Thursday, March 22, 2012

Teachers as 21st century knowledge workers

21st century teachers as knowledge workers 
Are teachers still relevant in the age of online learning environments and Google? Countries successful in international comparison studies, such as Finnland or Singapore, suggest that competent teachers are key for high-quality education and raising education standards.

A 2012 OECD study, headed by Andreas Schleicher, concludes that if schools systems want to be competitive in the 21st century they need to recruit and reward top teachers. The study suggests that teachers should be recruited from the top tier of university graduates (not the bottom third) and the teaching profession should be made more attractive to knowledge-age workers who are able to support children's learning in the digital age.

However, many high achieving knowledge workers are currently not attracted to work in schools settings that still operate on an industrial age model: Organised like an assembly line with strictly regulated hours, students grouped by age, and strictly artificial divisions between disciplines. Teachers are seen as interchangeable and replaceable. If technology is used, it is used in a very restricted way: Many schools limit free internet access and ban the use of social tools such as Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, and Twitter in the classrooms - tools which are essential for many knowledge age workers.

An knowledge age teacher must be able to model knowledge age work to students. For example, how to build and maintain a network of contacts through social media to exchange ideas with other 

Knowledge-age workers want to be seen as professionals who continuously learn, adapt to new situations, creatively design instructional material, work on cross-discipline projects, and implement a wide range of technologies.

Becoming a teacher should not be a "last alternative" or a "higher calling without proper reward". Teacher education programs in Finland and Singapore are highly competitive (comparable to medical schools) and only accept 10% of applying top students. In return, graduates from teaching programs receive salaries competitive to other knowledge workers and have a high social status. Imagine a world in which you ask somebody for his/her profession and your response to him/her being a teacher is "Wow! You are a teacher!"

Two great examples for schools who see teachers as 21st century knowledge workers are High Tech High (in San Diego) and Northern Beaches Christian Schools (in Sydney). Read more here Reforming-schools-for-knowledge-age

UFM furniture for education
A good example for a knowledge age teacher is Mark Lyddell. He is the learning area manager for mathematics at Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) in Sydney. Mark uses twitter (@markliddell) and his blog ( to communicate with a network of other educators interested in innovative technology-enhanced mathematics learning. He is a member of of Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL), the research and innovation unit of NCBS. SCIL is under the leadership of NBCS principal Steven Harris.

Reforming schools for 21st century learning needs to happen on multiple levels (guided by a shared vision):

Reforming schools for 21st century teaching
For example:
  • Each NBCS student has a laptop (either a personal one or a school's one). 
  • The school uses a blended learning approach that combines online and offline learning environments. Teachers post activities and resources online which students access as starting points for their assignments. Students use different online learning environments in different grades (based on Moodle):"Primary uses PETE (Primary Education Through e-Learning) to manage research projects, submit and document work, assessments and day-to-day tasks, as well as a way of communicating with parents. Secondary’s LEARN environment is a tightly integrated portal for students and teachers to manage assessments, work and to provide course material. Class forums, wikis and other online tools enhance collaboration and allow students to work more effectively and efficiently - even when at home. Senior students from schools around NSW use HSC Online for online course delivery." Despite (and because) students' accessto a wide range of online material, NBCS understands that students need clear boundaries and structures (for example posting indecent pictures or cyber-bullying). The school employs web-designers to create and support the online learning environment and teaches its teachers how to create online activities.
  • NBCS does not use bells (as "there are no bells in real life"). Instead, teachers (and students) decide when it is time for a break ("periods" are called "learning sessions") or to change topics. 
  • In middle school, students of different ages work together in mixed groups which are facilitated by multiple teachers. This gives students the opportunity to work with different teachers and students of different ages. Students are encouraged to be independent learners who know best with whom, where, and how they learn best: Some prefer working alone, in pairs, or in groups; some like sitting on a table, laying on a couch or on the carpet; some prefer quiet, talking, or music.
  • NBCS teachers hardly lecture. Their work consists of designing learning activities and facilitate students in class. Teachers model knowledge-age skills by having their own professional blogs, youtube channels, and twitter feeds; by connecting with experts outside of schools for projects; by organising online and in-school exhibits open to the public; by publishing innovative instructional material in teacher forums and presenting at conferences.
  • The school understands that innovative pedagogy also needs innovative physical spaces: Inspired by creative design spaces (such as architecture bureaus and design studios), NBCS replaced small classrooms with open-floor multi-purpose "learning spaces" with versatile furniture that fosters collaboration and re-arrangement (created by UFM solutions).
NBCS middle school learning space
  • Teachers attend a "skill workshop"every Friday afternoon where they explore new technologies or activities. Taking innovation to all levels, teachers try out new forms for meetings in their own meetings.
  • Teachers frequently integrate current technology such as iPod/iPad apps, SecondLife, moodle,  or google maps.
  • Teachers record their sessions through hover cams (document cameras) and digital pens to make them available online. After hours, students can contact their teachers by email or text message. For example, a student might send the teacher a screenshot of a math problem he/she is struggling with. The teacher uses screen recording software to record his response to the student. The teacher then uploads the screen recording for other students who might have a similar issue.
  • Traditional classrooms have rows of benches with students facing the teacher standing at the whiteboard. At NBCS, most walls have been turned into whiteboard walls (using idea paint). This allows teachers and students to use a shared drawing area wherever they are in the room. The design of the physical space follows the socio-cultural perspective of learning that centers on students learning from each other (with the teacher as a facilitator): Instead of facing the teacher (as the center of attention), students sit around smaller tables facing one another.

Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) learning space
Consider this:
"In 1900, 8 out of 10 jobs involved building things with your hands. In 2010, 8 out of 10 jobs will involve working with ideas. In large part, the bricks and mortar of the industrial age have been replaced. Concepts and connections now lay the foundation for the 21st Century. A recent survey of over 400 employers in the US shows thinking skills are among the most important skills found in new hires. Whether the goal is professional success, personal self-fulfillment, national competitiveness in science and technology, or solving complex global problems, new skills are needed to thrive. The 21st century knowledge age requires people: to be adept thinkers and learners; to use and build knowledge; to differentiate and combine, compare and contrast, and construct and deconstruct ideas. In short, in the knowledge age people will need to be knowledge-able." (Source: Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin)

It is time to bring schools from the industrial age to the 21st century knowledge age. This can only be achieved through visionary leadership (by policy makers and principals) and attracting high-achieving knowledge-age teachers.

A more radical step would be to reconsider the public education system from the ground up. If the public education system would be designed from scratch to meet the needs of the knowledge age, the outcome would not be our current school system. Innovative schools like NBCS or High Tech High lead the way, but they only reach a relatively small number of students. The question remains how innovation can be scaled up to improve the entire school system.

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