There is much talk (chatter) about 21st century skills – even OECD is trying to define what those skills for “jobs that have not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that cannot be foreseen”. This statement is silly. It is my main critique with the emotional-feel-good message of Ken Robinson’s focus on creativity. First, we need to get over the view that our generation is astonishingly unique. Hasn’t every generation faced new technologies to solve problems not foreseen? The present moment arrogance that invades much of school reform thinking is frustrating. And, I might as well add, the pendulum-thinking mindset that is evident in Robinson’s view is damaging in the long term. If a view of educational reform is defined by the current reality that it is reacting against, rather than a holistic model of what it will produce in the future, then we’re playing a game of short-term gains, planting in our revolution the seeds for the next revolution that will push back against gains that we make now.
Last week, I delivered a presentation on the topic of “skills that educators need today”. I’m convinced that these key skills are not unique to our era (Dave Cormier gets at this concept as well). A competent educator in any era will be proficient with these skills. Settling on a 6-item list, I detailed the following as key skills for educators in the 21st century (and 20th, 19th, 18th…):
1. Technical competence. An educator needs to know how to use the technology of an era – whether it’s a chalkboard, a personal chalk tablet (I had one of these in Mexico, quite a versatile learning tool), an overhead projector, a computer, a Smart board, an iPad, or any other technology. Tools are not neutral – they create adjacent possibles, they reflect ideologies of a designer, they permit control mechanisms for the school or teacher, and they determine the action potential available to the learner/teacher. Using any tool well requires a blend of technical competence and awareness of pedagogical opportunities. It’s tough to teach learners how to edit wikipedia without first understanding how to use a web browser.
2. Experimentation. Every teacher/educator should see herself as a researcher. The dynamics of a classroom vary dramatically based on the knowledge of learners, culture, content, language, and socio-economic status. No template or model exists that can capture all of these variables. Educators should constantly be experimenting with new technologies and pedagogies, refining their learning approach to constantly changing contexts.
3. Autonomy. The most important goal for any educator is to develop learner autonomy. Learners need to experience the value of personal control, choice, and action. In our open online courses, the biggest challenge we encounter is the expectation that teachers should perform certain tasks (organize content, structure learning activity, define accessible domain of knowledge) and learners should perform others (recite, repeat, respond to). Much like every educator is a researcher, every student needs to be a teacher – exploring, engaging, defining her/his own learning.
4. Creation. Learners need to create. Creations can take the form of digital artifacts (blogs, podcasts, SecondLife build, video, concept map) or of physical artifacts (a model, a carving, a lego structure). Creation does two things: 1. Ideas morph when they are implemented. An idea in a textbook is different from an idea in a lab or in a workplace setting. Different levels of understanding are generated when we create and apply. 2. Learner-produced creations re-centre learning activity in a course. In most courses, the educator defines the scope of the course. Each learner-created artifact can recentre and enlarge discussion activities to reflect the needs, interests, and knowledge of learners. Each creation is node around which new learning can occur. (I addressed this somewhat in this slideshare presentation).
5. Play. Experimentation (as listed above) is an intentional activity. Play, in contrast, is random exploration without a goal or target, making it uniquely suited to serendipity. Play – whether formal such as PS3/XBox/WoW or informal such as simple exploration with loose boundaries (my favorite being Calvin Ball) – is flexible, personal, and engaging. We don’t play enough.
6. Developing capacity for complexity. Complexity is the DNA of society. Whenever multiple agents interact, outcomes are uncertain. Failure to account for complexity in organizational design, teacher preparation, and business planning is a short path to frustration. Yes, it would be nice if the world was complicated – like a puzzle where every piece has a right place. But it’s not. It’s complex – like a weather system where changes in one aspect of the system cascades and influences the entire system, often in unpredictable ways. Unfortunately, complexity is not built into the educational system. We seek “general right answers” rather than “contextual right answers”. Which is why educators often seek models (such as learning styles or 21st century skills) that give the illusion of control of a complex concept, but in the end prove less than useful. Most answers don’t exist in advance of engaging with the phenomenon. Answers and questions are not like lego-blocks that need to be clicked together. Instead, answers are more like a painting or canvas in response to a problem landscape (hope that makes sense – it does in my head).