Remember 21st Century Skills? Back at the turn of the century, we were all abuzz about the needs of our students as we moved into the new millennium. We knew we had moved from an industrial society to a service economy, and we were transitioning into the information age. We knew that schools had to adapt. And we had some pretty good ideas on what our students needed. My stab at defining 21st century skills focused on globalization, innovation, information, and collaboration. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework centered around the 4 C’s: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. Those worked well enough. They were admirable goals. They gave us a reason to use technology in the classroom. Before that, we were mostly focused on using technology to help students acquire and remember information, which isn’t really very innovative at all.
I remember choosing, a decade ago, to abandon the term “21st century skills.” It wasn’t the fact that we were entering the second decade of the 21st century, and the term was becoming embarrassingly dated. The problem was that it had become politicized. Ohio had created an Office of 21st Century Education, which wanted to leverage the use of technology to “mass customize” learning, remaking schools as massive online test-prep centers. That didn’t work out so well, but we had to stop talking about 21st century skills to avoid confusion with efforts to mechanize and privatize education. I pivoted and started using the phrase “NextGen learning” and talked about characteristics of NextGen students.
These days, we spend a lot of time on the Apple Elements of Learning and the portrait of a graduate, which are the same thing. We still value critical thinking. Our students need to be innovators. They have to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively in a number of different media. Learning should be individualized to the specific needs of every student. There’s a lot of information around, and our students need new literacies to navigate that minefield. And for deep learning to be effective, there must be a reflection or application component, preferably with ties to real world problems and applications. They’re the same ideas we’ve been talking about for my whole career.
When it comes to teaching and learning online, we used to use terms like “blended learning.” Blended learning used technology to extend learning beyond the classroom. Flipped classrooms were popular for a while, in which teachers gave students the “content” part of the the lesson digitally, and the “practice” part took place in the classroom. So a science teacher could assign a video to watch on a particular concept, and then students would complete a lab in class. The teacher could also work with individual students or small groups who needed help, rather than focusing on disseminating content to the whole group.
Flipped classrooms, of course, didn’t work. If the students weren’t motivated, they wouldn’t watch the videos or read the text outside of class. So they missed the content part of the instruction, and were lost in the application and practice part of the lesson. If the students were motivated and engaged in the topic, they would learn regardless of the instructional strategy used, so flipped classrooms were just one of many approaches that would achieve similar results.
But blended learning got a bad reputation among teachers. There were some groups who felt that schools were trying to get teachers to put all of their materials online, and that once all of the “teaching” was digitized, we wouldn’t need teachers anymore. And, to an extent, they were right. If your definition of “teaching” is imparting scarce information to students, then the value of a teacher diminishes significantly in an information-abundant society where the knowledge is everywhere. We know that teaching it more than that. It has to be more than that. But some teachers had a bit of an identity crisis when we suggested putting down the chalk and cutting back on the PowerPoint slides full of bullet points.
So we stopped talking so much about blended learning and switched to hybrid learning. I used that term to mean the same thing as blended learning, but without the baggage that blended carried with it. Hybrid was a mixture of traditional and digital tools and strategies. Teachers could organize the content digitally and give students access to it. Spend class time working on projects, solving problems, and providing support for students individually and in small groups. Help the students to create their own learning goals and work to achieve them. Use the digital tools to get the content out of the way so you can focus on the learning. Go back to those 21st century, nextgen, elements of learning, portraits of a graduate competencies. Spend most of your time on those, and don’t worry so much about the answers to multiple choice test questions.
But then Covid came, and now we have a new definition of hybrid learning. Hybrid is now defined as synchronous learning where some students are physically sitting in the classroom and some students are online. That was technologically impractical five years ago, and it was ubiquitous 18 months ago. That’s how fast the technology can change.
But have you ever been in a meeting where some people were in a room together and others were online in a video conference? It doesn’t work. The people in the room will forget about the online participants. The people online won’t be able to hear what’s being said unless everyone in the room has a microphone. All of the focus ends up being on the person who is the intermediary between the two groups. Somebody in the room has to be managing the online conference. And that person cannot also be engaged in the meeting. It’s worse if it’s happening in a classroom, and the teacher is trying to use two different strategies to meet the needs of the learners in separate modalities while managing an online conference and trying to differentiate. Teaching online and teaching in person are different, and teachers are being asked to do both at the same time. It would be better to put all of the students in the classroom into the online conference and just do the whole class virtually.
And yet, it keeps coming back. “Why can’t we just Zoom into the class?” Because a couple students Zooming into a class makes the class worse for everyone. It would be better if the class were blended. Put the resources online. Have students interact online asynchronously. Check in with individuals and groups of students in the classroom or online in short, 5-minute checkins. Teach the class like an online class, and take advantage of the fact that you have some students in the room sometimes.
I don’t understand why we don’t do school this way. We don’t need cameras following the teacher around the room. There’s nothing magic about watching 6th period Algebra. Take advantage of the technology. Take advantage of the information abundance. Take advantage of the idea that time can finally be the variable in teaching and learning. Give students space to set goals, pursue their interests, and define their own learning paths. Challenge them to move beyond knowledge and skills, and demonstrate analysis, application, synthesis, and innovation in relevant ways. Teachers don’t have to be the information source for everything anymore.
We have the opportunity to make school engaging, to foster a love of learning among our students. Call it hybrid learning, or blended learning, or online learning. Go back to the 4 C’s or the Elements of Learning or the core competencies in the portrait of a graduate. Students aren’t going to fall in love with your subject by watching you talk about it. You can engage them. And technology can help you do that.