21st Century Learners

Below is the answer I gave to a discussion board post this evening for one of the classes in my masters degree program. Feel free to pick apart my thinking or let me know if there are any holes in my logic!

The writing prompt was as follows:
Post your own definition of a 21st century learner and what it means for them to be literate in the 21st century. What does this mean to you as you consider NETS-T, Standard Two, designing and developing digital-age learning experiences and assessments?
I would define a 21st century learner as someone who knows how to utilize ALL of the tools available to him/her in the learning process, regardless of what the tool is. Most likely the resources will be digital, but it is a wise and learned pupil who can differentiate the correct resource for the task at hand. More importantly, I see a 21st century learner not learning in isolation, but rather learning as part of a community or network.

I get my broad rationale for this definition based on the directions I have seen my own personal learning take. Nearly all of my learning, with regards to technology use in education for example, have come from a learning network or a personal relationship within a socially connected environment (Both traditional F2F connections and online). I frequently meet new teachers, consultants, vendors, or experts based on previous connections with other teachers, consultants, etc. In the past 12 years I've been teaching, "school" has not been a variable in my learning experience. It is the connections I have made that have created the learning and none of these connections would have been possible without the digital tools of the 21st century.

In his explanation paper on the learning theory of connectivism, George Siemens concludes his ideas about 21st century learning in this way:

The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

If learning in the 21st century is a matter of connecting, then it is up to teachers to help students create those and/or evaluate, critique, and filter those connections. In his February 2010 Blog article entitled "Teaching in Social and Technological Networks" Siemens lists what he believes are the essential roles of a teacher with regards to student learning:

1. Amplifying
2. Curating
3. Way-finding and socially-driven sense-making
4. Aggregating
5. Filtering
6. Modeling
7. Persistent presence

Not ironically, these ideas dove-tail nicely with the technology standards for teachers. Teachers are to create the environment within which learning can take place, but they are not the ones responsible FOR the learning. Teachers also assess whether learning has taken place and it is up to them to adjust the learning environment when connections aren't being made by the learner. This is a markedly different approach to the teaching/learning relationship we saw and experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Technology and personal access to information has fundamentally changed education in the 21st century.

Now, without got go back too much to our previous discussion about literacy (the term I'm sure we flogged pretty well), being literate in the 21st century is more than just reading and writing. Yes, one needs to know HOW to read and write, but those skills are a far cry from the ONLY skills necessary to learn in the 21st century (which it sounds like we mostly agreed upon). The more I think about it, the more I want to define literacy in the 21st century as the ability to learn.

You may have already heard this quote from Alvin Toeffler before, but I think it's worth repeating in this conversation:
"The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that can not learn, unlearn, relearn."

Teaching "New" Literacies

Got this email from one of our awesome first grade teachers this morning and I wanted to spend some time thinking about it:

"I have some photographers who will take a billion pictures of what they think is important. That’s not a big deal… When I asked them which pictures we need to keep, they truly think all of them… and they don’t. Do you have some suggestions/parameters which might help them to decide what they think is a “good” picture or what they think is “best”?"

What a great question! So, how do you teach visual literacy. Better yet, how do you help students discern, make judgments, and create meaning from visual material? How do you teach students that images not only convey meaning, but that they also create meaning in a similar way that text helps create meaning for its reader?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

1. I wonder if a conversation needs to happen with the students about what an "important" picture is? Could that be causing the randomness of the image taking? That could very well be the case, but every good photographer knows that the best images happen in the moment and are not staged. So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? The issue could also be that students frankly just don't want to delete anything they've done. They are so excited to have created something that they don't want to think about what to give up; they want to keep them ALL for posterity.

2. Teachers should reinforce with students the idea that images tell a story. If students can identify the "story" behind an image, they are on their way determining its potential place in and among the other "stories" in a group. Only when students begin to see that some images fit better than others will they be willing to pick and choose. The Tell a story in 5 frames Flickr image group comes to mind when thinking about this.

3. Images can be combined to convey a message in a broader context. While each image in itself can create meaning for students, putting pictures together in a sequence also create a larger "big picture" idea. Now this process can go both ways! Students can either start with the big idea and create images that support or tell the story, or they can make a judgement about what the "big picture" is based a given set of images. One is obviously more subjective than the other, but if students can come to a big picture understanding of the images, maybe we can help them re-evaluate their choices. This may very well need to be caught through aggressive modeling more than taught?

