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EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Putting 21st Century Learning in Context

Shifting the Conversation

Growing up, I knew a whole lot about Anteaters, Aardvarks and Africa.

Walla Walla and Zanzibar? Not so much.

You see, beyond the walls of my school, the only consistently accessible sources of information were the 3 sets of encyclopedias that graced our living room bookcase. The challenge was that they were somewhat incomplete. We owned four volumes of the Columbia Encyclopedia; the first volume of Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, 1968 and 1969 and, curiously, Volume ‘M’ of the World Book. My best explanation is that the latter was spirited away from our elementary school library during a project on either Magellan or Madagascar! The only inspiring thing about our little collection was the spine of one of the Columbia editions: Volume 4—DARE to DREAM. (Admittedly, that may only resonate with those steeped in encyclopedia culture!) I kept that one close to me.

It seems that in the 1960’s, grocery stores had forged occasional partnerships with major publishing houses to provide the opportunity for shoppers to combine their weekly shopping trips with the purchase of a reputable source of knowledge for their family. The first few volumes were offered for $0.99 each, and after that, the price increased to the point where my parents eventually stopped purchasing—at least until the next offer came along. As a result, much of the knowable world beyond the first few letters of the alphabet was pretty much a mystery to me during those early years of my life.

In an interview earlier this year with TVOntario’s Steve Paikin, educator and author, Douglas Thomas, suggested that technology is helping to shift the role of teacher from a provider of content to a framer of context. But, what does that mean, and what implications does that shift have for the way we think about schools: how they are designed, organized and even staffed?

Despite the caricatures of “traditional” schooling that are often carted out in conversations about education reform, I’m not sure that there was ever really a time when teachers saw their role as simply pouring discrete pieces of information into the minds of students. The challenge of making content meaningful and relevant—the heart of context—has always been on the minds of good teachers, and one of the goals of quality education.

But technology has substantially changed the game, hasn’t it?

The advent of complex and more accessible information networks has done three important things—each of which supports the case for a major redesign in the way we approach schooling and education.

First, the boundaries between information acquisition and information creation have been considerably blurred. Not only can we now access great vast stores of data, facts, figures and thinking about the world, but it is now possible for more of us to actually contribute to those volumes!

Second—and I think that there’s lots of room for conversation here—technology has not only opened up greater stores of information to a greater number of people, but it has also introduced us to multiple conversations and interpretations of what all of that information means. No longer is the traditional and fairly homogenous family-(religion)-state-school dynamic the only game in town. Quite the opposite! Within a couple of hours of any major news event occurring, it’s quite likely that we’ll be able to access several different versions of the facts, as well as several different contextualizations. This is both exciting and challenging and clearly calls on different ways for us to “make sense”.

Connected to this is the realization that the task of helping students make meaning of information has become much more complex of late. The job of creating rich contexts that will help students weave strong connections among and between knowledge domains has been made more challenging by the variety of perspectives that live in our classrooms and pulse through our information networks. But the very complexity that makes this challenging also makes it important and extremely worthwhile.

So, there is plenty of real estate to walk around here, but I’m finding that using the context argument as both a frame and a filter for thinking about transformation is proving useful.

To what degree do the innovations suggested by those excited about changes in education actually help educators and students build stronger contexts through which they might view and participate in the world? How does the familiar list of 21st century skills relate to the shift from becoming experts in content to masters of context? What new approaches to teacher education begin to emerge when this transition becomes the focus? What types of people should we be trying to attract to the teaching profession in light of the content-context shift?

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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