21st Century Teaching and Learning at Macleans College
“21st Century learning is not new but represents what our best educators have been teaching for several centuries.”
Jay Matthews (2010)
“21st Century skills … are not new, just newly important.”
Elen Silva (2008)
At Macleans College we continue to ensure that effective teaching is being constantly practised for the direct purpose of benefiting the effective learning of our students.
We have a year-round, major, professional development programme geared to that goal. Over recent years the student performance data tool that we have developed with Victoria University of Wellington, Edpotential, has provided us with increasingly accessible information about our students which further enhances our ability to know more about our classes and the individuals within them and plan accordingly.
We attempt, at all times, with our programmes to follow well researched and tested ‘best practices’.
Learning is only truly effective if our ‘classroom’ teaching is based on time-tested and scientifically proven fundamentals delivered by a teacher who is enthusiastic, empathises with students and has the ability to teach the necessary content and skills.
Not taking our eyes off the fundamentals is critical at any time or era and in particular in the current New Zealand educational environment where a number of teaching and learning fads, which will be highlighted shortly, have been anointed, in a number of schools, as the new fundamentals.
We believe these fads are having an effect at Macleans as we react to an increasing number of students who enter the school with major knowledge and skill gaps particularly in the core educational foundation stones of literacy and numeracy, the latter including basic arithmetic.
A much larger group of incoming students has weaknesses in their basic knowledge. These weaknesses include a difficulty to write paragraphs and essays, to comprehend and spell, use language correctly, to understand basic Science and an awareness of most New Zealand and world historical events. Even if they have familiarity with some of them, being able to place these latter events into context proves difficult.
This results in the allocation of extra, school-funded resourcing so that more remedial literacy and numeracy classes and recovery programmes are formed and operated with mainstream class teachers also addressing the knowledge and skills deficit of these much larger groups of students.
All of the above is of major importance when we consider, for example, the use of digital technology in our classrooms.
This innovation will be carried out in the clear knowledge that the use of digital technology is a tool to aid learning and we will be ineffective in applying its use unless we are constantly mindful of having three elements front and centre in every classroom lesson. These are:
- A content rich curriculum
- Sound, well planned lessons where feedback to students predominates.
- Authentic literacy or purposeful and usually argumentative reading, writing and talking.
As research findings over the decades have proven, “These three elements if even reasonably well executed will have more impact than all other initiatives combined. ...
… they would wholly redefine what schools can accomplish with children of every socioeconomic stratum. Because of this, their satisfactory implementation should be our most urgent jealously guarded priority – the on-going focus of every team meeting, every professional development session, every faculty … every monitoring and reporting effort. Until these elements are reasonably well implemented, it makes little sense to adopt or learn new programmes, technology, or any other innovations. To be fair any innovation is fair game once these elements are implemented if – but only if – that innovation does not in any way dilute or distract us from these always vulnerable priorities.” Mike Schmoker (Focus) published 2011
This ‘drum-beat’ is of critical importance and over the years of its history Macleans has held to these precepts and the year-in/year-out success of the vast bulk of students is testimony to holding fast to these core principles of good teaching directly aiding effective learning.
Our stance has just had a major boost in a paper written by an American academic Benjamin Riley and published this August, who was sponsored in his research in New Zealand by the government in a fellowship founded in 1995 to facilitate public policy dialogue between New Zealand and the USA.
Taking up the topic of digital learning Riley makes these comments:
The predominant vision for digital learning usually clusters around variations of the following themes. As we move into the 21st century, we must accept that children are digital natives and reform our education system accordingly. Pedagogically, we should avoid rote learning and instead personalise learning to meet learners’ individual learning styles.
The role of the teacher must evolve from providing direct instruction to instead facilitating learners’ natural aptitudes so they will self-direct their own learning. Our schools should likewise be transformed to become modern learning environments; we need fewer walls, more laptops (or iPads or other devices students bring to school themselves). We should stop demanding that learners memorise specific facts – we have Google now for that – and start focusing on developing the real skills they will need for the information economy, such as critical thinking and collaboration.
There’s just one problem with all of this says Riley. There is very little evidence to support any of these claims. In fact, academic literature is full of studies of various attempts to improve education outcomes using particular technologies, only to find that they rarely have any measureable positive impact on student achievement. At best, the research (and anecdotal reports from educators) suggests technology can help improve student engagement, but this alone he warns seems insufficient to justify the tremendous amount of hype – and financial investment – related to digital learning.
Riley goes on to take issue with a number of practices he observed in New Zealand schools that did not align with his view which is that “decision-makers within New Zealand’s education system – or any education system, for that matter – should incorporate the insights of science into their decisions, and in particular cognitive”, or the process of acquiring knowledge.
Some of the key principles he emphasises represent the scientific consensus around what we know about learning.
Here is a selection as examples:
- Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.
- Factual knowledge must precede skills.
- People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.
How do these principles align with what he calls the “fuzzy theories” he found such as personalised learning with the prevailing view in some New Zealand education circles that “learners have to be in charge of their own learning”?
Riley’s response is that this view does not square with our current understanding of cognition. People learn by thinking but ‘feeling in charge’ is not an absolute precondition to thought.
Scientific support for this comes from a New Zealand expert Professor John Hattie who illustrates from his copious research that Direct Instruction which is explicitly teacher-centred is second only to direct feedback to students as the major positive learning effect in the classroom.
Riley goes on to illustrate that student-centred or minimally guided instruction is equally suspect and that controlled experiments that have been carried out almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with new information learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.
This same evidence contradicts the New Zealand Council of Education Research claim that young learners need to become less reliant on teachers.
The following example illustrates how the Riley described “fuzzy theories” are taking hold with educators who presumably know the pedagogy of their core role; teaching, beguiled into believing that 21st Century learning is about dispensing with some or all of the scientifically and time proven fundamentals of the craft.
During his time in New Zealand Riley attended a conference where an author of a New Zealand Council of Education Research report made claims about what personalised future focused learning requires to hundreds of rapt educators as if the ideas were grounded in established scientific facts rather than ideological-driven aspirations.
This is the educational environment we are in and we are determined, to repeat, to continue to ensure and to paraphrase Riley, that effective teaching practices at Macleans which have to be constantly worked at, including the use of digital technologies will be grounded in established scientific facts not ideological-driven aspirations.