4. Along the lines of images telling a story, would be the students ability to put events in sequential order. If the bulk images can't be put in order in which the "story" of the day happens, then they shouldn't be kept. This is a skill that most early childhood and elementary teachers work on with their students. Can you use similar teaching strategies in making the transition from text to images? When students can identify the beginning, middle, and end of literature, I would think that would also be the foundation for helping students discriminate sequences in images as well; as long as images are thought of as meaningful and not just "pretty" things to look at. ECE teachers are already doing this with emergent readers anyway. Emergent readers are constantly connecting pictures to text for the purpose of helping them create meaning. Why couldn't teachers build on this process?

It would be interesting to see if research could provide a link between traditional literacy sequencing skills and the discrimination of meaning from images. What are the preparatory skills needed for students to effectively make subjective decisions about the meaning derived from images? Are both both visual and text literacy two sides of the same coin?

So is "visual literacy" really a NEW literacy or are digital photography and the Internet just amplifying something that has always been important?
Image: "Small DSLR" by Flickr user: jonr. Used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 CreativeCommons License
Image: "life.turns.clockwise #1" by Flickr user: delphwynd. Used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 CreativeCommons License

Google Earth: Still in crazy, after all these years

Note: I started writing this post about a month ago and have just now gotten around to publishing it. Since that first month, a lot has changed with the project I did with my 5th-6th graders. I'll explain more about that at the end of the post.

I still appreciate Google Earth! I can't help but use it as my "Go-To" tool when Social Studies teachers talk about embedding technology into their curriculum. I especially love Google Earth for beginning of the year activities, as basic geography skills get dusted off again in the new year (Continents, Lat./Long, features, etc). With so many tools at an educator's disposal these days, it's easy to overlook Google Earth; it happens to be my tool of choice for helping students connect everything geography. Why the rest of my staff hasn't caught "Google Earth Fever" at this point is beyond me.

We've been spending these past weeks with both 5th and 6th grades completing a geography assignment in which each student is creating a thematic tour of placemarks (five to be exact).
Then we get to use those placemarks to identify major geographic concepts (most immediately understanding latitude and longitude). We may even through some math concepts too.

If you haven't worked with Google Earth in the resent past, give it another shot! It may surprise you. There was just a recent version upgrade ( I haven't seen any significant changes for teachers, only some minor bug fixes. According to the Google Earth Blog, "This version is largely dedicated to supporting outdoor athletes and their GPS devices (hikers, bikers, runners, etc), but comes with a few other Goodies as well." Haven't quite figured out what the "other Goodies" are yet, but I'm sure they'll be made apparent over time.
One month after beginning of projects:
So after having worked with my students on this project for the past month, I've determined that saving placemarks in a folder, is by far one of the most tricky endeavors known to man! You would think that putting a man on the moon was more difficult, but that is not the case. Oh, the tears and agony of lowly 5th graders who did not first select the folder they had created and then press, "File" and then "Save Places As!" I even tried to teach them to single-right click on the folder to save instead of using the above mentioned process...but alas...it was not to be! They only accomplished to well up in themselves feelings of inadequacy and sheer horror as they opened perfectly normal looking KMZ files, only to notice that it is missing the other three placemarks that were there just moments before. How sad! Our social studies teacher, Mr. Schroeder, has been a saint and a good sport about the whole thing. Rumor has it he sent an email to every parent in the 5th grade apologizing for the misery it was causing at home and vowed, and I quote: "I don't know what we were thinking, I promise to never do this assignment again!"

But in all seriousness, the thing that made this thematic placemarks project so difficult was that it was a multi-step assignment. As there teacher, I did not provide the best resources for reinforcing learning of the skills needed to complete the assignment. Obviously, creating resources for them to follow up with (Like this entire wiki page dedicated to Google Earth) wasn't helpful either.

The beginning of this school year I've chalked up to a major learning experience! I'll need to be sure that I don't do this project first thing in the year next year with these young of students. A little computer maturity can go along way when diving into a four or five step process!

We live and we learn....but it's not Google Earth's fault! It's still the best darn tool out there!

Image by:
Pedro Ferreira Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Portugal License.

