Independent School Management has a series running on the 21st century school, and I have commented on previous chapters in this series before.   In September, there was a piece on the 21st century faculty, (unavailable on-line).

ISM opens with a valuable and perceptive paragraph to establish contrast on the 20th century teacher:

the autonomous teacher who exists in an egalitarian culture and is rarely, often never, effectively evaluated for impact on student performance, enthusiasm and satisfaction.   At all levels of the school, teachers are organized into silos of teaching with little effective time within the silo to truly collaborate and professionally assess and grow, and equally little time to communicate outside the silo in and effective way.  Teachers spend most of their time teaching on their own and preparing to teach.

ISM cites approvingly a study which calls for “redefining teacher quality to redefine what a highly qualified teacher truly means.  The words highly qualified  should refer to a teacher whose work improves student learning.”   I like this: New Tech network schools, of which I am a fan, actually take this a step further; they simply no longer use the word teacher and have replaced it with the word “facilitator” to match their changing the word student to “learner.”

Teacher leadership is the 21st century answer to this… all teachers must become leaders,” ISM advocates.    Although it has the virtue of being succinct, this statement seems to me pretty abstract and pretty limited to be a valuable expression and articulation of a concept as important as “the 21st century teacher.”

Four categories are then elaborated to define Teacher Leaders:

  • Teacher leaders take control of their own growth as teaches throughout their teaching career.
  • Teacher leaders take control of their own curricula and assessment.
  • Teacher leaders use time to “define and improve their work.”
  • Teacher leaders understand that their work has merit and want to be paid accordingly.

As I look at the explanations for each, and maybe it is just me, but the first three bulleted points, as they are explained further, end up intertwining and overlapping each other in ways that to me seem clumsy as categories.   In all three there is an emphasis on the teacher-leader’s work in self-improvement and in participating in a community of educators reflecting on practice and committed to development.    This is great and critically important: I argue here often that the first and most important step for each of us as 21st century educators is to be, deeply and effectively, 21st century learners.   But the articulation of this value is somewhat hard to follow as it sprawls across these three sections.

The last bullet, which implies an embrace of merit pay that is then reinforced in the detail (“move toward compensation based on ‘student impact”) is, as we all know, a controversial position.    Rather than trying to delve into the question in and of itself, I will only note here that there is a clear and inherent tension in an essay which argues simultaneously for the significance of “taking responsibility for the success of a teaching team” (see below, number 1) and for differentiated compensation on “value added assessment.”   Now, it is not that they are impossible to reconcile, but to call for both without acknowledging and addressing the inherent conflict seems to me problematic.

In the detailed discussion, the ISM article makes some other valuable points and recommendations:

1. Teachers are encouraged to “break out of the silo and rethink your identity to be part of a team of teachers,” “examining and reflecting on your practices,” and being “willing to critique and be critiqued by your peers.”   This is so important, and was among my very first priorities upon arriving at my new school last year.

I would add two points to what ISM writes about this: first, administrators must craft a weekly school schedule which provides teachers structured and sheltered time for this purpose (this idea is referenced in a small way in ISM’s discussion of admin’s responsibility for the schedule.”)   Second, teachers and educators should strive to build these same networks and learning communities with those outside of their own campus, and ought to use social media for these PLN’s.

2. “Use your own classroom as your research lab.”   I love this point, and only wish it had been elaborated.  There are many “experts” and researchers offering us advice on how we should teach, but I don’t think our our faculty’s professional autonomy ought to be compromised by a requirement to abide by, for instance, Doug Lemov’s research.  But teachers as leaders could show leadership by experimenting  and testing such ideas in their classrooms and reporting on the results, and then making their own decisions about which research-based recommendations they accept and implement.   For more, see my post Medina’s Brain Rules: Informing Teachers as Researchers.

