Engagement, Promising Practices, Teaching

Deans Speak Out

New Century, New Game
Dennis Sumara
Professor and Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Calgary 

Rather than starting with assertions about 21st-century teaching, I’ll begin with a question about 21st-century knowing. What is it? I’ll frame my response by looking to popular culture from “then” and “now” – that is, in terms of a cultural shift that I believe is manifest in a contrast between two era-defining genres: the quiz-based game shows of the 20th century and performance-based reality TV of the 21st century.

In the 1980s and 90s shows such as Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? were among the most-watched game shows. In these and others popularized during this time, knowing is represented through the imperative to provide quick-draw responses to prompts that span the breadth of current knowledge. Every question has an unambiguous, preset answer. The judge is the host with answers in hand. By contrast, in more recent shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Canadian Idol, knowing is represented by inviting contestants to create innovative and demanding performances, often with unfamiliar material that requires an extension of expertise from a related domain. The judges are both industry experts and the public at large.

How are these two types of TV shows evaluated? In the quiz-based shows, feedback comes with clinical precision. Contestants are right, wrong, or not fast enough. In the performance-based shows, feedback arrives in the form of expert critique, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and always geared toward improved future performances of participants. It is the popular cultural genre of reality TV that, I argue, exemplifies 21st-century knowing – where knowing is associated with deep specialization and the capacity to generalize to other domains out of the depth of that expertise. In these settings, to know is to adapt flexibly, rapidly, and creatively in the face of always-changing circumstances.

The qualities demonstrated through the evolution of quiz-based to performance-based shows begin to paint a picture of 21st-century learning – which is about something different than preparing people to do well on timed achievement tests. Among the qualities of emerging importance, as a culture we seem to be paying much more attention to deep specialization and well-honed skills that are most powerfully developed by starting young, practicing intensively, having expert teaching, and regularly pressing one’s efforts past the edges of current mastery.

It is the popular cultural genre of reality TV that, I argue, exemplifies 21st-century knowing… In these settings, to know is to adapt flexibly, rapidly, and creatively in the face of always-changing circumstances.

If these are what 21st-century knowing and learning are about, then 21st-century teaching would seem about something other than imparting, communicating, or mediating knowledge. Nor is it principally about directing, guiding, or preparing learners – all of which, it bears mention, are well suited to preparing contestants on Jeopardy and Millionaire. Temporally appropriate teaching seems to be more about challenging – that is, challenging knowledge/knowing and challenging learners/learning. More specifically, it appears to be about setting the sorts of challenges that come from deep familiarities with what it is possible to know and the complex processes involved with coming to know.

One further lesson from reality TV can be found in a shift in the status of “contestants”. While it’s true that someone still comes out on top on Idol, etc., the record shows that there are always multiple winners through the exposure and tutelage gained through the experience. That is, it’s probably more appropriate to speak of “co-participants” than “contestants”.

What might these shifts mean for teacher education? At the very least they point to the need for nimble programs that can adapt to emergent circumstances. In the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary, among the new programmatic changes informed by and responsive to evolutions in knowing and learning, we are implementing a specialization requirement for elementary as well as secondary candidates; we are articulating relationships with schools not in terms of “host” institutions but as full partners in research-informed and active practice; we are framing teacher education not in terms of pre-service preparation but as initial and ongoing components in career-long trajectories of learning.

Most important, University of Calgary teacher education students are considered active co-participants in the project of formal education. While they are not contestants in the same way as those who participate in reality TV, we are challenging them to engage in similar forms of knowing and learning. Why? Because like many others, we’ve noticed that with the new century, we now have a new game – one that demands expert participation within challenging and collaborative ever-changing worlds of knowing.  

Human Flourishing in the 21st Century
John R. Wiens
Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba

An intriguing question: how does the 21st century affect why and how we educate? I would claim that why we educate, in the broadest terms, does not change because of where we are in the history of humankind. On the other hand teaching, or how we educate, is profoundly affected by the ethos and cultures of the times, very dependent upon the human material and intellectual resources available. Teacher education, which has as its aim understanding and promulgating the relationship between education and teaching, must respond to the demands of both simultaneously. Faculties of Education, in thinking about and acting on education and teaching, play an essential role at any and all times in the advancement of human flourishing.

Since ancient times, even in oral histories, education has held a particularly important role in the enhancement of human life. Kieran Egan, a world-renowned educational theorist at Simon Fraser University, paraphrases earlier philosophers, when he states that “education is simply about learning to live better.” He means this the same way as did the Greeks: learning to live a more ethical personal life and, in that way, contributing to a worthwhile world or society because living well also carries the connotation of living well with others. In the 21st century, this is a lot more complex than it was in ancient times. Our world is not the Athenian city-state but the whole world of humanity, a fact that challenges significantly our ethical and political imperatives. To live a meaningful and worthwhile life today means to critique, challenge, and confront the arrangements and relationships that undergird the unconscionable material disparities, the seemingly insurmountable cultural and religious differences, and the provocative technological changes that mark our age, and that seem to account for unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety.

