Sunday, October 17, 2010

21st Century Schools

What do our students need to prepare them for the 21st Century? This is a question that has been a very hot topic of discussion in independent schools and the essential question that we will wrestle with as a faculty and staff this year.
            For many people, this question would lead to a focus on the many ways that technology is affecting our lives, and the rapidly increasing competencies that have arisen in so many different fields. Educators, too, are trying to navigate the uncharted waters of social media or the educational possibilities afforded by these amazing new advances. What makes it a challenge for many of us, of course, is our own experience as a generation that actually waited on bank lines before ATMs, watched a vinyl record go around and around, and thought that Pong was the ultimate in video gaming until, of course, Space Invaders came along with its incredible graphics.
            One of the challenges, of course, is that there is no definite opinion of the long-term effects of technology. This is uncharted water, essentially. Citing the work of different researchers, some believe, such as Marc Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, that “it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed—that they and are different from ours as a result of how they grew up. But whether this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed.” If this is true it certainly has wide-ranging implications for the 21st Century teacher to try and navigate the best methods by which to teach to these new ‘thinking patterns.’
While this may seem a daunting task, when we really drill down into core competencies we may discover that the skills that students need may not be as revolutionary as we may think. Regardless of the technology, or new and innovative tools, students will need to be critical thinkers, be creative, and be able to navigate problems. Interpersonal skills, too, will be essential (at least for the foreseeable future).
Unfortunately, despite the great advances in technology (or perhaps because of it), there may be signs that Americans may be digressing in a number of these areas. In the Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis[1], the authors cite compelling research that since 1990, creativity in American school children is sliding at a disturbing rate due, in part, to “standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing.”
Fortunately, none of these three aspects characterize a Harding experience. On the contrary, for students for whom art and music is a requirement and for teachers for whom collaboration and professional development is the expectation, we are likely bucking a trend. Consequently, in our trying to answer the question, ‘what do our students need to prepare them for the 21st Century?’ we may find that we are closer to the answer than we think.
Thus, at Harding, the coming year promises to be one that will embrace the 21st Century as we roll out new programs such as our Cooperative Teaching program, complete the installation of interactive white boards in each classroom, enhanced laptop carts for every grade level, provide opportunities for middle school students to go abroad, and a partner with Vanderbilt University on student research and teaching gifted children, as well as the continued investigation of many other initiatives.


[1] Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley, Newsweek, July 10, 2010