Thinking in generalities about 21st century education

It’s not often that I speak in generalities about 21st century/future focused education. Usually when I speak at conferences and things I speak very practically – I show examples and videos of kids; and discuss what I think 21st Century teaching and learning looks like in an average, mainstream classroom. So I was rather worried when I was asked to present to the Northern Health School staff. These are teachers without a regular classroom; they certainly don’t have 30 students under their watch at any given time; they work with unwell students and with kids of all different ages. This, paired with the fact I had a rather limited time slot to fill meant I had a challenge on my hands!

I do like a challenge, so this is what I came up with:

I showed the audience the following video, and asked them to ponder what has changed and what has remained the same in education since the 50s. The teachers also discussed what should change and what should remain the same.

…And here is (vaguely – I added more detail in as I went) what I shared with the teachers…

The aim for me today is to share some ideas I’ve been gathering from my own experience, from fellow educators and from reading a bit of research into this. I hope that, from this, you can think a bit more about what this buzz word means for you, your students, and your school.

How many times have you attended a conference and a picture just like this (old classroom) has come up on screen? People talk an awful lot about how we need to move pedagogical practice into the 21st century…

But aren’t we already here???

The problem is, we know we have to change, we know why we have to change, we’ve read books and perused glossy diagrams, but we’re not sure what we actually have to do to make our practice “21st century”

Is it the environment? Is it e-learning? Is it competences? Is it curriculum? Is it the teacher? Is it the students?

I think it’s all of these things.


After watching and discussing the video…

The narrator says: “In their tiny hands, they hold the future” – That’s the same, of course, and always will be. But the future for students at school in the 50s was vastly different for the students we teach now.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the facts –

  • About 130 million children will be born by the end of the year, into a knowledge/ information economy that is technologically rich.
  • We’re looking at an economy where China is becoming a super power and Asia awareness is becoming more important.
  • Gone are the days where you stick with one career in one organisation until you retire and get a gold watch.
  • The US dept of education estimates that today’s learners will have 10-14 jobs by the time they’re 38.
  • And we don’t even know what sort of jobs we are educating students for – The top ten in-demand jobs of 2010, didn’t even exist in 2004.
  • Exponential change, enormous technological advances and the vast swathes of information available defines our world.

So, as an education system, we need to churn out quite different students from those of the 50s, or even those of the “naughties”. The trouble is, that we know all of this, we just don’t know quite how to put it into practice. I’d like to talk to you today about a few key aspects I think are vital for a 21st Century classroom.

Because, if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.

Effective practice from 10, 20 years ago isn’t necessarily effective practice today.



Number 1, in no particular order, is the huge difference between teaching kids to be taught or teaching them to learn.

The narrator talks about students “Fitting easily into the habits of a student”

What compliant behaviors do we encourage compared to teaching students how to learn? How effectively do your students learn without you?

In mainstream schools, we have such a factory model of education. Bells to eat and to clock in and out, sitting up straight, churning out students in batches based on little more than age…. – From my understanding, NHS is in such an enviable position with regards to this!

Of course reading, writing and arithmetic are important. Of course we need to know, but how much time is spent teaching how to do? How to learn? How to be successful in the world?


Distilling the information I’ve come across recently, I think these skills and competencies are key for our students , though by no means is it an exhaustive list:

  • Global and cultural awareness
  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Self awareness
  • Problem solving and problem finding
  • Creativity
  • Thinking
  • Reflecting

Now here’s a word that’s bandied about a fair bit at the moment: personalisation.

Even Goofy is said to have “A complete understanding of his pupils.” To me, personalisation is two fold: Personalisation of learning by the teacher for students and students personalising their own learning. Of course, strong formative assessment practice is key to make this happen successfully.


If students have the skills to be an effective learner, if they know their goals and what they need to work on, then the locus of control can happily switch more from teacher to student. In the movie, Goofy is always in control – he sits/stands at the front, kids all sing the roll, he says, with authority, “we will now learn geography…”

I wonder if kids care about those country names? I wonder if they could have more say about their learning? I wonder if they get a choice as to how they will be assessed on their new found knowledge?

Goofy is said to know his students well, but what does he do with this knowledge? Does he use it in the classroom? Are kids able to be in their element in at school? Is the learning real to them, or just in the text book?


We have such flexibility in the NZC that many constraints we have, are really enforced by ourselves. To be a 21st Century teacher in New Zealand, I think we need to utilise the autonomy allowed in the curriculum and ensure the learner is central to all that we do.



How do we get parents more involved in our learning?

I have been thinking about this question since I first started teaching, but finding the answer has proved HARD!

