21st-Century Learning

  • By:  Charlene Loope

When my teenage son asked, “Are you supposed to wash raspberries before you eat them?” I recommended that we could wash them ahead of time and keep them in the fridge to be grabbed in a hurry. 

“You’re not supposed to do that with berries,” he said authoritatively, “especially raspberries because they get really mushy.” How did my decidedly non-foodie kid know this? “I Googled it,” he said. 

As an educator who focuses on instructional technology, I laughed at myself for having asked the obvious question. Of course, he used his phone to find an answer in a matter of seconds. This moment reminded me of the instinctive manner in which children use technology to inform their lives. Harnessing this natural instinct in students to investigate something of importance to them, preferably at the moment of inspiration, is a craft that innovative schools aspire to achieve. 

 Why should schools strive to be innovative? Consider that children who entered kindergarten this fall will graduate from high school in the year 2026 and from college around the year 2030. Their lives as working adults and citizens will span into the latter half of the 21st century. When we think about schools in that context, it becomes clear that innovative, forward-looking educational programming is simply necessary. 

A National Association of Independent Schools report, “A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future,” says: “The issue is not about the technology itself, but about the new mindset of students. They are connected, mobile, social, instantaneous and entertainment-oriented. They have redefined expertise as collective knowledge.” Social networks and mobile devices have led to the kind of immediate access and sharing of information that has forever changed knowledge and learning. 

Teachers and textbooks are no longer the sole sources of expertise, and knowledge is dynamic and crowd-sourced. How do we engage and inspire students who have a world of answers at their fingertips? It seems the most progressive and student-centered approach is to rethink instructional design altogether.  

The widespread availability of mobile devices has transformed the learning environment, making information available in pocket-sized packages. Once prohibited in schools, smart phones can be found supporting instruction with activities as varied as participation in online polls to video recordings of skits for foreign language learning. Tablet devices take educational activities to another level with the availability of applications for creation and collaboration. 

At Norfolk Collegiate, students use iPads® to conduct and edit video interviews, to create and narrate cartoons to illustrate concepts, to produce multimedia lab reports for science classes, and to create multimedia scrapbooks of their field trip experiences. And, any parent who has watched a child bend under the weight of an overloaded backpack can appreciate the benefits of the e-textbook, which, unlike traditional textbooks, are updatable as facts change and contain interactive multi-media content, such as embedded video and 3-D interactive models. 

Innovative instruction isn’t just about teaching with technology; it’s also about creating a learning environment that acknowledges the new mindset of our students. Today’s students need a different set of capacities to be successful in college and in a workforce that likely includes jobs not yet imagined. One way that schools incorporate these capacities into their curricula is by adopting instructional practices that involve meaningful inquiry for students. Nationally recognized educational expert Jonathan Martin asserts that students engaged in inquiry learning think of themselves as young professionals involved in real-world work. Teachers in these classrooms are shepherds of learning instead of dispensers of knowledge. Technology serves as an accelerator for learning, and intentional design of instruction is the driving force behind the innovative learning that takes place.

One type of inquiry learning that provides real-world, relevant teaching is project-based learning (PBL). Especially when informed by mobile technology, this pedagogical design is a logical choice in engaging 21st-century learning environments. Projects have long been a part of school assignments. Project-based learning, however, treats the project as the major component of a lesson or unit, rather than as a culminating product at the end of a learning experience. In project-based learning, students find their work relevant because they are engaged in solving real world problems and are often producing artifacts and performances for authentic audiences. 

In her book, Reinventing Project Based Learning, PBL expert Susie Boss gives some examples of such projects: physics students take on the role of product engineers and develop an improved food cart to market to local grocery stores, students in literature class are invited to recommend updates to the class reading list by convincing a panel of literature professors of the merits of their choices, and environmental science students investigate an environmental problem in their region and propose and implement a solution. 

An example of the latter at Norfolk Collegiate is our marine biology class’s recent year-long project to assist in the restoration of oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay. In each of these learning experiences, the availability of mobile devices enhances student ability to engage in the research, collaboration, communication, and creative expression of ideas that we know are the hallmarks of a quality 21st-century education. 

While today’s students may have the world of information at their fingertips, they still need teachers and mentors to guide them. Forward-thinking instruction paired with purposeful integration of technology creates an educational environment that invites students to arrive at school ready to solve problems and become active participants in their learning. By opening up the walls of the traditional classroom, we help students connect to the larger world in ways that transform their development as critical thinkers, passionate leaders, and global citizens.  

 

Charlene Loope is the Director of Instructional Technology and Communication Arts at Norfolk Collegiate School, a K-12 independent school that recently equipped all faculty members with iPads.

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