To teach in such times presents a host of challenges which, informed by our imaginations, can be considered opportunities. We have the everyday technological media to allow us to imagine communicating with anyone and everyone else in the world almost instantaneously. We have examples of political leaders, like Mandela, who have demonstrated how to embrace humanity above difference at the same time as celebrating diversity. We have thousands of examples of how small investments have emancipated people from life-threatening poverty, and we have virtually eradicated some life-ending diseases. More importantly we now recognize how inextricably connected all of humanity is, and how fragile the natural world we inhabit has become. We have unprecedented understanding of previously unforeseen circumstances. The “teaching trick” is to enlarge our moral imaginations and political wills, and those of our young, to see how we might flourish in such a situation.

We have unprecedented understanding of previously unforeseen circumstances. The “teaching trick” is to enlarge our moral imaginations and political wills, and those of our young, to see how we might flourish in such a situation.

For teacher education and Faculties of Education, this is an exciting but difficult time. It is exciting because the task has never seemed more critical. It is challenging because predetermined methodology and prescribed process have limited access to questions about the appropriate amount of compassion, reasonable levels of scepticism, or contestable notions of the personal, interpersonal, and public good. Yet we live in a world enthralled by economic ends and technological means for judging the value and consequences of educational acts. Lesson plans, school curricula, and classroom management must be put in a more appropriate relationship to larger human issues like human freedom writ large – freedom from material deprivation, cultural intolerance and other sources of social injustice, and freedom from environmental degradation. Simply put, faculties of education have a civic responsibility to continuously bring large human questions to the fore, and engage in never-ending meaningful, democratic dialogue about the human “good”, and in the process not succumbing to 21st-century notions that undermine who we have become and can become as people.   

21st Century Education: Developing Capacious Minds and Generous Hearts
Alice Pitt
Dean, Faculty of Education, York University

Discussions about 21st-century education tend to be headline grabbers. Whether the focus is on learners, the curriculum, school design, economic forces, or global issues, one is left with the impression that, like poor old Rip Van Winkle, we’ve all been in a deep slumber only to have awakened to the utter strangeness of a brave and hostile new world. The glare of the new – a dizzying array of digital media capabilities; global migrations within and between nations towards urban areas and away from rural and village roots; the rise and collapse of whole economies; and the growing realization that our natural environment can’t bear our weight – threatens to blind us to the fact that educators have been tireless advocates of the very kinds of competencies now declared to be the signposts of our future.

John Dewey, for example, did not anticipate the iPad, the search engine, or YouTube, much less the wide range of biographies of the families whose children become classmates. Yet we think with Dewey when we argue for creating conditions to address learners just as and who they are; when we identify critical and media literacies as necessary companions to our encounters with culture, knowledge, and “information”; and when we construct project-based and discipline-rich curricula as the supports for the development of curiosity, imagination, generic problem-solving skills, and the will and ability to think alone and with others. In some ways, 21st-century teaching means pressing even harder against the strong tides of tradition that painstakingly built the schools where our future teachers formed their own understanding of what school is like.

The dilemma for pre-service programs is to prepare future teachers for schools as they currently exist while also enlarging their vision about what schools and public education might, should, or will become.

The dilemma for pre-service programs is to prepare future teachers for schools as they currently exist while also enlarging their vision about what schools and public education might, should, or will become. We currently imagine pre-service education as providing beginners with the skills and knowledge to be successful in their first few years of teaching. We know, from research and experience, that such immediate success is elusive. Classrooms are complex sites of practice. However, the old problems and the new (old) urgencies collide when we fix our gaze on immediate success.

Twenty-first-century competencies suggest that children and youth must be able to relate their schoolwork to their everyday lives as they formulate possible futures. If our youth must claim a stake in their self-understanding as learners and develop the capacity and courage to generate solutions to current as well as future dilemmas (social, cultural, environmental, ethical, technical), then their teachers must be eager, equipped, and empowered to engage on all of these levels.

Pre-service education must create more diversity in the opportunities for future teachers to grapple with exigency as a condition of life and a force that reaches into civic belonging, emerging economic landscapes, knowledge creation, and community development. Such opportunities invite new ways of organizing time and space, of relating knowledge and knowing, and of combining newcomers of all kinds with those already here. Comprehensive lists of skills and competencies will be developed as sets that overlap, compete, and interact with each other. Bearing attractive assumptions of efficiency, sufficiency, and urgency, such lists can too easily swamp the more delicate and difficult work of developing capacious minds and generous hearts. Twenty-first-century education for the public good needs teacher education that prepares teachers for the complexity of their work in a complex world.