3. ISM argues that teacher-leaders “Demand to be help accountable [and] glory in [their] students’ successes and count them. Use measures that are data driven- use the students’ own ongoing, year to year work as evidence.”    Yes.    We have to elevate the role of data in considering our effectiveness, in appropriate and respectful ways, and at St. Gregory we are implementing several tools to do this.   We also need to make student work more visible to more audiences, and have our educators attend to it and respond to it.   It would have been great for ISM here to integrate the concept of digital portfolios for students and teachers for exactly these purposes.  My only caveat here is that nothing in the ISM discussion explicitly states the need to avoid the sin of data abuse, which we see far too often follows data use.    I think every time we advocate for the use of data in school improvement, we need to remind ourselves explicitly that data is to inform, not replace, judgement.

4. In addition to student performance, ISM urges teacher-leaders and administrators to put attention upon student enthusiasm and satisfaction.  A “strategic outcome is student enrollment and re-enrollment.  Teacher leaders will want to be paid according to their ability to drive these outcomes.”   Regular readers here know I am very concerned about student engagement, and use HSSSE to track these data; I think that we need to take student engagement and enthusiasm very seriously, and I think it should be a critical element in decisions about teacher hiring and renewal.  Perhaps in this discussion ISM ought to have acknowledged the challenge here:  student engagement and enthusiasm can become confused with teacher popularity.  I worked for years with a teacher who was very popular for his humor, but students weren’t genuinely engaged in challenging school-work.  But we do very much want our teachers to motivate and engage their students such that they want to enroll, re-enroll, work hard, strive, and succeed in these classes.

5. Scheduling our school day, week, and year is highly important to 21st century learning; I think it is strange to include this topic within a short discussion of the main qualities of  the 21st century teacher.   Of course teacher choices should be included in this analysis and decision-making, but it isn’t job 1 of our teachers to redesign the schedule.

What’s missing?  (What would I have put ahead of, for instance, attending to the school schedule?)

1.  Transparency: Teaching as a Public Act.   In keeping with the spirit of 21st century teachers coming up out of the silo, ISM might have made a bigger emphasis on teaching as a public act.    The 21st century teacher makes the classroom walls as transparent as they can be, and views the classroom as a theater for the world.   See what we do here!   Post student work and offer student exhibitions.   Many of these teachers can and should also use online media tools, such as blogging, wikis, and youtube video projects designed for sharing, communicating, and celebrating the learning happening in the classroom and the excellent student work being generated.

2.  Digital tools.   Students today are “wired,” and it doesn’t make sense for them to be asked to research, collaborate, create, or communicate without their powerful digital tools at their side and in their hands.   The 21st century teacher recognizes this and ensures learning empowers students with the tools they need to do the work they need to do.   The 21st century teacher is informed, thoughtful, and even savvy about how the information revolution is changing the skills students need and how it is changing the way learning will increasingly be delivered, and adapts the learning environment to these changes.  (ISM does refer to the importance of professional development in the use of technology in a later section of the article).

3.  Real-world connections:  No school should be an island, and the 21st century teacher is serious about situating learning within the community that surrounds that school and in relationship to the world and the era in which we are living.   In every subject, the teacher should look to find ways to connect students and their learning to topics and issues they care about, or might find a deep connection to.

4. Problem-solving: Students, like the rest of us, love to solve problems, and the 21st century teacher recognizes this and structures learning from backward design: what are the problems that students need to be able to solve in this field, and how can we challenge them with these problems and design the learning such that its outcomes are the ability to solve these  problem-solving.   The 21st century teacher is especially attentive to the critical thinking skills and the innovative mindsets which are especially called for in our age of information glut and pressing, deep-rooted technical challenges.

5. Learning by Doing:  The 21st century teacher recalls the timeless idea that we learn not by listening but by practicing, and recognizes that this generation, perhaps, which is spending far less time sitting back watching screens and far more time leaning forward “doing” screens, demands the opportunity to do in learning: to tackle it, to game-play with it, to program it, to create it.   This is the web 2.o generation: the internet isn’t to consume, it is to create and communicate.

I appreciate ISM (no author name is provided to this article) for its commitment to think and rethink the 21st century school, and its discussion of the question of the 21st century teacher captures some important ideas and offers some good perspective.     But let’s not let the conversation end where it leaves off: let’s keep considering what is effective teaching in our fast-changing era.