Learning in the 21st Century

This post is part of a #Peel21st community “blog hop” in which participants share their thinking on what learning in the 21st century means to them.  After reading this post, be sure to click the links to others’ posts at the bottom of the page, and make your way through all of the contributors.

Learning in the 21st century has one important focal point for  me:  Learning is (now, more than ever before) a lifelong endeavour.

Alvin Toffler is often quoted as stating, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Although this is technically an adaptation from something that Toffler quoted from Herbert Gerjuoy (noted here), the phrase is nonetheless quite powerful.  Given the rapid rate of change  in our modern world, learning in the 21st century is, then,  the process of learning how to learn, adapt to new paradigms, shift our thinking, and adjust to unforeseen challenges.

Although I feel like there are a thousand more things I want to say to expand and articulate my vision, part of this blog hop challenge was to be brief, so I will leave it there for now.

Image Credit:  ConnectIrmeli

Pick a blog to jump to next!  Happy hopping!

Dealing With PD Overwhelm

I had the pleasure today of working with a group of vice principals from around my district.  As a team of Instructional Technology Resource Teachers, we were tasked with showcasing some new apps and tech tools that might be useful in the role of a VP.  We decided to use the format of “speed-geeking” to give the VPs lots of exposure to different tools.  If you’re not already familiar with the concept of speed-geeking, it works just the same as speed-dating, except instead of being introduced to a variety of people, you are introduced to a variety of different tech tools – hopefully one catches your interest for further exploration.

With 5 separate themed stations, and a variety of apps/tools at each station, the VPs were exposed to at least 10 tools that could potentially be useful to them.  Overall the session was a lot of fun, and there was great feedback from the VPs.  However, I could tell that a number of the participants were feeling a little overwhelmed with being introduced to so many new tools in such a short period of time.

I can totally understand their sense of overwhelm – the feeling that this “thing” I’ve shown them is something they should be using, but don’t have the time, or energy, or maybe even interest to learn it thoroughly.  I remember having similar feelings after professional development early in my career.  Though I enjoyed PD, it often gave me a sense of anxiety or urgency about the need to implement something new, as soon as possible.  I could often feel that I was never doing enough.

As I grew as an educator, I came to realize a few things about professional learning:

  1. There is NEVER enough time, energy, and interest to learn and integrate all of the strategies, tools, and systems available.
  2. As a passionate, committed, self-directed learner, I am permitted to make choices about what I give “head-space” to.

To the first point:  Whether it’s literacy, numeracy, differentiation, assessment, classroom community, integration of technology, cooperative learning, inquiry learning, meta-cognition, effective feedback, or a million other avenues for professional growth, there are simply too many areas for any one person to be an expert on all of it.  There is peace in accepting this fact, and by extension, being thoughtful and intentional about the places where you do invest your time, energy, and interest.  Time, energy, and interest are precious resources, and it is a mistake to dilute their potential impact by trying to learn everything.

To the second point:  Professional development is a deeply personal journey.  As such, I now give myself full permission to attend a PD session and walk out saying, “that was amazing and I can definitely see how it will improve student learning … but i’m not going to do anything about it (at least, not now).”  This statement does not come from a place of laziness or apathy; instead it comes from an honest admission that I am on a professional journey which, for the time being, is moving me down a different path.  I know that I am a hard working educator, and that I am continually trying to improve my knowledge and skills.  This gives me the freedom to embrace some things, and ignore other things, even if the things I am choosing to ignore are wonderful.  The fact is, I am simply choosing to do other wonderful things.

The way I now see it, professional learning is always supposed to be enjoyable/invigorating/gratifying — If it’s not, you’re not thinking about it quite right.


Photo Credit:  Andrés Þór


Are We Visualizing the Same Thing?

