Teaching in the 21st century: shifting paradigms

| April 10, 2017 | 0 Comments


What did your classroom look like when you were at school?

Allow me to paint a picture for you, and then tell me if it is accurate. I can bet you with some degree of significant certainty that, on the whole, it will be. The desks were in rows one behind each other in front of a blackboard (or whiteboard, for those of you a bit younger than me), and your teachers generally lectured to you from the front. They were the fount of knowledge and you were the empty vessels waiting to be filled. Teachers knew everything and you knew nothing.

Group work, if there was any, was minimal, and any individual or creative thought that went against the accepted grain was quickly snuffed out. Quiet classrooms were considered good classrooms, and any noise that did emanate from their depths was treated by those in the immediate surrounds with annoyance and suspicion. You didn’t dare have a class outside. No! The classroom was the only place to learn. Reports were single-page efforts with comments like “Must try harder”, and your worth was defined by the end product: a mark. If you got an “A”, you were successful, bright, talented and wonderful; a “C” meant you were a slacker; and an “E” classified you as an oxygen thief. I could go on, but am I close?

Time stands still in many schools

Now for the shocking part – I was recently shown a picture of a classroom in England, taken in the mid-1800s. It is one of the earliest known photographs of a school classroom. The class is as I described it above. I was then shown a picture of a typical American classroom in 2016. You guessed it – the class was still exactly as I described it above. I was horrified. Have we really moved so little in educational philosophy and classroom practice? In theory we have moved on significantly, but in practice we are still stuck in the old ways of teaching. Why? Because we were taught like that, and “Hey! I turned out ok, didn’t I?” It’s comfortable, but it is wrong and dangerous, and desperately needs to change if we are going to prepare our young people for a successful life in the 21st century.

Signs of the times

We are living in the most technologically advanced, information-heavy era in the history of mankind. Our children are bombarded from every corner with sights and sounds that attack every sense we possess. We are able, through computers, phones, iPads etc., to access immediate information about almost anything at the touch of a screen. Children today are able to multitask to an amazing degree. I watched a young person on a laptop at an airport recently. He was about 16 years old and he was clearly foreign – I brilliantly deduced this from the fact that he was speaking French. His screen was split in four and he wore headphones with a microphone. In the one corner, he had a direct link to a classroom in (I assume) France, where his teacher was teaching via webcam. In the other corner, he had an image of what I took to be the whiteboard where the work was being demonstrated (it was linked to a smartboard in the classroom). In another corner, he was watching a YouTube clip that was related to what was being taught, and in the final corner, he was updating his Facebook page. It was fascinating. Now, I know a lot of parents and teachers who would tell that child to “Switch off all that other rubbish and listen to your teacher!” What a mistake that would be. This child was clearly utterly engaged in what was being taught. His eyes were alive with energy, and he was laughing and engaging with his teacher and classmates.

Educate, don’t medicate

Why do so many children hate school? Keep in mind the world these children are coming from, and then realise that we sit them down at a desk with no interaction with other humans, and force them to concentrate on usually the most boring thing in the classroom – the teacher. And then we whine and complain when they act out, and we medicate the nonsense out of them. Problem solved.

Whilst I don’t deny the existence of attention deficit disorder (ADD)1 (this is what is typically referred to when someone shows symptoms of inattention or easy distractibility, but isn’t hyperactive or impulsive) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (the three primary symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness), I do not believe it is an epidemic and I do not believe that medication should be the first port of call.

Famed educationist Ken Robinson puts it thus: “We shouldn’t be putting them to sleep, we should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.”2 I do not believe that young teachers in training colleges around the world are being taught enough about classroom management and diversification of lessons. I believe that this lack of training in dealing with “difficult” students, and their unwillingness to diversify their lessons, leads these teachers to turn to psychologists and medication all too quickly. It amazes me that teachers prefer to teach a class of silent, drooling zombies than a class of active, noisy and excited children.

Boosting brain power

As 21st century educators, we need to understand how the human brain works, and we now know a great deal.3 In the past, we could only study brains that had already died. But now, with the aid of technology, we can see the brain alive and in action. The first myth that has consequently been dispelled is one that I’m sure you’ve all heard: “We only use 5% of our brain power.” This is untrue. Newer studies have shown that we use 100% of our brain 100% of the time4 – even when we sleep. Another misleading statement is: “Did you know I am a leftbrained person? That is why I am so creative and bad at mathematics.”5We are actually whole-brained people, but our brains respond differently to different stimuli. Studies have shown no significant preference to any hemisphere of the brain at all.

