same education most of us received. And it worked because knowledge was hard to come by. We’d spend hours in the library finding content from rows of encyclopedias, magazines and books only accessible through card catalogs and glasses-clad librarians.
But times have changed. Our childhoods do not resemble those of our children’s. And the role of education, the teacher, and the student over the past twenty years has changed because of it. If our students are only being taught in this nostalgic, old-fashioned approach, they are going to enter their adult world at a disadvantage.
Because the world of today requires a workforce who can problem solve, work collaboratively within cross-departmental teams, write about innovations in science, technology and medicine so that humanity can be changed for the better, and be critical thinkers who can take this onslaught of information and make sense of it in a global economy. This doesn’t happen in a “traditional” classroom. It happens when the classroom embraces 21st century learning and engages our kids on a level that is hard for us -- their parents -- to understand.
So how does a 21st century student engage in their learning?
They need to be active in it.
An engaged student reads critically with a pen in hand, writing to create meaning, plan, problem solve, ask questions, and explore an idea. An engaged student interacts with other students in pairs or small groups, listening actively in order to respond, clarify, challenge, and critique ideas and conclusions. An engaged student experiments with content to make sense of it, applying new-found skills and strategies to think and act creatively. If true learning is to occur, then students have to be engaged participants in the process, and not merely products.
Most teachers pick up on cues as they teach and can tell when a student in not interested or engaged. As a teacher myself, I act on what I see and adjust to try to engage all students -- tap kids on the shoulder, call a student’s name, tell a personal anecdote, vary my intonation, walk around the room, and even ring a bell to help kids find focus. No matter the technique, however, I have come to realize that a lecture is still a lecture. And a lecture is still a passive activity.
The solution is simple -- increase student engagement by increasing student activity. This doesn’t mean more; it means different. Get them moving. Get them talking. Get them writing, discussing, debating, synthesizing. We need to be challenging our students with lessons so engaging and active that it’s hard for them not to participate.
Now that I’ve written it, I guess the solution really isn’t simple at all. And not only is it difficult for a teacher, it is just as difficult for a parent. How do we become an active participant in our own child’s education -- in a system that we’ve all been through, but in which we now feel completely estranged?
The typical question, “Did you get your homework done?” will no longer suffice.
It means that we need to start having dialogue with our kids that helps us engage. We need to begin asking questions about how they learned, what they contributed, when the spoke, and why the content matters.
The questions are very different. They ask how they have been a participant in their own learning. The better our questions, the more thoughtful and engaged our kids will be about their education -- turning their educational journey from just another commodity into a tool for unlimited success.