Access does not equal success

So I often wonder how it is that we have unprecedented access to all of the worlds knowledge on the Internet, but it doesn't actually makes us smarter. Here's my thinking--

On Twitter, for the past year or so, I've been following the International Space Station observation account (@twisst18) which gives you times and dates of when the I.S.S. is visible in your area. I received my usual daily/weekly announcement--Later that evening, I was pulling into the parking lot of my local community center when I thought, "Hey, it's 9:00pm and a clear night, maybe I'll check the International Space Station flying over head!" Mind you, since following these tweets, I have NEVER seen the ISS! So I get out the car, find a clearing where I have an unimpeded view of the South-South West sky and I stand and I wait. I waited...and I waited....and I waited, but saw nothing...oh wait, was that flashing star looking thing the ISS? I don't know! Maybe it was just a really high altitude plane?

It was at that point which I realized that even though I knew exactly where the ISS was supposed to be and when it was supposed to be there, that didn't necessarily mean I was going to see it. I had access to all the correct information, but I still couldn't see the orbiting station.

Mr. Luehmann, our 7th-8th grade science teacher, could have easily pick it out. He's used to looking at the night sky! Surely he could see it! But there I was looking like a fool, neck craned back gazing into the vast darkness called night with no moving space station visible!

I think our students have the same issue with the Internet. They have access, but don't know what to do with the information once they get it. Students lack the wisdom needed to put the information into its proper context. It is very much like the line from the epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Water, Water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

It's for this reason that I appreciate the work of gentleman like Ian Jukes at the 21st Century Fluency Project. They have defined effective digital citizenship in terms of five "fluencies." The one I'm most interested in for this post is information fluency.

I remember listening to Ian present at NECC quite a few years ago when I first heard the term "info-whelm." We are drowning in it! Our students are drowning in information! We are all over-whelmed with massive amounts of content.

Information fluency is way more than just teaching students how to access information. Information fluency is about interpreting, extracting, authenticating, and perceiving. Over the years I've realized it's much easier to show students HOW to do a Google search than it is to help them make sense of the results once they get them. But I think in the end, that's what it means to be a great teacher. Showing kids what to do with it, once you've got. Access isn't the issue anymore. We've got the quantity thing figured out, now we need to work on quality.

Our kids today are living with information cups that are over-flowing. The challenge we face is not how can we make our students learn MORE (fill their "cups" with more stuff), but rather, what do I DO with the stuff that I already have! Take it one step further by asking, how can I help my students create a framework for dealing with all the info coming their way?

Thinking back to seeing, or not seeing, the International Space Station helps me empathize a little bit with my students. How irrelevant and trivial all this abundant information must seem to kids.

The skill I think students need the most is learning to distinguish the good from the bad information, the noise from the music. It is this task that I believe is the quintessential action of the teacher. You can't just do the same old thing in the classroom you did before, because traditionally, you're just "filling the cup." There has got to be something more!

Wow, all this thinking and ranting from not being able to see the International Space Station! Must have been a long week :-)

image: Overflow by Flickr user: 96dpi

Wish I Was There...

Well, ISTE 2010 has almost come to a close and how I wish I could have gone. Various and sundry reasons had prevented me from going this year, but all in all, it has been a treat enjoying conversations from afar.

AAAHHH...who am I kidding...Twitter is NO replacement for being there. Some of the best conversations I've had about education have happened in many of the meet-ups (or now Tweet-ups), and vendor parties at past conferences (especially chats with @mkratzer over a cold beverage). You can't really do that online!

For the sake of not being too melancholy and whiny, I am very appreciative though of posts like this one from @henrythiele. Henry gives a quick overview of what he saw as the emerging themes of the conference (as a side note, thanks to @kevcreutz for retweeting Henry, which is how I found his post. That's what you have to love about a PLN).

But reading exciting posts, doesn't replace talking face to face with folks you have known for years, but are just "meeting" for the first time! Because that is what ISTE Conference is all about: meeting face to face and sharing.

But alas...

It is awesome to read posts like "It's Not About the Tools" from Jason Schmidt. ISTE 2010 gave Jason time to think and write about his teaching. It's posts like this that echo so many ISTE conversations from this year's conference and NECC conferences of the past. It can also be summed up in tweets like this:

I have a sneaking suspicion that it's the change in teaching that terrifies many of our colleagues and not the technology! We'll leave that for another post on another day.