Mix it up

So what does this mean for teachers? Amazingly, the brain does not function best in structured environments. The brain functions best when it is allowed to make connections – sometimes arbitrary ones and often in a chaotic environment. The brain does not work to a timetable. It is not always best for mathematics in the morning and sport in the afternoon. Every brain is unique. This presents a huge challenge to teachers, but there is much we can do. We can make our classrooms brainfriendly by moving our desks around; creating light and airy environments; challenging all the senses – yes, even smell; mixing our lessons with content, group work, individual work and exercise. Yes! Jumping jacks in class. If the brain functions optimally by making connections, then give it the opportunity to make those connections. Group work and interactive lessons are not only powerful, but should be the norm.

Ban homework horror

It is heartening that many schools (including Riverview Preparatory School) have taken some important – some would say radical – steps in the right direction. For example, recent studies have shown the damaging effect of homework on young primary school students.6

“Good” homework is meant to extend the work done in class and/or prepare the student for upcoming work. However, what tends to happen is that this threat is uttered by the teacher: “Those of you who don’t complete this work by the end of the lesson will have to do it for homework.”

So what happens? The child goes home, sometimes to an empty house because both parents work, and often late in the afternoon because he has had sport or other extramural activities. He gets his homework out and doesn’t understand it. He either tries it and gets it wrong, or doesn’t try it at all. When mom or dad gets home, he asks for help. If he gets help, sometimes even mom or dad don’t get it, or they teach it the wrong way. This raises their tension and frustration levels. By the time the work is done, it is time for bed. The child goes to school the next day and the teacher thunders at him for getting the work wrong.

The child hates coming to school, has low self-esteem and the teacher has just proved what he already knows – that he is stupid. He acts out and spends most Friday afternoons in detention. Schools like Riverview Preparatory School have done away with “traditional” homework. Instead, teachers structure individual extension time in their classes. When the children go home, they get to play. It is through play that the brain converts content into context – and this is vital for long-term memory. A strong reading programme is in place at our school, because reading is at the root of all learning, and children are encouraged to go home with topics of conversation to have around the dinner table. Studies show that students who are allowed time to play with each other outside perform significantly better academically than children who don’t.7

Ask good questions and tell no lies

The 21st century world is one of constant, often rapid and often jarring change. We don’t know what this world will look like in two years, let alone 10. So how do we prepare children for this world? I’ll tell you one thing – “cottonwoolling” them because we want to “protect” them will not help.

Hovering over them (known as “helicoptering”) to make sure they don’t get hurt or challenged at all will not help. Going in front of them (known as “lawnmowing”) and clearing every obstacle, so that they always succeed and are never challenged, will not help. We need to create independent, creative and confident thinkers who are worldly without sacrificing their innocence.

We need to design curricula that encourage flexibility, individual thought and opportunities for growth at different rates. We need to build schools that are not simply blocks of concrete, but reflect the world that our children are moving into. We need to ask questions like: What does a 21st century classroom look like? What does a 21st century timetable look like? Are we going to continue educating children under the assumption that the only thing they have in common is their age? Are we going to continue educating children by date of manufacture?

Are we ready?

We are no longer preparing children for the Industrial Revolution. We are in the midst of another revolution – a revolution of thought. The future of our country and the world depends on the work we do today in the classroom. Let us hope that we are up to the task. 

Gareth Dry is principal at Riverview Preparatory School in Malelane, Mpumalanga.

References: 1. But many do. See, for example: http://time.com/25370/doctor-adhd-does-notexist/. 2. See: http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2010/10/the-animatedsir- ken-robinson.html. 3. See, for example: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2016/12/29/10- must-read-brain-science-and-psychology-studies-of-2016/#288ff32f635b. 4. See, for example: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-people-onlyuse- 10-percent-of-their-brains/. 5. See, for example: http://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/brain-factsmyths/ brain-mythology/brain-myth-left-brain-right-brain-personality. 6. See, for example: http://time.com/4466390/homework-debate-research/. 7. See, for example: http://www.parentingscience.com/benefits-of-play.html.




Category: Autumn 2017

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