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In the 21st Century our approach to education can and should be very different from previous centuries. The basic skills we teach are pretty much the same, but the tools we have to use require a different approach, as well as additional and very different literacies from centuries past. Information once difficult to find, maintain, and disseminate is now found by a voice command to a mobile device. The model of the teacher as the content expert standing in the front of the room, lecturing to rows of students taking handwritten notes to memorize and regurgitate on exams delivered after every unit of learning, seem now to be a dated model, at least in some classes around the country.

With access to more free-flowing information than has ever been available to mankind in any centuries past, our approach to accessing, curating, collaborating and creating with that information must change as well. There came a time when monks were no longer needed to transcribe books because of the printing press. There came a time when the Gutenberg press was replaced by a mechanized letterpress and that was later replaced by high speed offset presses. Today, the idea of the printed word is being replaced by the digital word. With each step forward there are those who are more comfortable with what was, compared to what is. That is to always be expected. Eventually however, we all move forward.

The model of education that most of us are products of was designed for a different time and for a different purpose. The system was created to benefit industry as much, if not more so, than it was to create a freethinking society.

Technology, contrary to science fiction writers’ predictions, will not replace teachers. It will however change the model of how we teach from the 19th and 20th centuries, which was teacher-controlled and teacher-directed learning to a 21st century model of learner-directed learning. The teacher becomes more of a mentor and co learner with students. When it comes to teaching students in the 21st century I have come to believe that it is more important to teach kids how to learn than it is to teach them what to learn.

A very great disconnect in all of this occurs when we try to use the 21st century technology tools for learning and fit them into the 19th & 20th century model of teaching. I have witnessed English teachers having students do a composition assignment. They had students do a handwritten rough draft, revise it, do a final handwritten copy, and then put it on a word processor without accessing a spell check or grammar check. Those teachers learned that way, and taught that way, and added the technology to their 20th century model of teaching. The tech tool was not used for learning. In their future lives those students will certainly use word processors for any writing that they do. Is it not incumbent on their teachers to teach students how to do it correctly? (Yes, as an adult I effectively use a grammar check and a spell check on everything I write. Most people do, even the really smart ones.)

Another example is the Interactive White Board, IWB. It can be a great tool for interactive lessons in a 21st century class, but in the 20th century it becomes a great way to show kids videos as they sit in rows.

Being an educator in the 21st century will require a change in mindset. We are mostly all products of a 20th century upbringing. That is where we are grounded. We have been programmed to it in every way. As technology begins to change things, we naturally want to fit it into what we know and do. Unfortunately, we have reached a point where that no longer works. We need to revisit how we do things in education. If the 20th century methods were working, we would not be having all of these discussions about education.

We need to understand that teaching students how to learn will serve them much better than teaching them what to learn. As educators we need to keep in mind we are teaching our students for their future and not our past. Technology will continue to evolve. That is the nature of what it does. If we adapt and stay relevant, we survive. If we stand still, we will fall behind and we will no longer be relevant.

Placing 21st century technology tools for learning in a 20th century environment for learning is a losing strategy. We need to update our approach as we introduce new tools designed for learning. The pedagogy is still key, but the technology is an accelerant. This is not intuitive. It must be taught. We need to better prepare educators, as well as change the culture. 

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