So yeah, I am a bit bitter about not being able to go, but I can't deny it has been awesome to see the true power of my learning network in action. Even though I wasn't there, I got pretty darn close.

Thank you so much for those of you who took time to post, tweet, bookmark, and note-take for the rest of us! Your sharing is so important and doesn't go unappreciated!

Image above: IMG_0200 by Flickr user: ctkmcmillan

Still Amazed....

It doesn't matter how many times I've been part of a video conference, it is still exciting to watch the connective power of the Internet at work in the classroom! Our Jr. Kindergarten class this morning was able to get in touch with a year six class from Novo Hamburgo, Brazil. Maybe it was the over 5, 000 mile classroom separation, or the idea that you are making a personal connection with someone from a completely different culture or way of life, either way it was just plain COOL!

I can't underscore enough the importance of connecting classrooms. These short but effective video chats are changing the way our children at St. John see the world. As one Kindergartner remarked, "they really do look like us!" Our first grade students said the same thing as they Skyped with another foreign county....California! Well, it's foreign to use in the midwest!

There were several hiccups during the call this morning, but those set aside, the experience gave our preschool teacher a great place to start. I think the neatest part was having a 6 year old Jr. Kindergartner be the interpreter for the group. Of course her dad was there to help out as well (Portuguese was the language of the day). Everyone involved needed the interpreter and it was a great confidence booster for that student to have such an important job during the video conference.

As some of our teachers are finding out, connecting outside their four walls can be quite addicting. Once the kids know it is possible, that with a single click they can be in touch with other kids, they want to connect ALL the time.

I am beginning to be skeptical of the "digital generation" critics who say that our kids are becoming less personable and exhibiting less social skills because of the technology. With a high-speed Internet connection, a computer, and a web-cam, our kids are making vital connections that are breaking down distance, linguistic, and cultural barriers. If anything, the technology has the ability to make them more social. The trick for the classroom teacher is to capitalize on the power of a digital connection, while helping students process that experience within the context of everyday face to face interactions.

A couple of lessons learned from this mornings video conference:

1. Choose your video conference time so as to maximize bandwidth. Because of scheduling conflicts, we started our call about the same time our teachers were sending lunch count and attendance over the network. Talk about a bandwidth nightmare! Also it was about lunch time in Brazil. The dad who helped translate said that at lunch most people in the city hit the Internet pretty hard, which also contributed to slow things down on their end. This excessive traffic bumped us off a couple of times and made caused our web-cam to not show to the Brazilian class.

2. Plan ahead....
Our preschool teacher did an awesome job of having questions prepared in advance. There wasn't a lot of down time trying to come up with questions to ask. Also, she had prepared the kids in advance to be patient for technical problems. The kids knew ahead of time that their attention needed to be brought back once any technical problems were fixed.

I'm looking forward to helping them connect again in a couple of weeks!

So when is your classroom going to adventure outside of your four walls next?

METC Tweets--Trying Something New

OK...So I'm giving this a shot! METC 2010 was the first real conference I had been to where I actively engaged in Twitter conversations and actively followed the conference hashtag. The problem is that I want to aggregate them all and make them available in bit sized pieces of "yippety-yap." Enter WidgetBox.

I'm going to embed this widget and see how it works. We'll see what happens...sorry for the advertising, but that's what you get from FREE!

Learning from the "Rules"

I typically don't like throwing stones at other teachers, schools, or districts, but the computer lab rules below caught my attention and gave me cause to pause and reflect on the thoughts I had worked with earlier in the week at METC.

Computer Lab Rules
1. Come in the room quietly and go to your assigned seat. Stay in your seat.
2. Keep your hands, feet, and all objects to yourself. Don’t touch anyone else’s computer without permission.

3. Follow the directions given by the teacher. When the teacher is talking, turn your head and look at the teacher.
4. If you n
eed to go to the restroom, raise your hand.
5. Raise your hand before changing programs or printing.

6. Treat others like you would like to be treated.
7. At the end of the period, wait at your computer until you are given permission to line up. Make sure to push in your chair and clean up your area.

