The 21st Century Problem – Part I

I think the biggest issues facing teachers today is the concept of 21st century teaching. It’s not that they can’t understand it, but todays teachers simply are not a product of 21st century teaching and therefore need new models. When thinking about who we look to as models, most teachers today were educated during the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s by teachers who grew up in the 30s, 40s and 50s and none of them ever had any notion of 21st century teaching. In fact, the vast majority modeled their instruction on teachers from the 19th century. Is it any wonder that today’s classrooms often look a lot like those of the 19th and early 20th century.


Walk around any school today and count the number of classrooms that look similar to this. It won’t be all, but it’s still a surprisingly high number. Interactive whiteboards may have replaced chalkboards and tablets may have replaced slates, but while the tools have changed the method of instruction has remained more or less the same – primarily a direct instruction model in which the teacher is the keeper of knowledge to be disseminated to students and students use technology tools to regurgitate that information into, essentially, digital worksheets. Our schools even maintain the same structure dictated by an agrarian and early industrial revolution society.

There is an easy solution to this. It does require teachers, schools and districts to be open minded and accepting of change (the above linked article has some suggestions on what this change should be). It requires school leadership and state legislators who undertand that teachers need to feel secure in their jobs and that they won’t be subjected to poor evaluations because a lesson does not go perfectly or that even when it does go perfectly our evaluators actually know and understand what that looks like and support it.

21st century teaching LOOKS different. Students do not sit in neat rows quietly filling in worksheets or listening to the teacher. They are moving, active, talking, and working on different tasks at different times. It is problem-based and student-centered. Assessments are not recall tests, but observations, discussions, presentations outside the school and even failures that students are empowered to share and discuss how they were overcome. They are more formative than summative as it’s about the learning process rather than the demonstration of memory. There is a chaos to it that frightens some teachers and can look like an unmanaged class to untrained evaluators.

As much as we would prefer grassroots change, it may take another generation (or more) before 21st century classrooms become the norm. It’s highly probable that only with state and district level pressure (along with the necessary training and support) will teachers be able to make the change. Schools of education also need to be part of the process as many of them are still mired in outdated processes as well.


One comment

  1. Well said. In my time as an educator I have met a whole host of individuals, with varying experimentations with what you refer to as 21st century learning. Not a single one of those individuals felt comfortable moving away from “traditional” education models without an administrator that supported them. This is one of those unfortunate cases where change needs support from the top down. To the chagrin of many legislatures and data junkies, this kind of metamorphosis requires more trust of our in-the-field educators than constant comparison to standardized test results allows. Even with administrator support, educators spread across a “traditional education” embeded society will need clear models, classrooms in their grade level demonstrating this approach, to experience comfort and success. After all, those educators are the gate keepers for the over all success of 21st century learning by making the parents of our students comfortable with this change!

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