Taking curriculum into the 21st century

Curriculum Choices

Literally dozens of books have been written about the effects of technology on business today: Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat,” Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind,” Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Future of Work,” Donald Tapscott’s “Wikinomics,” and our book, “Living on the Future Edge,” just to name a few.

These books point out that instant, global communication is a reality and that anything that can be outsourced has been or soon will be. Particularly at risk is any job that involves only routine cognitive tasks. Here is a global example: When you go through a drive-thru, there is a good chance the order was taken by someone in Taiwan or China and then relayed back to the point of sale system at the restaurant. The system takes your photograph to match it to the order when you get to the window.

Similarly, you know that requests for technical support, calls to report credit card billing problems, and inquiries about the results of patients’ MRI scans are all received and addressed by people on the other side of the planet. Where does that leave us?

What we are left with are jobs that require whole-brain thinking, career opportunities that require the ability to think creatively, solve problems, and apply those solutions in real time. How we teach problem solving in classrooms today isn’t really working for us. Presenting a problem, then giving students the answer by showing them how we got it, and then repeating the process over and over by giving them a series of similar problems to solve doesn’t cut it. When we do this, we aren’t teaching them anything other than how smart we are. We are cultivating dependency, not independent thought and the ability to analyze and solve problems.

When we ask the question, “What are the skills students will need most to succeed in the 21st century?” — the most common answer given is that the students must be exceptional problem solvers.

In the 21st century classroom, the instructional model shifts. The teacher is no longer the focal point of the classroom. Instead, students work in groups to create real-world solutions to real-world problems. Embedded within these problems are the curricular objectives. The teacher now takes on a new role as the facilitator of learning, presenting scenarios outlining real-world problems that are relevant to students and simultaneously aligned with curricular goals. As such, teachers must transition to be crafters of these problems.

There are endless possibilities for crafting scenarios. At first, it may seem to be an overwhelming task, but rest assured that after you go through the process a few times, cultivating scenarios will become easier and you will be begin to see connections between the content that needs to be covered and everyday life experiences. One teacher shared this story with us:

“I was standing in line at the coffee shop. I was looking around, mindlessly waiting for my turn, when I saw the barista take a paper cup off the big stack by the espresso machine. Instantly, this idea for a whole unit jumped into my head about sustainability. I started typing madly on my phone to try and capture some of the details.

“Suddenly I was at the counter with the huge line behind me. I asked the person taking my order to just hang on for a second while I ?nished my thought; then I let the person behind me go ahead. I realized it looked ridiculous. I looked like one of my students that I roll my eyes at. What’s happened to me? I’ve turned into a thumbster teenager!”

Start With the Curriculum

Our entire educational system is built on standards. There is no getting away from the de?ned curriculum. Standards vary from state to state and country to country, but it makes no difference if your district has its own or aligns to the Common Core standards; you are still accountable for the curriculum. So the curriculum is an excellent place to start.

Select a single curricular objective. From that one objective, identify the speci?c skills or content that the students need to master.

What Would Be Relevant — in Context, or Applicable to Your Students’ Lives?

The best place to start crafting a scenario is to ask yourself where your students may come across this information or this skill in their lives outside of school. If it’s something they’ll come across in their own world, then instantly there is a connection that brings relevance and context to the learner.

If nothing immediately comes to mind, try to identify the kinds of tasks that students would be performing when they applied these skills or used this knowledge, and consider how using this content could be made compelling for students.

At this point, many people start to think vocationally and consider professions that would involve this particular skill or knowledge. While that can be useful, this approach is often quickly discarded by students. For example, if a nutritionist needs to use speci?c technical information related to a dietary matter and a student has no interest in becoming a nutritionist, the student will quickly disconnect from this information. In other words, there will be no personal relevance to the learner. Relevance must always be the top consideration in developing scenarios for learning to occur.

What if that nutritionist was a consultant for your school’s football team, helping the team members to ?ne-tune their healthy eating habits in hopes of helping them win the state championship? If your school is big on football, this might be something students could relate to. Better still, maybe this actually is a real-world example and the football team is involved. Perhaps the problem could be tied to speci?c players.

Maybe the quarterback could provide a food journal of what he eats on a daily basis and the students could make recommendations as personal nutritionists. In this case, the quarterback might use the suggestions, gain four pounds of lean body mass, and drop his body fat by three percent. Maybe because of this, your school will win the state championship. All the students would then acknowledge you as one of the reasons for victory — your brilliant unit plan about nutritional strategies would have won them the championship. There would be a parade, and all the students would carry you on their shoulders shouting your name. A statue might be erected in your honor, and they would name the new football stadium after you.

All right, perhaps we’re taking things a little too far, but do you see what we mean about connection? If students can relate to it, if they can get excited about it, and if they can connect to it, then they will learn from it, and this is easiest to do with a real-world scenario.

Like any skill, it takes time to develop. It also takes a willingness to make mistakes. We look at educators of today as leaders. They must take risks and embrace a new pedagogy. The model of 21st century learning calls for learners to get involved and get their hands dirty. They must be expected to go beyond the textbook to create real-world solutions to real-world problems. This takes a teacher willing to let go of the illusion of control and become a facilitator of learning, not a guardian of knowledge. You are that educator, and it’s you who has the ability to change what goes on in your classroom. We encourage you to shift your classroom to a 21st century learning environment. In our experience working with educators around the globe, it is a fun and rewarding experience, both for the student and the teacher.

Lee Crockett, Ian Jukes, and Andrew Churches are part of the 21st Century Fluency Group, a collaborative effort of experienced educators and entrepreneurs. Their latest book, “Literacy Is Not Enough: 21st Century Fluencies for the Digital Age,” is available from Corwin at www.corwin.com.
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