This post has been updated on July 13, 2020.
We’re almost 17 years into the 21st Century but the educational system seems like it's not. The 21st Century student and their learning needs are on everyone’s lips, yet clear ways to actually meet these needs are slow to pop up.
Educators need to prepare students to reach success in their lives — in the 21st Century. These students need to develop skills like being great communicators, applying critical thinking, knowing how to collaborate with diverse people, and being creative (the four Cs of education). Yet the educational system still uses what it feels like 20th Century buildings and 19th Century curricula.
Many teachers I’ve met at ISTE 2017 and on other occasions agree that something’s off the mark. However, this problem can’t be solved just like that. Things are far more complicated than anyone outside the system would believe.
The good news is that many educational institutions are starting to change, as they strive to introduce more technology in the classroom and overall instruction. The not so good news is that many of these educational institutions still don’t use that technology at its full potential and the general pace of ed-tech adoption in schools is rather slow compared to how fast things evolve in all other aspects of students’ lives.
The role of the teacher in modern learning organizations
Students may be the focus of education and schools may be the providers of education, but teachers are the ones that make everything possible. Without teachers schools could not provide education, while students could not get the education they need.
That’s why teachers play a very important role in today’s modern learning organizations and their success in meeting the needs of the 21st Century student. But what exactly does this role imply? Here are a few ideas:
The modern teacher thinks differently
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times are long gone. In the modern world of today, teachers must not be limited by traditional, industrial-based mindsets. With all due respect for all Math teachers I had while majoring in English studies, space geometry or advanced calculus are not part of my daily adult life. And whenever I do have to do some Math, I have a calculator at an arm’s length at all times to do the job for me.
A successful teacher today needs to be on the lookout for all technological advances and especially those that have educational potential. Remember the Pokemon Go frenzy from a while ago? That was a great opportunity for students to learn and practice the conversion between the metric system and the Imperial system used in the US.
Read more: Can Pokemon Go be part of the classroom?
Today’s teacher is strategic in their practices
Students need shorter chunks of educational materials, due to dwindling attention spans. Bite-sized learning, combined with diverse teaching strategies, are not merely a desire, but an actual need. Passively processing significant amounts of information in each class does not translate to successful learning and great retention rates.
That’s why everything a teacher does in the classroom — holding a debate, using videos or presentations, using an educational app or another — must be diagnostically and prescriptively strategic. Each activity, no matter its degree of fun or seriousness must be introduced at the right time in the learning matrix so that students learn and remember it.
A great teacher promotes innovation
Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes, but a great teacher today needs to embrace the new and promote innovative leadership and pedagogy across all layers and roles of the learning community: school management, all faculty, students, parents, even citizens of their school’s neighborhood, city or state.
For example, innovative immersive technologies like Virtual Realityand Mixed Reality may not be appropriate for all areas of education, at all grades. But you shouldn't consider they never will, or that other technologies or teaching methods that haven’t yet proved their worth because they’re too new won’t become the go-to in a few years' time.
Read more: How can teachers use VR in the classroom?
The modern teacher needs to be on top of the system
You know the saying: If you want to beat the system, you have to first know the system. The educational system may be extraordinarily intricate and complex — and definitely not perfect — but this doesn’t mean that there are no ways whatsoever to bend it and achieve great results. The thing is, these ways are not obvious, and every teacher needs to find them in their own way.
The modern teacher understands the school as a systemic organization and also how they make the most out of all rules in order to promote exemplary teaching, student learning, and achievement practices.
Today’s teacher knows that FAIL means First Attempt In Learning
Students need feedback at all times during their learning process. That’s the only way they can adapt their actions and achieve the results they pursue. Many times, the red pencil marks on a test don’t increase their later performance, as they are simply too little too late for students.
Today’s teachers must have respect for risk-taking and failure and do not react to these terms with negative connotations, but rather with appreciation, curiosity, and desire to identify the cause and also the prescription for improvement. They support students in their flawed learning quests and help them understand and overcome the mistakes they inevitably make.
A great teacher promotes a great learning culture
Nine out of ten PK-3 students say they love to go to school, but only one out of ten students in high school say the same. I just made up this statistic and I invite you to correct me. Exact numbers aside, too many students say they don’t like school. If you spend a day or two in their shoes, you’ll probably agree with them. Why does this happen? Because the more they grow, they have to follow more rules and have less fun.
A great learning culture in any grade can prevent this from happening. Some subjects are still serious, but they can still be fun to learn. What’s more, empathy, collegiality, and collaboration can contribute to this great learning culture, and teachers can influence all of it.
The best teacher puts the student at the center of the learning universe
The 21st Century education can be considered equivalent to student-centered education. If the student is in the center of the learning universe — not the school, not the teacher — their academic results will improve significantly.
The best teachers have the student learning at the core of their mission.
In today’s fast-changing world, educational institutions need to keep up with relevant technological advances in order to be successful in delivering graduates that can thrive in the 21st Century. Therefore, the role of the teacher in modern learning organizations needs not to be overlooked.
Teachers need to juggle not only the specific content that students have to learn but also the best methods and tools to be used to ensure learning happens, all while complying with organizational rules and national standards. In order to do this, they have to think differently, be strategic, promote innovation, know the system, accept failure, promote a learning culture, and above all, put the student and their learning needs at the heart of their teaching mission.