For the past few years I have thinking a great deal about what 21st century learning will look like in secondary schools in British Columbia. I am certainly not alone in this endeavour. My voice is but one of thousands of educators and non-educators alike whom are actively discoursing about the changing paradigm. At times it seems overwhelming because how does one digest and synthesize all this information that is being volleyed around. Further, what elements does one incorporate and what elements does one leave out? While I’ve seen a few frameworks put in place in different schools I’ve decided to build my own. While many more elements could be included, I offer below what I believe to be a few of the major components of a 21st century school setting. Further, to make it sustainable and pedagogically sound, these components need to support each other in a way that produces a coherent educational framework from which deep learning can take place.
Timetabling a 21st century classroom. I think we are beginning to see the end of purely classroom-based learning. 79 minute classes, four times a day, fives days a week seems like an outmoded system to me. Having said that, I am not suggesting that the traditional classroom is dead. On the contrary, it still serves a very important learning and societal function. After all, building communities is an essential ingredient to a healthy school and society. Instead, I just think it needs to be structurally opened up in a way that allows for more inquiry-based learning (IBL), which I believe should be a necessary and deeply embedded component of our school system. While some would argue that teachers already do IBL with classroom projects, I am suggesting that we make this a much deeper and richer process. Ideally, I would like to see some time in the week set aside in the timetable for students school-wide to explore a curricular-focussed, multi-disciplinary project for which students would get course credit. Their project would be expansive and would require them to fullfil certain skills and learning outcomes established by the educators at the district and school level. This inquiry period would give students the freedom to meet up with their teachers about their inquiry-based projects, and because their projects would be multi-disciplinary, students would be able to contact the appropriate teachers who specialize in that field. The students would be free to move from teacher to teacher, or classroom to library when necessary.
Repurposing libraries. The idea of the school library needs to be re-imagined. Libraries used to be the ultimate learning hub because one would have access to a wide range of information at their fingertips. Well, that has changed. Students don’t need libraries in that way anymore because they have ubiquitous access to reams of information from the internet. A student’s learning today is no longer confined by space and time, their smartphone is their library, their information centre. So what purpose does the library and the librarian now serve? If anything, the library and librarian are more important than ever. Libraries are now knowledge-sharing and knowledge-building centres, not information-getting centres. They are now the places where students go after they have collected their information, and whom are now relying on the expertise of the librarian to help them make sense of it. The emphasis has change.
Paradoxically, while students have access to too much information, their preference is to usually limit their literature to sources such as wikipedia. Librarians more than ever are needed to help build data acquisition skill-sets in students. Students need to be taught how and where on the web to collect information from a diverse range of sources, then know what to do with it afterwards. The process may sound simple, but it’s a major stumbling block for students these days. Librarians can help bridge that gap between data-collection and knowledge building.
Unfortunately, austerity measures has meant cutting back on librarians around the province. This is more than troubling because not only do librarians help students frame their thinking about their topic, but they are also in a sense the school’s educational lynchpin. Thankfully, our district has worked very hard to keep our school libraries open and staffed with excellent librarians.
Libraries need also to be physically repurposed. Libraries today still contain stacks and stacks of books, but students rarely ever use them. As our literary world becomes increasingly digitized, the need for paper-based stacks comes into question and we need to rethink how we can better use this space. I am not suggesting that paper-based books aren’t important. Books should continue to be very much a part of the library environment, but the need for stacks rows-deep are gone. Let’s get rid of them and repurpose that space. One would think that because of the internet, libraries would be empty vessels. In fact, the opposite is true. Our library at Rockridge is packed, which I believe is a testament to our hardworking staff and its welcoming environment, but space is limited and we could use more of it. The students enjoy sitting in the comfortable furniture and being part of the warm aesthetic that encourages learning and a desire to stay. I believe that libraries are the most complex environments in the school and that we need to pay more attention to them. If I could foster this, I’d rather have a student choose to do more work in the school library than at home because that would give us a chance to facilitate and guide their learning.
Repurposing a classroom. While limited classroom space is always an issue, in my ideal world, students and teachers would have access to multipurpose rooms. For example, a classroom could be set aside, emptied of desks and chairs and made available for both students and teachers to use in any way imaginable. Essentially, this classroom becomes an empty canvas where lessons can turn theory into application. One wall could be used for a green screen for filming projects, science students could use it for laboratory space, drama and humanities students could use it for rehearsing or role playing, art classes could use the space for those large artistic creations, math students could use it to turn mathematical theory into application. I could go on. There really is no limit.
Classrooms versus e-Learning: Blending the best of both worlds. While were not likely to see the demise of the traditional classroom any time soon (nor should we), we can take advantage and incorporate the best elements of e-Learning with traditional learning. For example, there are aspects about e-Learning which are superior over classroom-based work. For example, if teachers could “digitize” their lessons by having access to a fully functioning, easy to use, Learning Management System (LMS), they could get students to interact with each other at the digital level. I would like to see teachers building their lessons on an LMS in a modular-based structure. Modular e-lessons are great because students can clearly see the flight path of the course and therefore plan around it, but they would also get all the benefits of a face to face classroom setting. By incorporating an LMS into their teaching, both teachers and students would together be able to read/watch/listen/blog/wiki/test/contribute/edit/share on a web 2.0 management system that would allow teachers to track a student’s progress and for students to track their own growth as learners. [Teachers would use the inquiry period to build and maintain their LMS courseware.]
Students and their personal device. As personal devices become more affordable we are going to see more of them being used by students in school. This is a good thing. Incidentally, I took a poll last year and discovered that 95% of incoming grade 8s to Rockridge had some form of smartphone. Whether it be a laptop, an iPad, or a smartphone, students can already now research and produce on their devices. Educators should leverage this incredible opportunity and they can do this by building courseware on the LMS which would give students 24/7 access if they so desired it. This would add a level of complexity and flexibility to a traditional setting that would both enhance the learning but also make it more engaging.