Iris_-_left_eye_of_a_girlI recently gave a presentation to the entire staff at my old school.  It was a message about embracing change and the importance of understanding our students better.  The presentation went well, and it was nice to be presenting in a room of “frolleagues” (friend-colleagues).  After the presentation, one of the teachers emailed me to open a dialogue.  He wondered, “if most teachers love technology in their lives, where is the disconnect or lack of teacher initiative for wide-scale use in education?”  It’s an important question, and one that many in the EdTech leadership community would probably have different answers to.

This teacher had an insight that got me thinking about the assumptions I bring when presenting to a group of teachers.  The gist of his insight was that teachers may believe that technology undermines relationships (which most would agree is the heart and soul of teaching and learning).  His thought was that when teachers picture “teaching with technology,” they still see themselves in a computer lab.  Viewed from this lens, the disconnect for teachers between the use of technology in their lives and the use of technology in their classroom, is an issue of visualization – Teachers lack a clear sense of what a 21st century classroom looks like.  And of course, without a clear vision of where you’re heading, it’s hard to make any progress.

My vision of 21st century learning environments doesn’t really involve a computer lab at all.  It was always interesting for me to look over the statistics of the computer lab booking system at my school and compare my use of the lab to others.  Although I was probably one of the teachers at the school who made the most use of technology in my classroom, I was among the lowest users of the computer lab spaces.  Computer labs were, for the most part, a terrible way to integrate technology in my curriculum precisely because it was not embedded.  When my class makes a trip to the computer lab, the use of technology becomes an “event”, rather than part of the necessary background of every day learning.

In terms of relationships, it might very well be the case that teachers see the use of technology as something that is alienating them from their students.  Once again, my experience and the imagery in my mind is the complete opposite.

Reflecting on my own journey as a classroom teacher, I can remember the investments I made into building better relationships with my kids.  What started with “classroom management” turned into “classroom community”, and sent me on a learning journey into cooperative learning, “tribes”, character education, and ultimately shifting my role from a teacher in the traditional sense to that of a mentor or coach.  This became the foundation of my professional practice, and not something that I would ever allow to be compromised through the use of technology.  On the contrary, I believe that my investment in technology has only ever sought to improve my relationships with students – opening conversations that were not possible before, giving me a greater insight into who my students are, giving a platform to help all students find their voice, and opening up new spaces for learning beyond the walls of my classroom.  In my experience, technology considerably improved relationships.

Overall though, I think that teachers are often far too fixated on the image of technology hardware devices in their classrooms, as though that was what defined a 21st century learning environment.  Once again, the use of hardware is only one part (and in my opinion, a small part) of what it means to be a 21st century educator for 21st century students.  The great shift for us is not from “technology-poor” to “technology-rich” environments, but from the “teacher as purveyor of knowledge” to the “teacher as the lead-learner.”  A lead-learner is a mentor and a coach; a lead-learner takes risks and is prepared to fail; a lead-learner is a role-model in the positive use of technology.  Most importantly, a lead-learner does not know all the answers, but is very skilled at asking the right questions, and accessing avenues/resources to answer questions.

In my experience, many teachers might like to think of themselves as a “lead-learner”, but their classroom practice is in fact fairly stagnant and devoid of ongoing progress.  How many teachers do you think take risks on a regular basis (with lesson design, or assignments, or technology, or empowering students, or professional development, etc.)?  How many make new developments on an ongoing basis to push their professional practice to the next level?  Probably not enough.
The implications are important.  How can we ever expect our students to embrace challenge and change (and sometimes failure) if no one is modelling for them what that looks like?  In my opinion, this is what it truly means to be a 21st educator and build 21st century learning environment – teachers need to embrace challenge and change, and they need to learn openly for students to see.

Another Look At Engagement


“Engagement” is one of those things in education for which teachers often have different perspectives on how important it is.  On one hand, there is the sense that without engagement, there is no meaningful learning happening (which is probably true).  On the other hand, there are many who argue that “fun” is definitely engaging, but that having fun does not necessarily imply learning (also true).  Ultimately I think that all educators want the same thing: to maximize learning.

