There is a growing consensus that the nation’s future workforce, both those in new jobs and those replacing today’s ageing workers, will lack needed technical skills and knowledge if the content and standards of our current school system are not revamped with specific workforce development goals in mind.
As many schools wallow in the past, technology is becoming ever more pervasive. It is getting smaller, speedier, stronger, and more adaptable. Technologies developed in the fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology, imaging, and information technology are advancing at unprecedented rates, impacting manufacturing, electronics, transportation, military defence, communication, healthcare, the food industry, and the list goes on.
Few would debate that future work depends on the skills and knowledge of its workforce. The extent to which these skills and knowledge need to be grounded in science, math, engineering, or technology, is slightly more contentious. While more and more middle-skill jobs are requiring math and science fluency or technological savvy, the typical STEM job may still be thought of as limited to a computer scientist, physician, or structural engineer. A more realistic definition of a STEM job, however, also should include the factory-line assembler utilizing automation technology, the home health aide, and the ironworker.
In high-performing schools, technology is used on a regular basis. Teachers access Internet resources, incorporate online tutorials for students who need extra help, and connect graphics calculators to TV monitors. For these teachers, technology doesn’t sit idle in the classroom; rather, it enhances instruction as a tool, just as a pencil or chalkboard did in past generations. Elementary teachers, for example, might use short (under five minutes) video clips to provide students with visuals to help clarify concepts and bring relevancy to a lesson. Middle grade and high school teachers can turn to the Internet to teach students how to raise social consciousness for a particular cause and learn about personal responsibility by starting a blog.
Video games, typically seen as distractions to academic study, also are gaining traction among schools for enhancing instruction. Introducing such games into the classroom allows students to connect to a medium they are familiar and comfortable with. Appropriately designed video games can be used as a way to start a unit of study or to reinforce previously learned concepts. Such video games also offer the potential for new interdisciplinary collaboration between the arts and core-content subject areas, such as math, science, English language arts, and social sciences.
Finding appropriate video games that are educational is increasingly easy. Companies such as Scholastic and PBS Kids have devoted websites to kid-friendly games, activities, and accompanying teacher resources. There are also video games that focus on research and development projects. For instance, the Education Arcade website offers games such as Supercharged!, which places students in a three-dimensional environment in which they must navigate a spaceship by controlling the electric charge of the ship. DreamHaus uses architecture as an entry point for learning AP-level mathematics, engineering, and physics. Video games in the classroom is an ambitious, interactive approach to education. They provide a way to incorporate 21st-century skills and allow students to be active participants in the learning process.
The society in which our students must succeed has become a global one, in large part due to technology. Through computer and Internet access, millions of students in developing countries around the world have the opportunity to acquire the necessary skill set to compete worldwide for good jobs. For them, technology has essentially levelled the global playing field.
21st-century skills are not really different. We have always wanted students to be creative thinkers and problem solvers who have the skills necessary to function effectively in society and in the workplace. However, the way in which these skills are incorporated into the classroom and how technology is integrated will greatly change instruction. Indeed, with technology, today’s classroom transcends physical walls and reaches around the globe. In addition, we need to plan instruction with an understanding of the “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001) who have grown up in the Digital Age and who expect to learn to be interactive, engaging and up-to-date. Instruction that meets the needs of today’s students will incorporate
- A variety of learning opportunities and activities
- The use of appropriate technology tools to accomplish learning goals
- Project- and problem-based learning
- Cross-curricular connections
- A focus on inquiry and the student-led investigations
- Collaborative learning environments, both within and beyond the classroom
- High levels of visualization and the use of visuals to increase understanding
- Frequent, formative assessments including the use of self-assessment.
The role of teachers in a 21st-century classroom shifts from that of the “expert” to that of the “facilitator.” The focus for instruction shifts from “knowing” to being able to use and apply information in relevant ways. Students who are being prepared for the 21st century will be involved in “continuous cycles of learning” (Lemke, et al, 2003) that lead to a deeper understanding of the subject area content and that develop the critical skills for meeting the challenges of the future.