I’m a pretty standard early career teacher, I think. As Edutech2014 loomed a few weeks ago, I, like many other educators, set myself a few goals and challenges for while I was in Brisbane. I wanted to restart my rather stalled twitter connections and professional reading; I wanted to investigate further ways to use the technology in my classroom to better differentiate my teaching. I wanted to continue my thinking about feedback mechanisms for teachers to students. I wanted to use the conference as a way of furthering the directions I’d already identified in my site and my class, to reinforce the positive things I was doing and take them further.
All very admirable.
And for the first day and a half, everything went to plan. My self-satisfaction rating soared as I retweeted the sage statements of a range of speakers who were at the cutting edge of technology, education, pedagogy and creativity back to the school blog. I made connections with teachers on twitter and in the trade hall. I even managed to get onto the wifi. The reinforcement I got from Sugata Mitra, Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Haesler in particular made me feel good, as I could nod along and agree wholeheartedly and say to myself that I as an educator and more broadly, we as a site, were already discussing, sometimes even implementing the positions these edu-rockstars were advocating. The smugness I was feeling was pretty warming. Self-affirmation was at an all time high.
Then I went and listened to Ian Jukes…
And to be honest, at first I had trouble with this guy shouting and raving and generally acting like there was a hurricane on the way. It was real duck & cover stuff.
If you’ve got the time (and if not you should make it) the basic ideas of this version of his presentation are almost exactly the same as the talk I sat through in Brisbane.
Jukes suggested to us that as educators we were not necessarily as in touch with the real world as we might first assume. The nerve of the guy. The idea that career teachers were not in touch with the latest trends of commerce was one that made sense, but made me sit up a bit nonetheless. The next suggestion that teachers we were in danger of becoming obsolete in a rapidly changing world was one that severely challenged my smugness bubble.
But it took me a few days to sink in, if I’m honest. I went home and had a lot of good conversations with colleagues about the inspirational speakers and the latest ideas, and for a few days I kind of placed Ian’s talk in a box labelled “alarmism” and left it there. It was only a few days later that I started to really appreciate the scope of what I’d heard.
Jukes argues that the Education system as it currently stands no longer serves the needs of students. The current ways of working were originally designed to feed an industrial society with workers doing low level cognitive work with low creativity. Those jobs are being outsourced at an alarming rate, and the result is that educators are now generating learners who “have never been more prepared for the industrial revolution.” (I’m paraphrasing, because Ian talks real fast…)
Disruptive innovation is a huge part of the modern world, and I’ll admit that the idea that adaptation is needed in education was one that wasn’t too big a stretch. However the idea that global changes are disrupting our traditional teaching role and making it more likely to be obsolete was a bigger idea to swallow, and it took time. Our student retention results are dropping across the western world according to Jukes, and students are walking away from education at a rate that if represented in the corporate world would “indicate a defective product.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Jukes argues that if we don’t change our product, we face an uphill battle to equip our students with usable skills when they move into the market.
All of this is confronting, powerful stuff, and it suggests a tension that needs resolving in my job, Namely, CONTENT, vs. SKILLS. I’m going to look at how I resolve the tensions that are arising between the requirement to teach content through national curriculum, and the need to create learners who are capable of being flexible, collaborative, team-oriented members of society who can find the research they need, consume content quickly, and solve complex problems together. In short, I need to teach creativity and problem solving whilst still teaching content in an already crowded middle years curriculum.
That needs a real shift in focus.
At the moment, I tend to look at how I can get my kids out of Primary school and make sure they enter high school in the best possible shape. However, that kind of focus misses the longer-term picture. As an educator I need to focus on the end result of my students’ education just as much as a year 12 teacher does.
The kids I teach need to be ready to get a job. This is not the only focus, but it is a very important part of education. Getting a job is about five to six years away for my year six and seven students. Jukes has already demonstrated how fast things can change in even that time. There’s no way I can know what that job might be for any of my students. It probably won’t require them to know the date of William Janz’s discovery of Australia off by heart though. (Google it if you don’t know.)
What I need to teach them instead is how to find what information they need, be critical of it and to use it creatively and collaboratively to solve problems in a timely way. I have a responsibility to look at doing those things better, not for the end of year result, but for the start of career result.
What this means for me in my classroom
At the moment, I feel like my classroom teaches CONTENT with only a side order of life skills. Where perhaps what we need to do is to focus on SKILLS with a side of content instead. How can I maximise the environment, the learning and the scaffolding of life-skills in students to create learners with flexible, transferrable skillsets that they can use as the ‘lenses’ through which they interpret different content?
Content should be the servant of the skills, in my opinion, because once the skills are learned, the content is interchangeable. This is where I want to move my learners. I’ve already started with a few ideas to add simple challenges to my class, and the result has been modest but encouraging. It makes me want to investigate this idea in a lot more detail.
The First step
Example: My students have been doing a project that is essentially a traditional maths-based design task. Students with a limited budget design and build a structure capable of holding a specific weight for a specific time. The project is designed to make that outcome possible, with just enough materials and budget to give success to the teams who manage the maths and their time properly. It traditionally assesses 3D shapes, measurement, design and budgeting skills.
After Edutech, I decided to try something out. On Thursday, I went to every table group and removed ten of their popsticks. I told them they would still need to meet the requirements without them.
This instantly added a team problem solving layer to the task, and the next half an hour of learning convinced me that not only are these skills vital to my students, but that I wasn’t currently teaching those skills anywhere near well enough. They were almost completely flummoxed by the change.
The next step.
I’m now looking to engage in professional discussions about the scaffolds and explicit teaching needed for teaching collaboration, questioning, problem solving, creativity and flexibility. I’ve got a few leads and a lot of reading to do. I’m going to share what I find out in this new blog (Which I had no intention of starting before I went to edutech). I hope others will share their learning and links in this area too. Please feel free to add comments, links and suggestions below.