After 21 years as a teacher and administrator there has never been more to consider. As the societal context continues to shift, a focus on appropriate and relevant skill building in an inclusive environment has become an extremely important role of the school. Researchers around the world have identified the need for competencies to be more central in the education of young people if they are to be active participants in an increasingly knowledge-based and globalized society. Competencies enable students to understand their world, engage fully in their education, relate well to others, manage their lives wisely, and contribute positively to their communities. These important competencies include, but are not limited to:
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Creativity and Innovation
Social Responsibility and Cultural, Global and Environmental Awareness
Lifelong Learning, Self-Direction and Personal Management
Collaboration and Leadership
Many people ask why we need a different model of education for the 21st century. Aren’t many of these skills the same ones that have been important throughout history as civilizations moved forward? And do we, only 13 years into the century, really know what skills our students will need for their future? The answer to these questions is that the past few years have seen a very different world than before, especially in the area of globalization, which has been magnified by exponential advances in technology. We have moved from the industrial age to the service age and the students who are now entering our schools will end up in the service sector, having jobs in many different fields over the course of their working lives. While we don’t know what new jobs will emerge, our students will need to be able to learn new things and adapt to new situations as the world continues to change. They will need to innovate and create while employing critical and divergent thinking.
Oh How Things Have Changed
The biggest difference between today’s education and that which went before it is the embedding of the important competencies into the curriculum. A few short years ago teachers didn’t engage in much problem solving or decision-making with their students. Those skills were not seen as important because when students left school and went to work most of them expected to be told what to do – if a problem came up or if a decision had to be made they were expected to take that to someone higher up rather than make it themselves. In today’s world there is more scope for autonomy and decision making at every level – employees are expected to be self-directed and responsible for their own work. This emphasis on autonomy, mastery and purpose leads to more personal satisfaction with our careers, and this, in turn, leads to more motivation and ultimately a better performance. Teaching and learning should reflect this reality.
The competencies listed above were not emphasized in yesterday’s schools. Academic rigor was defined by the “3 R’s” and the coverage of a large amount of content – and knowing this content was more important than understanding it. With information more accessible than ever, students must instead be able to apply previous experiences to new situations. If schools place an emphasis on lifelong learning, students will be better positioned for the world they will enter.
The implications for teachers are tremendous. There is a need to engage students in more inquiry and project-based learning in order to support the development of higher-order thinking skills. There is a need for teaching to be less about the dissemination of information and more about guiding students as they direct their own learning. There is a need for every student, regardless of their limitations, to both learn and demonstrate learning in their own way, at their own pace, and from any location. There is a need to engage students in a way that is relevant to them, supporting (not replacing) strong pedagogy with the tools of technology. All of these are important, however the attitude and mindset of the teacher continues be the greatest indicator of student engagement and success.
Finally, I am a firm believer that teachers must be at the centre of education transformation and not at the outer edge. They have to be given the opportunity to try new approaches and build capacity within a trusting, risk-taking, and collaborative culture. Jurisdiction and school leaders are charged with the responsibility of building a shared vision, values and goals. If this is done through the collective efforts of all stakeholders, the foundation is laid for a community of learners. This foundation is further enhanced over time when the formal leaders consistently allocate resources and make decisions in support of the vision. Given the right conditions, teachers will, as informal leaders, lead the charge toward the kind of schools we want for our children.