Shift Happens: 4 mindset shifts for teaching in the 21st century

Feb 12, 2019

According to Forbes magazine, freelancers are expected to become the workforce majority by 2027, in large part, due to the perks of a digital era.

Things like automation, video conferencing, document sharing, and infinite digital reach are opening doors to freedom, flexibility, and the chance to work from *virtually* anywhere but an office cubicle.

With the growth of freelance apparently dancing triples around the traditional workforce, the 'Gig Economy' is on the rise, with nearly half the Millennial population already on board.

What used to be the 'fallback' for those who lost a job, freelancing is stepping into the limelight as the legit standard in pursuing a professional career.

So...what does this mean for our students?

Well, as an entry point, this means that if they're moving into a world where freelancing is the new cubicle, our students will need to know how to self-direct.

(Long-gone are the days of someone looming over their personal space demanding TPS reports, you know what I mean?!)

Um...yeah...I'm gonna need those TPS reports, mmm'kay?

And, if they're not down to work for the 'Man' anymore (as in, 'Damn the Man, save the Empire!'), then they'll need the ability to innovate a product or a service of their own.

And since they'll be working digitally, well...they'll need the ability to resist Netflix-bing sessions amidst the call to 'hustle and flow.'

[Too many movie refs? It's all good. If you got 'em, bonus points for you! If not, well...Status Quo Answer Key *not* likely...]

According to ed-advocate and early tech adopter David Warlick:

'this is an era that will require...teachers and students to learn to be information artisans--people who can creatively and artistically reshape information and raw material into compelling information products.'

-- David Warlick

In other words, our students need to learn how to stop passively consuming information in the classroom and start producing it themselves.

And according to Warlick, these kinds of 'productions' can take the form of blogs, or games, or podcasts, or films. In fact, he prophesies a future where school libraries evolve into centers for producing multimedia content as the focal point for function.

A far cry from the media centers-turned-online-testing-centers we still see today; where--at present--digital resources are being hoarded from regular use for *months on end* in the name of standardized testing 'blackout' dates (can I get an A-men?!).

But I digress...

It's worth mentioning that Warlick shared these visions in 2011, and saw the potential in 'edtech' as early as 1995. An early tech-adopter, indeed.

I DIG this dude's style...

And it's probably because he says stuff like this:

In an article in Edutopia, he reminds teachers that technology (in and of itself) isn't the point when it comes to learning...PRODUCTION is.

The point isn't memorization or form regurgitation of what already exists. The point is about creating something new out that which already exists.

Because genuine production is proof of knowledge, nothing else. Especially in this era.

Duuuuude...this guy has got Vision!

So I want to share with you 4 mindset shifts that reside along the fault lines Warlick has so graciously dug out for us. These shifts in our way of thinking (and teaching, and learning) are essential to producing what 21st-century society demands of us: impact.

Mindsets that can bridge the gap between hard-and-fast teaching tradition and the real needs of a brave new, and rapidly-evolving world.

Shift Happens, whoop whoop!

Mindset Shift #1: developing a ‘maker’ mentality

Have you heard the term ‘makerspace’ being thrown around in the field of education these days?  These hands-on design spaces are cropping up in communities across the nation. Perhaps a neighboring college of yours has one, or maybe even your own campus does.

Sounds flashy and new, but the concept of ‘making’ has been deeply rooted in educational pedagogy for years.  Starting of course with constructivism, which has since evolved into Constructionism.

Essentially these are the theories of ‘self-directed learning' and 'learning through doing,’ and that’s essentially what makerspaces are all about.

The video embed below features Gary Stager (TEDx), who breaks down Seymour Papert’s insights into a Constructionist approach to learning.

Papert worked with and through cognitive Constructivist Jean Piaget (talk about standing on the shoulders of a giant, right?!).

And after watching (spoiler alert), you just might realize that Papert’s ideas and his vision for all that is good in education is our kingdom for the taking if we work toward it. 

Gary Stager at TEDx 'Seymore Papert, Inventor of Everything'...a MUST watch.

But this kind of change begins in the classroom, not from the top down (if you want to see a change in this lifetime anyway).

Makerspaces and ‘making’--if you are familiar with these terms--are traditionally associated with STEM classes. So in this case, it's 'making' in the sense of coding or robotics or 3D prototyping. The physical build-out of things like rocketships and active volcanoes; 'Shop Class'-oriented woodwork; and computer-based technology nerd-out sessions.

And to be real, it’d be totally weird to have some of the tools of a traditional maker-space in the high school ELA classroom (ex. a glue gun, batteries, tubing, toothpicks, plastic beads, piping?!). I mean, you’re not really gonna need drill bits or a sewing machine to 'make writing' in your classroom, per se...

But you will need, at minimum, the usual suspects. Our go-to writing tools: post-its, chopping block paper, index cards, wall and/or white-board space, markers; and virtually anything color-coordinated, including building blocks, colored tapes, and even some Lego.  

