Crossing the chasm to 21st-century skills and careers

Technology is changing the way we all live and learn, and education needs to be at the forefront of this change. Now, this doesn’t mean implementing technology for the sake of embracing the latest fads or trends, and it also doesn’t mean adding digitization for the sake of checking a box that shows the world you’re a 21st-century-ready classroom.

In fact, these efforts are all bound to fail and are generally just a rehash of traditional teaching methods seen through a digital lens. Although many classrooms now include computers or tablet devices, for example, it’s a poor example of digitization for your students to simply be swapping a pencil and paper for a G-doc or a handheld calculator for a handheld device complete with a calculator app.

At Wildwood Middle School in West Virginia, students and teachers enjoy opportunities for digital learning using online, gamified applications and curriculum like CoderZ. Students develop skills to problem solve, work through challenges and build interpersonal skills such as patience and respect for others. As a teacher, the concept of portable, easy to access, technology-driven lessons and curriculum is an attractive way to introduce and excite students about the digital world and careers in STEM.

By discovering how technology can seriously transform their classrooms and, in turn, empower students to enjoy meaningful learning experiences while preparing them for jobs of the future, schools can effectively close the chasm to 21st-century skills and careers. Here’s a checklist that all schools or districts can use to make that happen:  

  1. Start with a plan. Define the challenges that you want to solve as teachers and organizations for both yourselves and your students, and then implement your digital learning strategy to support achieving those goals. A good starting point is to look at the skills you want your students to graduate with and then develop ways to measure every student’s progress toward those goals. Creating a list of the key competencies you would like your curriculum to nourish is a great way to build your technology curriculum. These don’t have to be just technical skills. The right strategy should build on both hard knowledge and soft skills such as confidence, teamwork, adaptability or strategic thinking.
  2. Engage students and keep them intrinsically motivated. The days of lecturing from the podium and hoping students retain at least some of the knowledge taught are long gone. Today’s STEM classrooms must be collaborative, engaging and interesting. Ignore this fact and it won’t be long before those early, intrinsic motivations completely disappear.
  3. Create pathways to today’s STEM careers. We live in a world where even the youngest students have a wealth of information right at their fingertips online. They’re exploring careers and educational opportunities, figuring out what they want to do when they grow up and talking to friends and parents about those exciting opportunities. Make sure STEM careers are part of those conversations.
  4. Making the learning relevant for students. Research has shown that the classroom won’t succeed if it’s not a learning environment that creates a learning experience. Students in an experiential learning environment, for example, understand how to observe accurately, think about what is missing and then experiment to find solutions to complex problems. Those students will also feel motivated by challenges that are set at the right level of difficulty, as well as believe that they are able to develop their own abilities through learning. Solutions using real-time gamified simulation like ours, for instance, allow students to tangibly see what they can do today that they could not do before, and take control of their own learning.
  5. Prepare teachers for optimal success. Schools should guide and encourage teachers to make the move from traditional teaching methods of instruction to becoming mentors, embrace the zone of proximal development and provide valuable support to their classrooms. Teachers should be empowered with the information and tools through professional development to be ahead of the class and comfortable introducing digital technology and technology learning into their classrooms. A cloud-based solution like the one we use, for example, allows teachers to host unlimited classes, removing much of the administrative work from the staff’s plate and needs no IT, thus enabling continuous improvement of the learning environment. Tie this with PD, teacher guides, information sources, pacing guides and more and the teacher will be confident and successful with tech learning.
  6. Empower parents as valuable players in the STEM game. Youngsters are highly influenced by the people around them, which means that their parents can ultimately make or break a future STEM-lover’s enthusiasm. By empowering these important stakeholders to spread the good news about STEM and the many opportunities it presents, schools can make a significant difference in the number of youngsters who give STEM careers a shot.

It’s important to note that despite all its promise in the educational world, technology is never going to replace the classroom teacher. But a teacher who ignores teaching technology can obsolete the students from the most promising career opportunities. Both teacher and technology will have to work in partnership, with the latter providing the tools that the former can use to enrich the learning process. This, in turn, will help encourage more students to not only explore, but to also excel in, STEM subjects that they might have otherwise overlooked. Because who knows just where the next Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs is lurking in our nation’s schools, ready to make a lasting impact on the world?

Carolyn Thomas is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches science and coding in West Virginia.

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