At our school, most families have two working parents and caregivers are really pushed for time.  We have just had student led conferences and most parents were able to attend but, as I reflected last year, it would be good if there was no need for these because parents were already really well informed all year round. I asked the class how many of their parents knew all about their learning already, making it a bit of a waste of time for them to attend the conference. There were about half a dozen of these parents – the ones who I already know have good discussions with their children at home on a regular basis.

All the students in the class have a really good understanding of their current goals, where they are heading next and what they have already achieved this year, so they are all easily able to have conversation around this. Not all students would instigate this kind of discussion at home though.

So the problem remains – How do we get parents more involved in the students’ learning? I posed this to the kids in my class and asked them for their ideas. This is what they came up with:

  • We could copy the goal sheets to send home when we achieve our goals. Or they could be online anyway, if we had more devices.
  • Kids should tell parents each time they meet a goal etc.
  • Kids should nag parents to come in and see their goals – write reminders for them.
  • Each time you pass a goal, we could take a photo and put it up on our blog.
  • Make our blog their home page on the computer.
  • There should be specific times for parents to come in and kids to share their learning, informally.
  • Each time you write a blog, email it to your parents.
  • Email your parents updates on goals etc.

We have some ideas to trial this term!

What do kids want from us?

I asked my class recently what advice they would like to give teachers and here’s what they came up with:

  • Teachers should make their expectations really clear so you know you can’t produce sub-standard work.
  • Teachers should experiment and try things out with their students.
  • Start of easy, then up the ante as the year goes on.
  • Make sure there is enough time to do everything.
  • Make sure the work isn’t too hard or too easy.
  • Make what you want from kids really clear. Make sure kids understand what they’re doing.
  • Listen to the kids’ ideas.
  • Make tasks fun to do. Like interactive games.
  • Choose tasks that force kids to become more independent.
  • Make the tasks suit individual people.
  • Do crazy, weird stuff. Often these ideas really work.
  • Teach different skills throughout the year.
  • Don’t shout at kids.
  • Read what the kids write.
  • Have a joke and a break with us.
  • Don’t try and scare us into doing the right thing.
  • Don’t push us too much if we are having trouble. Push us hard enough to make us do our best.
  • Let us talk and collaborate, share and help each other.

Pondering our “long tail of underachievement”

In preparation for Term 3’s EduCafe event (see I have been doing a little homework.

The question that we will be discussing is this:

20 odd years of top down reforms hasn’t changed the long tail of underachievement in New Zealand education. SO! What are some bottom up reforms that will make meaningful, lasting changes?

I must say that, when you Google this, the majority of results that come up seem to imply teachers and schools are unable make changes or turn the situation around at all. The words poverty, social class, charter schools, economy and failure keep popping up.

Jeff Johnstone has blogged about this topic and suggests that we may need to re-frame our thinking. Instead of worrying about things we can’t change or by playing the blame game (poverty, culture, family etc.) we should focus on what we can change within our schools. Read his post here.

I’ve also browsed through this doccument, an Inquiry into Making the System Work for Every Child. The document discusses some top down reforms but also mentions the great impact teachers have through effective assessment, teaching as a result of this, personalisation of learning, engagement of students, high expectations and so on. In short, what I got out of this is that teachers and leaders within the school have an enormous impact on student achievement. We know this, of course (otherwise why would we bother teaching?!) but I think we need to focus on our impact on students, rather factors we have no control over.

I’m really looking forward to discussing this (rather contentious) issue further at EduCafe on the 15th of August. Come and join us! What are some bottom up reforms you can suggest that would make meaningful, lasting changes? For tickets, clickhere.

Reflection on “It’s a Learner’s World” Conference

I was lucky enough to attend and present at the “It’s a Learner’s World” Conference in the holidays. It was a really enjoyable experience for me and I thought I would quickly share some of my learning and musings:

  • Lee Crockett mentioned the difference between teaching kids to be taught and training them to learn. I quite liked the simplicity in this and think it is a good way to re-think your practice as a teacher.
  • Inquiry needs to be a disposition, rather than a subject we ‘do’ from 2-3pm. It also isn’t necessarily a linear process, which makes me wonder about the inquiry models we have in schools.
  • Mary Anne Murphy framed inquiry as having 3 aspects – We are learning about… We are learning to be… and… We are learning to use…
  • She also discussed how teachers control discussions too much by doing all the questioning. We facilitate discussions like a game of ping pong – hitting the question out to the class, receiving an answer then hitting out another question. Mary Anne suggested a discussion should be more about looping questions and answers and giving more control over to the students.
  • Perry Rush challenged the audience to think about how our pedagogies catered for difference, rather than standardisation.
  • He also discussed the importance of ensuring students feedback to us, rather than a more one way process.
  • I am also in the process of unpacking what an inquiry approach to maths teaching could look like in practice. Any ideas or readings would be much appreciated if you have them.

I hope I have shared some useful ideas with you!