One of my major "Take-aways" from this years Midwest Educational Technology Conference was that first and foremost all of the students in our classroom are learners, and it is them, not us (the teachers) who are the focus. The above rules seem to reinforce the role of the teacher and not the student. Now, I'm almost sure that if I were to ask the folks who wrote the rules, "Who is the most important person in the computer lab?" they would likely say the student, but is that the focus of their rules? Do their rules reinforce their values?

So often, we communicate messages to students in subtle ways. What messages are being communicated to the students by these computer lab rules? Do your students know what the core values of your classroom or school are? Do they know that WE are there to serve THEM, not the other way around?

As teachers, specifically Lutheran school teachers, I think we quickly lose focus of the priority in our classrooms. Now if you were to ask any teacher about their calling, they would without hesitation say it is teaching kids about the love that God has for them in Christ Jesus and helping students learn about the world which God has made! But does our practice reflect our practice?

Have we sacrificed a quality (student focused, learner focused classrooms) for quantity of work? In most cases, we are not talking about quantity of student work, but quantity of teacher work! As part of our Lutheran school culture it is not uncommon for teachers to have extra ministry duties outside of the day school classroom. Do these outside demands make it possible for teachers to focus their energies what is their primary focus?

I'll admit, it is easier to work in a teacher centered classroom. If the only variable I have to think about is me, then I don't have to worry about meeting the needs of ALL the kids in class. If I'm the Sunday school superintendent, and the choir director, and an elder, and on 5 other committees, it's just easier to plan for worksheets rather than rubric driven activities!

There are without a doubt, exceptional Lutheran school teachers who go above and beyond themselves and have created students centered classrooms, differentiated lessons, and who have created classroom learning spaces that reflect student-centered values. It is these exceptional teachers who understand best that:
You're not paid to teach stuff; you're paid to cause learning.-Grant Wiggins
(Quote tweeted by @bengray. Retweeted over twelve times!)
It is these teachers who spark imagination, encourage creativity, and allow students to learn with their "whole-brain." These are the truly successful teachers and it is these teachers who know what it means be part of a Lutheran school, seeking to be the "School of Choice" in their community.

The best part? When the community comes to your school for quality Christian education, they'll most importantly get to hear the Good News of God's love for them and isn't that the most important learning that our students can ever do?

I hope this didn't come across as being too preachy. The computer lab rules above are intended to be a conversation starter. The more I consider our profession (Calling), the more clear the future becomes as to the direction of what a school is and what it should look like. I don't by any means have all the answers, but I do know that if we ask good questions and engage in meaningful conversations, we can all be part of the answers.

image "Seven Principles of Learning" byFlickr user: dkuropatwa

Design Matters--METC 2010

METC 2010--Dave Jakes

METC 2010--Gail Lovely Sectional

It's Only Fair....

It can often be heard from my 7th grade students, "It's only fair that if we are writing on our blogs, that you should be writing in yours!" I would have to agree with them, so here we go.

I really enjoy challenging students' minds by showing them innovative and thought provoking lectures from TED Conferences presented around the world. The quality and expertise of many of the presenters is top notch. Note: caution should always be exercised and all talks previewed for age appropriateness. I know that should go without saying, but it kind of sneaks in there sometimes and when you least expect it.

Our latest TED talk blogging assignment was based on Derek Sivers' presentation called, "Weird, or just different?" (Shown below for your viewing pleasure)

One of the main reasons we take time to critically think and write on our blogs is that I firmly believe my students just need more time to practice writing about their thinking and opinions. But I don't just want them to GIVE their opinion (anyone can do that), but rather I want them to have well reasoned and articulate opinions! They should have ideas that are thought out and logically informed. This is pretty hard for Middle School kids. Now add the element of doing that writing in public (authentic audience) and things get really interesting.

I believe it is vitally important for use to give our students the opportunity and mentoring needed to be effective public writers. For me anyway, public writing can be excruciating. Not only do I worry about spelling, grammar, and usage, but there are issues of tone and perceived meaning of words and phrases.

If anyone is interested in reading their ideas on the above subject, you can check them out here

As much as possible I try not to give "direct instruction" blogging assignments (I wrote about this in an earlier post), but I hope this assignment give students time to slow down and be reflective writers.

The one area I hope to get feedback on is the spiritual implications of truth and the its' opposite. We'll see if that comes out in this groups articles.