The way I am currently seeing it, there are a variety of elements to engagement that will facilitate greater learning.  I discuss each one below, starting from the aspects that I think have the highest impact on learning:

Meaningful and Relevant

Completing tasks that students see as meaningful and relevant will produce the greatest foundation for engagement.  In this state, the learning becomes self-directed and inwardly motivated.  Students are learning about something that they think will benefit them (beyond getting them a good grade), or that they are personally invested in.  In the best case scenario, the task will also benefit others.  Clay Shirky talks about participating in projects that are of communal value (useful to a community of peers – e.g. your class, or school) or of civic value (useful to society at large).  From this perspective, teachers can ask themselves, “is the world (or our city/school/class) a better place from the investment of time that my students put into this assignment?”


The idea of making lessons and assignments purposeful has a strong relationship to being meaningful and relevant.  But even if we scale back the picture a little bit (after all, not every lesson or assignment can change the world), it is still very useful to focus on how what you are doing right now relates to what students will be doing in the future.  In other words, do students understand how this lesson/activity/discussion/quiz/work period is part of the larger “roadmap” of the unit and course?  If not, they are likely to see their investment of time as busy-work.  I think it is often the case that, though the teacher has a clear understanding of the big picture, they often fail to articulate the process well enough for students to become invested.  Better yet, can your students help you create the roadmap?


Long ago, Vygotsky brought clarity to the idea that learning is a social experience, steeped in cultural and institutional contexts.  Since then, the amazing research that has been done on Cooperative Learning reinforces the idea that we learn better when we talk and interact with others.  In my experience, if you want engagement, you have to learn how to effectively implement cooperative learning strategies (which takes time and practice – a journey I am actively on).  When students have meaningful conversations with each other, they will be engaged, and they will be learning.


If nothing else, try to engage students with fun.  “Fun” does not have to mean playing games, though “gamification in education” is probably something worth giving some attention to, as it goes far beyond creating “Jeopardy review” games.  Fun can also mean telling stories, drawing/animating, building things (or breaking things), moving around, acting out, and exercising creativity in general.  As teachers we all know there is content that just needs to be covered because it is important to the broader body of knowledge in a subject. If you can’t find a way to make the content meaningful, relevant, purposeful, or social … at least try to make it fun.


Ultimately, engaging classrooms are not built on only one of the elements above, but incorporate many (or all) of them at different times and to different levels of use.  It’s also important to remember that students understand that not every lesson, activity, or assignment is going to be unbelievably engaging.  The problem is when your default state is, “I know it’s boring, but you have to do it anyway.” Students will let you get away with that to some degree, but too much of it and they will turn their brains off at the door … so you can throw the learning out the window!

Image credit:  mikhoohkim

If you do what you’ve always done …

Anthony Robbins has a quote that resonates with me:

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

I think the quote is very appropriate to promote reflection in classroom teachers in terms of what we hope to get from our students.  If you find that your students aren’t being successful, what are you going to do differently to change that?  If you find that your students don’t work as hard as they used to, what changes will you make to address that?  If you feel your students do not have critical thinking skills, or research skills, or communication skills, or a passion for learning, or … the list goes on.  Ultimately, we need to be asking ourselves, what am I doing to bring about the change I want to see in my students?

This past Friday was a Ministry of Education professional learning day — Every teacher in the province of Ontario was receiving some form of professional learning that day.  I was privileged to present sessions at two different high schools in my district, both of which I feel did a great job of facilitating an engaging professional learning day for their teachers.  Thinking about the Anthony Robbins quote in terms of professional learning is equally valuable.  For example, if you’re an administrator, were you happy with the learning that happened on Friday?  Do you believe that your teachers were inspired, or took away practical skills, or changed their mindset, or contributed meaningfully to some initiative?  If so, keep up the great work.  If not, why not?  And, more importantly, what are you going to do differently next time to produce different results?

