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Integrating 21st Century Technology To Enhance Established Teaching and Learning Principles

Many articles on 21st Century classrooms and education fail to acknowledge what’s working in education. And, what in fact has worked for many years to facilitate critical and creative thinking and skill building that can be applied to the workplace once students graduate.  Some educators, technologists and politicians see technology as a “quick fix” cure for what’s plaguing our schools systems, but the true value of technology lies in being a powerful enabler for reinforcing and enhancing tried and true teaching and learning methodologies that have been used by teachers for centuries.  

Some established best practices for helping students feel engaged and accountable for their own learning include: 

  • Following the students’ lead, allowing for questions and answers and encouraging the Socratic method
  • Deviating from the lesson plan when a tangent makes the learning more significant 
  • Utilizing essential questions to design curricular units that are meaningful to students
  • Requiring students to analyze and question, not just remember and regurgitate
  • Bringing real world examples to academic subjects
  • Teaching to all learning styles and providing methods for students to demonstrate knowledge and learning that best suits their particular learning style
  • Designing curriculum that allows for incremental skill building and scaffolding of concepts 
  • Making self reflection and personal evaluation a part of each learning experience
  • Providing opportunities to do independent projects of particular interest to individual students
  • Providing opportunities for individual, small and large group learning experiences and project work
  • Requiring students to teach and present to others what they have learned

The future of education stands at a crossroads, though. Students have more access to information and are more in tune with technology than ever; their digitally-wired brains are accustomed to real-time interaction, but many classrooms have not adapted. Students regularly use cell phones to text their friends, update their Facebook status or browse the web. This instant access to information and communication can be harnessed when students are allowed, and encouraged, access to technology that supports this and makes every moment a “teachable moment.” Teachers should use technology to build on already-established teaching and learning methods to truly bring education into the 21st century.

Although parents and teachers often equate video game play with consumptive, noncreative behaviors, video games today are more advanced than ever. Technologies like human interfacing and motion sensors make youth even more engaged and involved when playing. As this Massachusetts Institute of Technology report cites, the average eighth-grade boy will play video games for about 23 hours per week, while the average girl will play about 12 hours. This generation has grown up with interactive technology truly engrained in their everyday lives. This number can be alarming to parents and teachers who worry students are wasting their time. But, by shaping and interacting with information, students have essentially created a culture where they are the content-creators just as much as they are content-consumers. So how does this compare to what students are experiencing in America’s schools today?

Many classrooms have not adapted to meet the evolving culture and offer a largely passive, analog experience. Traditional lesson plans and classroom fixtures like chalkboards do not provide the collaboration and engagement that today’s youth need to achieve success now and in the future workplace. President Obama pointed to this fact when he recently proposed the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED) and plans for investment in educational technology. Recognizing the need empower the teaching and learning process through technology, he said:

“I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game.”

It’s time for interactive learning to come center-stage, bringing teaching tools and lesson plans into the classroom that emphasize interactivity, collaboration and shared learning practices. While technology should not replace teachers, it can help instructors finally realize the vision of a 21st century classroom environment and better achieve the kinds of established and trusted practices taught in education programs and embraced by faculties.

One way schools can achieve this goal is to integrate social media components into lessons. Instead of having students brainstorm in groups and keeping ideas siloed, a social media component can allow students to share ideas more broadly and engage in relevant discussions after the school bell rings. According to a study by the University of Minnesota, a deeper understanding of the way that students are currently using social networks outside of school will lead to educational applications that can make lessons more meaningful.

Technology can also help students collaborate more effectively.  In an era of wikis and crowdsourcing, students must learn to pool creativity and knowledge to solve complex problems. These communication and team-oriented skills will lead to success in the workplace, where collaboration tools now bridge the divide between offices and business verticals.

Classrooms should leverage videos, blogs and interactive whiteboards to engage students and tap into their digital-native ways. Teachers have traditionally stood in the front of classrooms to deliver lessons, while children sit and take notes. But what if teachers and students created videos, wrote blogs or posted interactive homework materials online? Videos, for example, can stimulate memory and help students associate a particular topic with a visual and audio component. The web also presents enormous opportunities for students and teachers to interact through wikis, online discussion forums and collaborative websites, and can be a valuable supplement to traditional lessons.

In any given classroom, there is a mix of learning styles and abilities. Technology can allow teachers to meet students on their level, and enable students to pursue learning at their own pace. Rather than being “spoon-fed” a lesson, students can engage with material on a more interactive basis and at their own pace.

A research project sponsored by the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement found that students who use technology take a more active role in deciding how to create, obtain, change or view information. Students become more absorbed in thinking about information, making choices and executing skills than they do in a traditional teacher-led, passive environment. This type of atmosphere is exactly what the new generation of students need, and technology is the key ingredient to make it a reality. 

Our students are craving new and innovative ways to learn, and as educators, we can transform their educational experience using technology. By understanding where students are coming from in today’s wired world, we can “plug into” to their lifestyles and help them achieve greater success.

Prior to Luidia, Kathryn Hunt spent more than 18 years at the San Francisco-based Nueva School. She has also instructed in teaching credential programs at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley.

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