21st Century Education is the Real Reform (VIDEO)

When we stand here, concerned about a global education for our students, what we should be discussing is how to transform all of our schools for the future, not simply how to rearrange the same pieces again and again.
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In a recent online panel discussion of education reform, education advocate Diane Ravitch decried what she called the current "national monologue" about education. She's right. The current discussion is being cast as one story of reform, pitching testing as the cornerstone, and poor-teaching as the villain. But when the education story is painted with such a broad brush, it distorts public perception of the excellent job that so many teachers are doing, and it obscures the real concerns they face in our students' "always connected" world.

A forward-looking discussion of "reform" shouldn't be a charter versus public debate, or union versus non-union debate. That is a decades-old, polarizing discussion. When we stand here, concerned about a global education for our students, what we should be discussing is how to transform all of our schools for the future, not simply how to rearrange the same pieces again and again. Transformative school change needs to take a hard look at what really moves our students towards a "21st century education" -- an education where students are working on inquiry-based, real world problems, and acknowledge the connected world they live in, where they can connect and learn globally, and where thinking and problem solving are valued over the memorization of facts and figures because they live in a Google-able world.

Where are the real visionaries in this discussion? Not surprisingly, many of them are educators in public, private, charter schools and universities around the country quietly working together to recreate what 21st century teaching and learning looks like. Blogging, teaching and leading by example, these teachers, principals, professors and superintendents are forging what it looks like to be a 21st century educator.

They work in union and non-union schools, charter, public and private schools, elementary schools and colleges; they are new teachers and experienced ones, they are librarians, technology instructors, and curriculum directors; they have bachelor's degrees and Ph.D.'s, but at the end of the day they are all just educators interested how the socially networked world will begin to transform what school means.

They are creating long-term global classrooms like Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis's Flat Classroom Project. They are collaborating across the miles to help students become more understanding of their similarities and differences like Barbara Barreda and Clarence Fisher's Thin Walls project connecting students in L.A. with students from Canada. Their students are comparing hemispheres between New York and New Zealand with teachers Lisa Parisi and Christine Southard. They are creating a global 24-hour student-run Earthcast webcast for Earthday like teacher Matt Montagne. They are librarians helping students construct an entire research project from beginning to end online like students at my own campus. They are principals like Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy who is recreating what a 1:1 school with an inquiry mission looks like. And they are former educators like Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach who didn't just "talk the talk: but have formed Powerful Learning Practices, a year-long, job-embedded learning program for teachers, because they believe that change is systemic and cannot be accomplished through the occasional 'tech' training. All of these educators (and many more) are exploring what schooling and learning can look like in a networked world--the global world our students will be inhabiting.

And these are educators not motivated by testing requirements or merit pay, yet who spend their evenings online discussing these changes in virtual seminars and chats like EdTech Talk and LearnCentral.org or attending virtual conferences like the free volunteer-driven online education conference known as K-12 Online which begins this week.

When we talk technology use in schools, we aren't talking about just bringing in a vendor's products or doing drill and practice online. The real story is about figuring out how the "social network" is changing what is possible -- and pondering what it means to school our children in a more connected world where every voice can be heard. It's about discarding the factory model of education and outmoded business practices like merit pay and testing, and instead looking to a variety of thinkers from Dewey to Clay Shirky, or even looking to contemporary companies like Google, where innovation and creativity are encouraged institutionally.

What it takes is vision, training, willingness, parental and administrative support, and a belief that school is about something other than testing and measuring. It's often been pointed out that what other countries look to us for is innovation and creativity. And yet at every turn, our outmoded national policy of testing squelches that impulse in our schools.

How can this sort of conversation about transforming schools be fostered? By joining as a nation in these types of conversations about what a globally connected student looks like. By believing that reform is about more than just testing and merit pay. By not stereotyping teachers. By helping teachers remove obstacles to innovation. Not obstacles like unions, but like restrictive internet policies that don't support innovation, and like aging technology in schools that only deepens the socioeconomic divide. It's about understanding that the technology fosters these changes, but it isn't about gimmicks. It's about schools needing more technology in the hands of students so that students do have those voices.

What can you do to help these educators? As a parent, encourage your principal to support innovative teaching. Support your school with funding for technology or seek community help with that from businesses. Pressure your school boards to support their innovative teachers and to provide opportunities for them. As an administrator, support your teacher-leaders and remove the obstacles that restrain innovation. Have these conversations about change as parents, teachers, and administrators. Read blogs of teachers like many of those on the Support Blogging site to see what all these quiet courageous teachers are doing in their classrooms.

Read articles like Will Richardson's recent interview in Education Week. And most of all, understand that real reform isn't just a simple monologue about test scores, or debates about charter and public. It's about teachers, administrators and school districts, one at a time, asking together what a 21st century education looks like in a socially networked world. Please join us in this real conversation.

Carolyn Foote's blog can be found at Not So Distant Future.

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