Photo Credit:  jeffsmallwood

What Stops Some Teachers From Moving Forward?

In my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, I have the opportunity to meet many teachers from all across the school board. In only the first two weeks, I have met some amazing educators who are really pushing the envelope of what classroom teaching can look like. Obviously though, not all teachers are moving forward at the same pace.

As I was driving home the other day, I was trying to understand what it is that stops some teachers from moving forward. From my perspective, there are three reasons that teachers may be resisting productive change:

1. They don’t believe the THEORY

In other words, these people have not been sufficiently convinced that moving forward in one direction is the right thing to do. A simple example from assessment and evaluation is one that has been around for at least 10 years (since I started teaching). It is the concept that assigning zeros to a student who has not submitted an assignment is generally bad assessment. Although there is a lot of great research and many case studies to clearly indicate that using zeros is more harmful to learning than it is helpful, many teachers simply reject the notion outright. It is their conviction, regardless of what research shows, that assigning zeros to students is a good motivator.

So, if a teacher doesn’t believe the theory, they will not change.

2. They believe the theory, but they don’t think it will work in PRACTICE

This group of teachers understands the theory and even agrees that it works in a philosophical sense, but believes that the theory does not apply to them in their school. For example, a teacher may feel that assigning zeros is a bad idea in general, but that it is necessary for the type of students he has.

So, if teachers don’t believe the theory will work for them, they will not change.

3. They just don’t WANT to change

This category is simple enough – change is hard work, and sometimes (for any number of reasons, sometimes good ones) people just don’t want to change what they’re doing.

If you have a problem with number 1, then you probably need to do more reading/learning. The research is out there. Assessment, classroom community, literacy, numeracy, technology, instruction, leadership, brain science, and on, and on – these are areas of teaching and learning that are either highly developed, or becoming more refined each year. MORAL: If you resist change because of number 1, you have more work to do.

If you have a problem with number 2, then you probably need to talk to the people who are actually making it work. I have always enjoyed the quote by Elbert Hubbard, “the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” The reality is that many teachers are having tremendous success in all areas of teaching and learning. MORAL: If you resist change because of number 2, you have more work to do.

It is my fear that most resistance to change is actually because of number 3, though teachers likely convince themselves they don’t change because of numbers 1 and 2. Moving forward in education is as much a personal journey as it is a professional one.

Photo credit: KimManleyOrt

Fear of Technology

Often I hear teachers say, “technology never works for me,” or “every time I touch a computer, it breaks.”  I can’t even count the number of times a teacher has asked me to help fix a computer problem, and when I perform the same action with them, the problem seems to have gone away.  They say, “of course it works now that you’re here!”

No doubt if you are the resident go-to person for technology at your school, you have heard similar proclamations.

It is understandable why teachers develop a fear of using technology, as there are many things that can go wrong!  Computers and technology actually do a fantastically good job of pointing out the gaps in our understanding.  Moreover, when technology fails in a lesson, you have 30 pairs of eyeballs watching you fumble your way around!  It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to have your lesson fall apart on account of a simple computer issue.

However, my ability to resolve tech-related issues quickly has little to do with my inherent skill with technology, and more with the fact that I have already experienced an incredible number of mistakes, mishaps, and malfunctions using technology.  As it is with learning any new skill, the only way to get good at something is by making all of the mistakes that make you feel like you’re bad at it!

Integrating educational technology is not easy:  It requires innovation, patience, and tenacity.  Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to teachers about a technology that may be new to them, I like to start by emphasizing the role that resilience will play in our eventual success.  By reminding teachers (and students) that some failure is a necessary part of the learning process, we encourage them to embrace the challenge of it, and not lose sight of the end goal.

Of course, sometimes technology even fails for so-called experts.  If lesson 1 for integrating educational technology is to be resilient, then lesson 2 must be to always prepare a backup plan!


