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Are we ready to revolutionize K-12 learning?

6 min read


Recently I’ve been escorting my first grandchild, Luke, on tours of the garden and grounds around our home. It’s probably more accurate to say that Luke — who has just turned one — is towing me through the tulips. With my finger in his hand, he’s pulling “B” (his pet name for me) at what for him is breakneck speed through an incredible learning adventure. Every day.

I know that every time I’m in a school building this year, and every time I work with teachers and principals in the physical or virtual world, I’ll be thinking about Luke. I’ll be contrasting his learning exploits — mentored by me but largely directed by his own curiosity and self interests — with the reality being experienced by millions of older students inside our educational structures.

We all know that new and emerging Web technologies are connecting young people in ways never before possible. Through blogs, social networking sites, multimedia and other Web 2.0 tools, their world is becoming more and more networked and participatory. Outside of school, students spend time every day in virtual environments that are highly engaging and encourage creative thinking and problem solving. They frequently participate in games and social media where they routinely acquire and apply knowledge and collaborate with friends.

But that’s most often not the case inside.

By and large, schools have been resistant to these profound shifts and new realities. Many teachers have made the choice to cling to old classroom practices and bury their professional heads in the sand. The reasons are understandable, especially in American public schools, where curriculum imperatives over the last decade have been driven by high-stakes accountability testing. Whatever else one might say about it, the era of No Child Left Behind has not provided the best breeding ground for experimentation with new ways of teaching and learning.

I’m not alone in sensing a potential sea of change in this regard, as the Common Core State Standards become the next big wave of school reform. Many thoughtful educators on all sides of the accountability argument see that CCSS will demand more of teachers, students and schools. We’re in a place where something good could happen in our classrooms to align what schools teach (and how they teach) with 21st century realities. We could see many more schools turning to inquiry learning and an emphasis on critical and creative thinking, teaming and collaborative problem-solving, and other current-day skills.

But it’s far from certain that this will happen.

From where I sit, as CEO of a professional development company and someone who has worked closely and personally with more than 7000 educators over the past five years, I think we’re at a major interchange on the learning superhighway. In the next several years, we’ll decide whether teachers and principals are truly the instigators of powerful learning for students and themselves — or they are simply educational agents trained on a massive scale to deliver a prescribed curriculum in a prescribed way.

You might suspect that I’m in the first camp. I am — and intensely so.

All the work of our company, Powerful Learning Practice, emerges from our understanding that children learn most powerfully and are most likely to reach their full potential when they are allowed to be self-directed learners who gain knowledge and skills as they pursue the things that interest them most. We believe the same thing about teachers and school leaders. In our view, this means that today’s educators must become experts in both creating highly engaging environments for learning and in guiding and mentoring as our students pursue their passionate interests.

We also believe that to gain the expertise required to teach and learn this way, teachers and school leaders must become “connected educators.” In our professional learning model, that means they are meaningfully engaged in three critical ways: (1) in local professional learning communities, (2) in online personal learning networks, and (3) in virtual communities of practice designed for participants to “go deep” in their learning together.

In our 2012 book, The Connected Educator: Leading and Learning in a Digital Age, my co-author Lani Ritter Hall and I present this 21st century professional development model and show how it works in real schools and authentic learning situations. We also document the extensive research base that we believe validates our approach as the best way to develop the highly adept teachers and leaders our iGeneration students need and are impatiently waiting for. You can learn more about our thinking about professional learning in the digital age in this article and interview.

Several months ago, we created an infographic to help illustrate our ideas about the life of a professional educator who is “connected” and how being connected impacts student learning. We posted it at our PLP blog and hoped that hundreds of educators interested in our concepts would take the time to read a text-heavy “visual aid.” Instead, many thousands have sought it out. In fact, A Day in the Life of a Connected Educator has become the most-read post ever in PLP’s blog space.

This tells me that educators are increasingly hungry for connection and eager to shift their practice. We’re doing all we can to feed that hunger. Here is what we say to educators who join in our work: “We want to take you from ‘What is 21st century learning and why is it important?’ to ‘How do I create a 21st century classroom or school?'”

Because we know that talk is never enough, our year-long PD experience culminates in action research projects designed by teams of participants in our Connected Learner Experience. The projects are aimed at producing a meaningful shift in teaching and leadership practices, back home, in schools and classrooms where it counts most. Many of them do. You can read about some of the action research here.

I think the question before all of us is this: Are we going to continue the risky, incremental approach to change that still has schools anchored in the 20th century? Or are we finally ready and willing to revolutionize K-12 learning?

I believe the revolution begins when we create opportunities for educators to self direct their own learning. We have to provide the time and encouragement that allows educators to think deeply with professional colleagues at home and around the world about how they can most effectively engage students. Revolution happens when we enable educators to act on their ideas collectively. I am totally confident that the result will be a generation of young adults with nimble minds and collaborative hearts, leading our world into 2030 and 2040 and beyond.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of  Powerful Learning Practice, where she works with schools and districts from across the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, United Kingdom, Israel, Norway, and China to re-envision their learning cultures and communities through the Connected Learner Experience and other e-learning opportunities. During a 25-year education career, Sheryl has been a classroom teacher, technology coach, charter school principal, district administrator, university instructor and digital learning consultant. Follow her on Twitter at @snbeach.