Monday, May 3, 2010

Challenges for the 21st Century Principal: Reflections on the K-12 Horizon Report 2010

One of the most interesting sections of the 2010 K-12 Horizon Report is the "critical challenges" we face as educators as we attempt to make 21st century education a reality. As I see it, many would use these challenges as crutches to continue the status quo, but just as Secretary Duncan stated is his Op Ed to the Denver Post, "the education status quo is unacceptable." While I realize Secretary Duncan's words were used to push his own version of reform under "Race to the Top," he is right about one thing, the status quo is a problem, and as the Horizon Report 2010 indicates, there are a number of challenges that are getting in the way of moving schools, teaching, and learning into the 21st century.

The first challenge is "Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as key skill in every discipline and profession." In every profession, the use of digital technologies becomes more and more important as those within these professions discover innovative ways to employ these tools to carry out day-to-day tasks. There's just no way to get away from the digital world in the workplace. Yet, as the Horizon report indicates, "training in digital literacy skills is rare in teacher education programs." I would add that it is equally rare in professional development for teachers and administrators. There is a lot of talk and a lot of conviction that we have to address this deficit in digital media literacy among educational practitioners, but a number of educators still can't get beyond the "stuff" to just what it is we need to be teaching. In practice we just are too far from "seeing digital literacy as the norm." The personal challenge we face as 21st century principals is how can we move digital literacy "ahead of all that other stuff?" Digital literacy is rare because we have not yet made it the business of the school. It is still too tempting to look at it as some add-on that we get to when we can. After reading this in the Horizon Report 2010, now is the time to make digital literacy a regular part of our discussions about teaching and learning. In other words, it needs to become a regular part of our learning community agenda discussions.

According to the Horizon Report, the second challenge we face as educators in making 21st century education a reality is "in spite of our acknowledgement that our students are different due to the digital world, our educational practices and materials are changing too slowly." It is still too darn common to walk into a secondary history classroom and see a teacher standing at the front of the room, lecturing from notes written on the board or on an overhead. Even worse, there are teachers who have only taken those notes they would have put on the board or overhead and made PowerPoint presentations out of them. What is truly sad, teachers and administrators defend that practice as movement into the 21st century. The same can be said to happen in other subject areas as well. In English classes, teachers think having students word-process their papers is an acknowledgement of 21st learning and teaching. Sadly, it is not. Just as the Horizon Report indicates, we need to "adapt to our students' current needs and identify new learning models that engage our younger generations of students." This means moving from the old classroom that has the teacher at the center to models where students can engage technology and take personal responsibility for their learning. And our glorious policy-makers in state capitols all the way to the Department of Education are going to have to help us make these changes by finding new assessments rather than the old multiple-guess tests. It is about time our politicians realize that some of the most worthwhile learning cannot be molded to fit the current test formats. If we want teaching practice to change, we need to change how students are assessed to reflect the realities of the 21st century.

The third challenge is a symptom of the times. "Our policy-makers and educators agree that deep reform is needed, but there is little agreement as to what that new model of education should look like." I know of no single educator, teacher, or principal who does not feel that we need to change how we carry out educating our young. We know what we have falls short and needs to be fixed. The problem occurs when policy-makers, politicians, and even federal/state education officials come to the table with some kind of political ax to grind, or they are too busy promoting themselves and their own ideas to see what might really be a viable model for 21st century education. Add to this mix the rhetoric and pseudo-research coming out of these so-called "think-tanks" and all the educational establishment ever gets done is chasing its own tail so to speak. It's time to genuinely set aside political agendas pushing reforms like school vouchers and charter schools and stop trying to tear down public education and honestly look at how we are going to fix it. It's time to see these self-promoting medicine men pushing their latest potion for what they are, selfish individuals who are simply using education to make a buck. It's time to sit down and honestly talk with those who really want to move our education system into the twenty-first century, and begin the process of creating what that looks like and enlist politicians and policymakers to make that happen.

The fourth challenge described by the Horizon Report is "the fundamental structure of the K-12 educational establishment." Educators and their stakeholders expend a great deal of energy trying to maintain basic elements or components of an educational system that has outlived its function. Take the idea of "seat-time." Many states hold on to the idea that simply making students sit in classrooms longer will increase student achievement. Such arguments show a ridiculously naive view of what happens in classrooms specifically and in all of education generally. These foreign countries do not have higher academic achievement because they go to school longer. I think the truth about why their achievement is higher has more to do with what the students are doing in those classrooms rather than how long they sit in them. Subjecting students to longer periods of ineffective instruction will do nothing to increase learning and will probably do more to turn kids off from learning. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges of schooling, and take a real hard look at the fundamental structure of schooling. What is working? What is not working? How can we change the structure of the educational establishment to meet the academic needs of our students? We need to quit wasting energy trying to preserve what we have that does not work. We also need to quit buying the "flavor of the month" changes and honestly look at our establishment and make it better able to meet the needs of 21st century learners.

The final challenge described by the Horizon Report points out that "many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom, but these experiences are often undervalued or unacknowledged." Students are online creatures and they are learning a lot of things in spite of us. They use their home computers to learn a great deal. My own son uses YouTube videos to learn about things such as constructing objects made out of Lego bricks and ordinary paper. His creation of a paper dart gun from one of these videos was ingenious.Our students are learning from these social media in spite of our lack of acknowledgement of its place in education. Our students interact with social networks constantly and educators just wish they would go away. We have allowed our undervaluing of social media to prevent us from capitalizing on the one technology we could use to highly engage students in learning tasks. Instead, some administrators send letters home warning parents about the evils of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. The end result is an education system that has become highly irrelevant to a whole generation.

Many of these arguments are not new, but the it's time to move beyond the rhetoric to action. All this reform talk from our federal government should excite us, but we know what kinds of reform they want. They want a culture of testing where our students and teachers are measured not as individuals, but as numbers and statistics that give politicians talking points to take into the next election. Honestly though, the 21st century is here, and the world could care less about who is elected in the next election. Politicians, policymakers, and educators who continue to push these shallow education reforms without rethinking our entire education model, are going to drive our country into obscurity anyway. Moving into a genuine 21st century education system is going to take more than trying to graft the business model onto the education system like our economists are trying to do. Creating an education model for the 21st century means taking on the challenges posed in the Horizon Report and moving away from the status quo.

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