Merging Conversations for 21st Century Learning

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

This quote is delivered by John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poet's Society, one my favorite films. When it comes to educational technology I feel the same way but for a different reason. We don't use educational technology and strive for 21st century learning because its cute. We use educational technology and strive for 21st century learning because of the mounting dialog and evidence that learning traditional reading, writing, and math skills have to include - at the core - new literacy skills and 21st century learning.

While I believe in not using technology for technology's sake, I am intrigued at the latest edition (November 2007) of ASCD's Educational Leadership. There are 13 articles about math in this issue. There are three mentions of technology: (1) a reference to a spreadsheet in which testing companies can provide containing test data, (2) a resource website for teachers, (3) suggestion of a gaming technology club. Interestingly, 21st century skills and Thomas Friedman are mentioned but not in relation to technology. What makes me so curious?

These well-written and thought-provoking articles, that are clearly the result of hard work, are void of educational technology and 21st century skills. I'm not mentioning this because my field of study isn't included or the mathematical content or ideas presented aren't important. They are! The topics are crucial. Furthermore, the articles, such as the ones focusing on the achievement gap and minorities, provide some really important data that needs to be discussed. In fact, I'd say we need more of these articles.

What really fascinates me is that we have multiple engaging, parallel conversations that aren't intersecting. We have dialog about math, digital natives, educational technology, 21st century skills/learning but there is no confluence among them. Some where, some way, some how there is a symbiotic misfire that keeps these conversations apart.

When we talk about the economy, we can't just focus on one market or sector. Interest rates have an impact on stock markets, housing, and the job market. Housing can have an effect on the stock market and the job market. And the job market can have an effect on the stock and housing markets. We have to consider the parts that comprise the whole of the sum. Preparing students for life, citizenry, democracy, and work after compulsory school needs to be the result of a unifying these conversations; not a set of competing priorities with the prevailing one a result of winning the public relations battle.

When there is some merging of these conversations, layering on top of the current situation is likely the approach. When what really should be happening is an organic cultivation of 21st century learning and some form of technology (since by all indications it is essential for the new literacy). These things, I believe, have to come from within, from inside out - not an outside imposition in...at least not for sustainability.

Let's talk specifics. Blogs and wikis are great tools that can enhance reflection, real-world writing, and collaboration of problems. Google Earth can be a great tool for measuring lines and geometrical shapes in a tangible, practical way. Sketchcasting can be used to capture solving problems that can be later viewed and listened too (they make also great anticipatory sets for the next lesson). Spreadsheets, notably Google's, are great tools for working with graphs, even collaboratively. Online surveys can be conducted to understand percentages and proportions. At the onset these tools may seem cute but looking deeper yields their importance in preparing our students for our "flat world".

I think that it's important to point out that these tools aren't proposed to replace instructional techniques but to enhance them and the learning experiences for our students. They needn't take center stage. In fact, the real value is in their transparency as a tool just as calculators are now in our classrooms. But for this to happen the conversations have to come together.

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