By Johanna Riddle


May 12, 2009

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot
read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and
relearn.”—Alvin Toffler

Today’s educators teach in times that are both exciting and demanding. Many of us have witnessed—and have contributed to—significant shifts in education. Sometimes, we find that those shifts push us outside our comfort zones.
Without doubt, digital media plays a key role in the shaping of this new world. It brings a universe of information to our doorstep at the stroke of a key. It enables connection and collaboration, on a global scale—any time, and anywhere. It has created a whole new breed of learners and communicators, many of whose interests and focus lay beyond the classroom walls. And it holds deep implications for the future form, and role, of educators.
The Digital Youth Project, an in-depth study commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation, takes a close look at the way that students communicate and learn through digital media. That study, and its corresponding book, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, spell out a serious disconnect between the 20th century lens through which many educational institutions view the instructional process, and the world that exists “beyond the bell” for today’s students.
This conceptual, informational age, and the children who have been born into it, casts a new light on the role of the teacher. Long accustomed to our traditional role as the “Purveyor of Information”, we suddenly find ourselves displaced in that particular arena. We just don’t have a corner on that market any more. Our job description has changed. The plain truth is, that, in order to remain relevant, our role must be redefined. But how? The answer to that seems to be organic in nature—a grassroots response of educators who are meeting their students where they are, who are making learning and communication relevant within the context of the world as it is today, and who keep an eye forward to the ultimate goal of developing true Digital Citizens.
So, what are savvy teachers doing today to acknowledge their interests and learning preferences, to hone into the ways that they perceive and use the world of information and to prepare them for responsible participation in a 21st century world? That’s a big question. And the models for that are everywhere.
Through my work, in schools of every configuration and level, I begin to see a few ubertrends of forward thinking educators:
Teachers as Frameworkers: These educators do a great deal of planning, organization, and management up front. They feel that it frees them up to work alongside their students as coaches and guides. These teachers are very likely to be open to learning alongside their students. Robert Miller, 4/5 grade teacher at Port Orange Elementary, in Port Orange, Florida, is an excellent example of this.
“I spend a tremendous amount of time on planning and management,” Robert says. “You have to have a well planned infrastructure. After you have established that, you have to be willing to take the risk of turning learning over to the students. I give the objective, describe the outcome, and we work together to establish the criteria. After that, I grow, observe, amend, and expand with them—managing, editing, and learning alongside their experiences.”
Teachers as Connectors: These teachers embody pure genius when it comes to bringing a world of learning to the doorsteps of their students. The process can be as simple as finding, and persuading, the right speakers, mentors, and specialists to participate in the life of the classroom, to creating and participating in connective software and Nexus points that broaden the view and knowledge base of students. New breeds of educators, like Roxana Hadad of Northwestern University’s Collaboratory Project, specialize in their role as edu-connectors.
“I’m not really a teacher by trade,” Roxana said. “I see myself as someone who uses available technology, in combination with sound pedagogy, to connect students, teachers, the community and industry. I try to encourage collaboration in a way that’s beneficial to all parties that are involved. Technology alone does not initiate collaboration. One has to create an environment that promotes critical observation and discussion. The goals have to be clear to everyone, with an understanding that we will only get to where we want to go with conversation.”
Teachers as Enablers: Magda Kahn, ESL instructor at Groves High School in Garden City, Georgia, was inspired by a digital storytelling workshop offered by the Massie Heritage Center in Savannah, Georgia. Ms Kahn quickly admits that her technology skills were basic. “I learned a great deal by working through the digital storytelling process myself,’ she says. “ I began to understand the power of technology and its relevance to learning. My big challenge was finding a way to translate it to the classroom.” She identifies two hurdles: her lack of technical expertise, and the constraints of current educational requirements.
“My philosophy (about technology inclusion) is ‘We’re all in this together’,” she explains. “If I’m trying to take my students through a step in the technological process, and I get lost, I ask them to help me through it. I have to be willing to learn with them. Sometimes, I will ask each student to identify a function on the toolbar or menu, spend some time exploring it, and prepare a short expository presentation on that skill. That way, my students meet the ESL goals of written and oral language, while we all become more proficient at technology.”
When we embrace the notion that how we teach is as crucial to the learning process as what we teach, we naturally begin to expand and reexamine our roles as teachers. As we reach into the world of our students, the everyday business of teaching and learning transforms into a shared, creative journey. And isn’t that when teaching, and learning, really start to matter?