Photo Courtesy: Bjorn1101

Limits on Creativity

Creating something new is challenging.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles to “creating.”  The first is having creativity – you actually have to think creatively to create!  The second is skill – you need certain skills to go from an idea to a product.  For example, if I wanted to draw a picture, I need to be able to envision what I want to draw in my mind (creativity), and then I need to have drawing ability to actually produce the work (skill).  The same can be said for producing music, or writing a short story, or landscaping your backyard, or designing and building a shed, or preparing a delicious meal.  Each of these examples requires having creativity and skill.

I have often felt that I have a desire to be creative but lack the skills to actually produce quality work.  Recently it occurred to me that technology has improved my ability to create because it lowers the barrier on skill.  Technology makes creation more accessible.  For example,  with only a rudimentary level of skill in digital photography, my DSLR camera helps me take (some) great photos.  In addition, programs like Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom have allowed  me to turn great photos into stunning images that I am incredibly proud to share with friends.  These technologies help me to produce a level of quality that I never could have attained with my limited skills.

Over the past 2 years, I have been thinking a lot about fostering the creativity of my students.  I continue to look for opportunities for students to be creative in my lessons and assignments.  Since technology lowers the barrier to creativity, it has often been the conduit through which my students express themselves.  For example, I have had great success with student blogging, film making, and designing infographics.  My students have started poking fun at me saying,

“Sir, none of our other teachers have ever used the word ‘infographic’, and you say it at least twice a week!”

These days, I am excited to explore  more low-tech forms of creativity in my classes (such as creative writing and drawing).  Sunni Brown gave a great 5 minute TED talk called, “Doodlers, unite!”  In it, she explains the benefits of doodling for brain processing.  I found the talk inspiring  and I am already making plans to incorporate doodling into my Physics lessons on a regular basis this coming semester.  My hope is that doodling encourages a deeper (or more concrete) understanding of concepts in Physics.  And, as a bonus, I might be able reuse some of their cartoon gems to teach concepts to future classes!

Photo Credit: Kim Petersen

Getting Kids Excited About Books

The post that follows is a guest blog from Elaine Hirsch.  Elaine is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames.  This makes it difficult for her to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

I was happy to see the topic that Elaine chose because I think that it is a nice compliment to the last post I wrote about how I struggle reading books in an era of blogs, twitter, and TED talks. Elaine offers some insight into the value of having kids become avid readers, and offers some suggestions of how to encourage them to read. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

In an era of unprecedented access to digital texts, it’s becoming less and less common for young people to actively engage in reading books. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Books require a level of attention and long-term commitment absent among the growing variety of digital media sources such as Facebook, online schools (including even PhD programs) and the Blogosphere. While this is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book as an literary medium, it is also one of the factors contributing to young people’s aversion to them.

Easy access to internet-based text media has created both an explosion of access to information and a convenient way for people to distract themselves from information they are not necessarily interested in. This fact, coupled with the unfortunate truth that the American school system has consistently undervalued literacy in its educational focus, has led many young people to completely abandon recreational book reading in favor using text for online social interaction with peers. It’s not hopeless, however, to get young people to read books, and the benefits for doing so are immense.

According to Kim Medaris of Purdue University, children who read books recreationally display superior writing skills. Greater writing ability leads children to higher achievement academically, and professionally later in life. The question we must ask is: what is the most effective way to interest children in books?

Introducing books to children in their earlier years can be extraordinarily important and not terribly difficult. Before children achieve basic literacy, it’s a huge benefit to read to them whenever possible. Children are masters at learning by imitation, and if you read aloud to them on a regular basis it will encourage them to follow your example. It is also greatly advantageous to acquaint children with libraries at an early age. With a library card, books are one of the few sources of absolutely free entertainment, and this can help encourage children to continue reading later in life.

