The following is a guest post from a teacher who got in touch through the contact section of this blog. It sheds some light on why young teachers feel the lure of 21st century skills and the frustration when they start to realise what the evidence actually shows. The author prefers to remain anonymous:
As a (young) teacher, it is a great feeling when recognition falls your way. I’m a middle/senior maths and science teacher at a rural school in Australia and I was certainly short of any positive recognition in my first couple of years! However, I recently had the pleasure of having my work featured in a partnership wide newsletter. Without going into too much detail; it was a photo followed by a short explanation of a project I developed. The project involved senior school students interacting with junior school students as a way of promoting engagement. The winning edge that the photo possessed was the fixed gaze, wonder, awe and amazement of the younger children as the older students explained and interacted. In this project I tied in science, technology, engineering, maths, collaboration, inquiry, problem solving, creative and critical thinking. I was kicking goals.
This is, until about 6 months ago, what I thought the goal of any teaching and learning should be. The engagement.
What I have since learned, is that if the goal of your practice is to engage students in your lesson and lead them to be amazed, it is not sustainable. Many of the senior students in this particular case, when formatively questioned by me about simple, basic facts of the project were not very knowledgeable. The whole notion about using engaging content and having engaged students as your lesson outcome or goal is risky. I have also realised that it caused an imbalance of power to a harmful point where the student has the belief that they can choose whether or not to engage with a lesson or learning task because the teacher either did or didn’t engage them. I believed that the behavior of the students was a direct cause of how relevant and engaging the teacher was.
The main issue with the high level of engagement line of thinking is that if you plan to have lasting, domain-specific outcomes from such a lesson it will likely fall short. A student will struggle to remember any domain specific facts from this method of teaching as the attempt to engage and connect with the student will override the memory.
For over 4 years of my teaching career I believed that knowledge and content was not important. It’s not what you know; it’s what you can do. It’s about skills. It’s about how you engage. It’s about how you let a student know that school can be exciting and the same experience as having fun with your mates. So let’s teach our students 21st Century Skills (21CS).
I believed that with the introduction of the internet, the entire world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, so, anyone can use Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and access research and information. Therefore, the real push is for teachers to encourage engagement and deep thinking. Teachers can become facilitators and simply provide the resources and watch the student’s creatively and critically think themselves into expertise. This would today be labelled as student centered learning where students are masters of their own learning. The student only needs the tools to successfully navigate the landscape of tutorials, YouTube videos and Google searches to chase their own desires in their quest for expertise.
But the research doesn’t add up. Although Hattie’s Visible Learning has its critics, the vastness of his research returned a student-driven approach, labelled ‘student control over learning,’ as having a 0.01 effect size. This seems contradictory to the current push I see and experience in many schools. I have attended EduTech, Google and STEM conferences and they rave about engagement, E-Learning and student driven learning. However, our current technological advancements, that have enabled the notion of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) due to a learners instant access to information, have totally ignored the current research regarding human cognitive architecture. It is unfortunate that this revolutionary push for HOTS does not line up with implications of Cognitive Load Theory, but the conflict between the revolutionary trend and the research cannot be ignored.
Education is full of false dichotomies. The idea that teaching has to be completely knowledge/content based or completely process/generic skills based is a common argument and I have spent many years arguing for the latter. Yet as I entered my masters degree, I noticed many people have had the same thoughts before me. Many teachers have gone through the same questions, ideas, triumphs and struggles that I have. Why did I feel it necessary to go through this all myself?