Developing New Competencies, New Skills, and an Essential Curriculum
David Dibbon
Dean, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland

There is little doubt that the nature of schooling has undergone a rapid transformation in the past few decades. Once expected to prepare a small minority of students for intellectual work, today’s schools must prepare virtually all students for higher order thinking and performance skills and find ways to support diverse learners’ needs and ensure success for all. Toward this end, education systems around the world have engaged in major curriculum and structural reform, and established stronger mechanisms for measuring and reporting educational outcomes and accountability of progress. Reflecting broader changes in society at large, schools are required to involve parents and community in their decision-making processes and make provision for gender equality, cultural sensitivity, and the integration of students with special needs. Technology has revolutionized or replaced many traditional methods of instruction, and a significant body of new research has emerged around the brain, human development, and how people learn.

As a consequence of these and other changes to the school ecology, teachers’ work has intensified and the demands upon the profession have increased dramatically. For schools to carry out their mission, all educators must possess the necessary knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions to deal with the complexities of the contemporary classroom. Beyond a basic knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum, they are called upon to demonstrate many additional new competencies, such as teaching a diverse population of students, teaching literacy across the curriculum, using data effectively, engaging in action research, collaborating in school teams, and integrating technology effectively.

Our research shows that school practitioners expect new teacher graduates to possess and skilfully practice these skills and abilities at the very onset of their teaching experience.[1] There is little doubt that initial teacher education is expected to accomplish a great deal in a limited period of time, and this creates serious implications both for what gets included in and what gets omitted from the curriculum, and for how it gets presented.

In recent years an argument has emerged for the development of an “essential teacher education curriculum”,[2] focusing on developmentally appropriate practices, learning theories, language development, social context of education, subject matter expertise and pedagogical content knowledge, student diversity, appropriate assessment practices, and classroom management. We found evidence in our research to support this notion. 

By all accounts, teacher education candidates view the practica as the most relevant, exciting, and useful learning they encounter in their teacher education program. In Canada, the practicum experience is a major source of the variation among teacher education programs; they vary in total length of time, the number and duration of placements, the timing of the placements, how and by whom they are supervised, and how they are evaluated. I agree with those who argue that this opportunity for deliberate practices is a key element in acquiring instructional expertise, and there is merit to increasing the length of time allocated to the practica.[3] However, increasing the practica will only be effective if there are well-defined standards of practice and performance for use in guiding and evaluating clinical work, if there is close supervision and monitoring of the practicum, and if the clinical experience is closely interwoven with coursework.

Where this occurs, students are better prepared to make sense of the ideas, theories, and concepts addressed in their academic work, and as student teachers they are better able to see the interface between theory and practice. This approach reduces the practice-theory gap that has haunted teacher education programs for years.

EN BREF – Les éducateurs et les responsables de politiques préconisent de plus en plus l’acquisition de compétences du 21e siècle, car plusieurs facteurs militent en ce sens : la recherche sur l’apprentissage, l’omniprésence des technologies de l’information et des communications et la mondialisation dans toutes ses formes. Que signifie enseigner au 21e siècle pour les personnes qui préparent les jeunes à faire carrière en enseignement? Comment la profession d’enseignant change-t-elle? Comment les facultés d’éducation devraient-elles adapter leurs programmes préparatoires à l’emploi? Nous avons demandé à quatre doyens en éducation du pays de commenter les changements actuels et à venir, ainsi que le rôle qu’ils attribuent à la formation des enseignants en fonction des exigences du nouveau siècle.

[1]R. Crocker and D. Dibbon, Teacher Education in Canada: A Baseline Study (Kelowna, BC: Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, 2008).

[2]J. Bransford, S. Derry, D. Berliner, K. Hammerness, and K. L. Beckett, “Theories of Learning and their Roles in Teaching in Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, eds. L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

[3]L. Darling-Hammond, K. Hammerness, and J. Bransford, (with D. Berliner, M. Cochran-Smith, M. McDonald, and K. Zeicher, ), “How Teachers Learn and Develop” in Teaching in Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, eds. L. Darling-Hammond and J. Bransford (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

Meet the Expert(s)

John R. Wiens

John R. Wiens is Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba.

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Dennis Sumara

Dennis Sumara is Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary. His areas of research include curriculum theory, teacher education, and literacy education, as oriented by conceptual interests in hermeneutic phenomenology
, literary response theory
, and complexity science.

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David Dibbon

David Dibbon is Dean, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Alice Pitt

Alice Pitt is Dean, Faculty of Education, York University.

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