Some libraries have had success organizing children’s book clubs, and these can provide a fun environment where children not only develop literacy but also socialize with peers. another important factor in developing a child’s interest in reading is simply having books around the house. Books can inspire curiosity in young children, and even before they can read there are great benefits to exposing children to the look and feel of books. After literacy has been developed, however, the strategies for keeping children hooked and reading change from merely encouraging learning how to read to encouraging children to find reading exciting and stimulating.

Getting children hooked on popular book series has proven very successful in the past. Young readers develop relationships with characters as the series progress that lead them to be more interested and keep them reading further. As children’s reading skills improve this will lead them to explore other, more challenging books to seek ongoing literary satisfaction. Like any skill, literacy becomes stronger with practice and continuing to read opens access to successively more rich and valuable texts. Knowing this, it is certainly not impossible to elevate a child’s comprehension from Harry Potter to Hamlet over the course of a few years.

Ultimately, however, the decision of whether to become an active book reader lies with the children themselves. It is the responsibility of parents and communities to develop environments where reading books is encouraged and rewarded. If good reading habits are instilled in children early on, particularly in a sociable and fun way, it will be nearly impossible to stop them from becoming engaged readers for the rest of their lives.

Image Credit:  ooh_food

Books are a Pain

Recently I realized something about myself.  I don’t like to read books – at least not as much as I used to, and definitely not in the ways that I used to.

When I was growing up, I really enjoyed reading books.  As a young boy I usually read for at least an hour before bed each night.  Nowadays, I find it hard to get through many non-fiction books and I find myself wishing that the book would “get to the point.”

So, what changed?  The Internet.

I often feel privileged to have been born when I was.  I feel like I had a good foundation in the pre-internet era, but I was still young enough to be heavily influenced when the internet really started to bloom.  In my house, we didn’t get the internet until I was in grade 10 (1996) and by then I was really starting to feel left out.  I can recall a time in grade 9 when a classmate of mine was bragging about how fast it was to surf the web with a 28.8 kbps modem; “that he could never go back to 14.4!”

Back then, there was no question that books were better for reading.  You could carry them around, you could write on them, you could easily share them, and you could admire them on your shelf.  By contrast, reading on a computer screen was the opposite in every way.  But a lot has changed since then.  Now I find that my hand cramps up holding a book between my fingers; I find that the reading light by my bed casts an annoying shadow on the pages of a book; I find that the text in a book is smaller than I would like it to be.  Books are more annoying to me than using a computing device.

The reality is that I probably read more now than I ever have in my life – I’m just not reading books.  Instead, I’m reading tweets, blogs, and websites that are filled with an abundance of ideas to stimulate my brain.  And, I know I’m not alone.

High speed internet and web 2.0 have promoted an ideas explosion.  If you’re hungry for ideas (and I am), the web often pulls you in far better than a book.  The web provides ideas instant gratification.  It’s no wonder I want books to “get to the point.”

At first blush, ideas instant gratification may sound like a bad thing – like drive-through fast food – but I don’t think it is.  These ideas have transformed my teaching and, in many ways, my life.  For example, these TED talks alone have had a huge impact on my classroom:

Sir Ken Robinson, Dan MeyerDaniel PinkCharles LeadbeaterSir Ken again, Clay Shirky, Sugata Mitra, Chris Anderson, Tom Wujec, Diana Laufenberg, and many, many others.

In the 3 hours it would take me to watch all of the videos listed above, I might be able to finish one short book.

Now, I recognize many people might say that ideas instant gratification can have a down side.  They might suggest that I’m losing my attention span, or that I am missing the opportunity to explore the depth and nuance of a topic.  But I don’t think so.  I think the internet has just raised my level of expectation for a books because we are surrounded by an abundance of compelling ideas.  If an author wants me to use 5-10 hours of my life reading their book, the ideas need to be intriguing, the text needs to be well written, and the argument needs to be very thoughtfully crafted – otherwise I have to move on.

Final thought:  My students have never known a world without the internet.  What do they think when they see a book?

Image credit:  pasukaru76