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The 21st Century Teaching Environment: A Disconnect

21st Century Teaching requires 21st Century Work Environment for Teachers

 If you talk to most people these days, many of them are in agreement that students today need to be learning 21st Century skills to prepare them for the workplace.  The list of exactly what 21st Century skills are will not be debated here.  There are many resources online to investigate further, for example at Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills and at The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

In  Edutopia’s Parents’ Guide to 21st Century Learning, the learning and innovation skills deemed essential for the 21st Century are highlighted.   These skills are called the 4 Cs :

Critical Thinking,

Communication,

Collaboration, and

Creativity.

The Edutopia handbook explains it this way,

To prepare for college, careers, and citizenship, it’s not enough to master academics.  Students also need to acquire a set of skills that will last for a lifetime.  To be able to solve problems in our complex, fast-changing world, students must become nimble, creative thinkers who can work well with others.

                    Found in ‘Parents’ Guide to 21st Century Learning” www.edutopia.org

In speaking to friends who do not work as teachers, these are the skills that they use every day in the workplace.  Work, for a large proportion of college graduates, is about problem-solving and teamwork.  This takes the form of short-term and long term projects.  When working on a ‘project’ you must communicate effectively within your project team and with other teams related to the project.  Team members must have exceptional learning and innovation skills.  They must be problem-solvers (creativity and critical thinking) and cooperative co-workers (communication and collaboration).  Most of my friends did not grow up in a time of 21st Century Education, so these are skills they have had to learn at work, through trial and error.  At least students today have the benefit of great teachers who are trying to incorporate these 21st Century skills into their teaching.

However, the point of this post is, in fact, not to discuss 21st Century teaching, but rather to highlight the disconnect between the environment that teachers work in and the environment that they try to create for their students.  Don’t get me wrong – within our classrooms I think we (teachers) are creative critical thinkers and communicators.  I think we are putting all kinds of higher level thinking skills to work every minute of the day.  Yet often I feel we miss out tragically in the ways of working skills of collaboration and communication with colleagues.  This is of course not the case in all schools – there are many shining examples of teamwork and collaboration.  Yet I believe they are not the norm.  Schools’ budgets are stretched to the limit and they can’t spare the time and the manpower to enable real and ongoing collaboration and communication between colleagues.  I mean the kind of collaboration that focuses on an objective for students and allows teachers the time, the resources, and the freedom to experiment (and make mistakes) that are necessary for a project to successfully meet its goal.

So I think we know why many teachers’ work environments don’t match the model of the 21st Century Workplace that we hope to prepare our students for.

What can we do about it?  Here are some suggestions for working within current parameters:

  1. Help administrators understand the vital importance of regularly scheduled, extended-time team planning (vertical and lateral teams)

  2. Problem-solve to find ways to creatively schedule faculty to create common planning time within the schedule

  3. Get your team excited about a short-term goal and see if you can focus on that for a period of about 3 weeks – set goals and measurable outcomes

  4. Find like-minded teachers and find ways to collaborate with them – you need to be working with others

  5. Use the Connected Educator resources available to you online – twitter, Google hangouts, blogs, online conferences – once you get started you will see that the potential for online collaboration is endless

  6. Create a Critical Friends group at school.  Bring food; go walk the school track; make it social

And to all administrators – help your team work as a team – be their project leader!  Teachers want to ‘work well with others’!