And this is because at present, a much bigger definition of ‘making’ is on the rise.  According to the 2018 NMC Horizon Report (via Educause), the process of learning through ‘making’ is taking hold across the curriculum, emerging as a promising path for providing experiential learning environments which support the development of future-ready skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and innovation, communication, and problem-solving.

We’re entering an era where the ability to create--to build out from idea to tangible solution--the things that will ultimately solve unknown problems is precisely the skill that is highest in demand.  

So it’s no wonder a push for a maker’s mindset is growing, right?

According to teacher, author, and edtech expert, John Spencer:

Makerspaces can actually be the perfect context for informational writing and authentic research in Language Arts classes, specifically.  When students create things like blogs, podcasts, and documentaries, they are exercising a maker mindset.

--John Spencer

So my best advice to you? Get making!

Mindset Shift #2: embracing edTech

Survey teachers in any given school district across every given state, and we'll give you an earful as to why mobile devices are the devious tools of distraction in the classroom.  

Teachers, administrators, and school districts alike.

We go to great lengths, in fact, to stifle the relentless ubiquity of smartphones. From placing them in plastic baggies at the front of the room to limiting Wifi connectivity on campus.

More simply (and humorously) put, in the words of Hall Davidson, director of Discovery Education Network:

About the only organizations that have a ban on cell phones anymore are the Taliban and your local high school.

--Hall Davidson

So yeah, we’ve got our work cut out for us when it comes to this next mindset shift, friends, but using technology in the classroom, *such as* smartphones, spells major potential for 21st century teaching and learning, provided it’s used safely and applied meaningfully.

Before they are even school-age, children have likely already used FaceTime to connect with a relative, or managed their own way onto NetFlix to watch a favorite show.   

As such, the reliance on creative and curious problem-solving while toggling these devices is naturally built into children from their earliest days.

As they grow older, our kids eventually learn that they can access information from virtually anyone and from anywhere at any time. A world much different than the analog and card-catalog systems we would use to access information in our youth (did I just date myself?!).

So it makes sense that these digital natives have a different sense of themselves as learners than we did.

Unfortunately, though, their understanding of 'learning' as this hands-on, active, personal process often sits in stark contrast to what they come to experience in a “standards-based” school, where the textbook is the limit of resource; and the teacher, the limit of allowed expertise.  

What this has created is a world of learners who merely see technology as a social toy, not a learning tool.  Meanwhile, a device like a smartphone is the swiss-army-knife of research and data collection.

I recently came across a comment in a digital community I belong to (full of teachers, of course) where a teacher complained that despite her school’s capability for 1:1 tech, she puts all assignments on paper because her kids just ‘aren’t successful’ when working on the computer.  


If I’m going to be proper about it, this mindset is technically contrary to Common Core, because Writing standard CCSS.W.9-10.6 indicates that students should:

use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.


But if I’m gonna get all personal, this is just working backwards.  I am aware of the digital divide. But in a scenario where one has. access. to tech. this is working backwards.

By avoiding educational technology, we’re denying students the opportunity to build skills they will undoubtedly need in the future.

More specifically, they need an understanding of technology that spans beyond the 'social', and our classrooms can be a place to do that.

Specifically, the use of tech in the classroom encourages:

  • active engagement
  • participation in groups
  • communication and accountability
  • creative and curious exploration
  • frequent interaction and feedback
  • and connection to real-world experts.

And while tech tools are virtually endless, involving any of the various types of media (i.e. audio, images, text, animation and videos),

it’s less about which app you’re using with your students and more about HOW you’re using it; and most importantly, WHY you’re using it.  

It’s not just throwing technology on top of a lesson like a shiny object that’ll magically make your kids like you (though I've certainly been guilty of that).

It’s baking the tech IN to the lesson so they don’t even realize it's there (though it's the driving force of the lesson!). It becomes an embedded, invisible part of the process.

And hip-hop, hooray!  While learners fall along a diverse spectrum of readiness when it comes to their comfort level in using technology to learn, a growing body of evidence suggests that meaningful tech integration positively impacts student achievement and performance (per the Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology).

And so what if it doesn't prepare them for 'college' in this respect, it'll prepare them for career. And we're obliged to include that in our radar, too.

Mindset Shift #3: standards v. standardization

Not long ago, I was facilitating a workshop. When I sat down with the administrator who invited me, he told me that in order to bring the school grade up, teachers would be required to follow a district-wide curriculum sequence/map down to the fine print.

(To be clear, this particular map dictates what content is to be covered in which order, and the standards are pre-selected and specifically sequenced for each grade level. Teachers are free to weave in additional content on the proviso that the set content is covered first.)

In a way, district sequences or maps make fine enough sense because they can offer a comfortable, linear pathway in which to guide (both teachers and) students through a particular learning experience; it ensures that expectations are met and that all parties be held accountable. With an emphasis on outcome, it seems a fitting path for the administrator looking to raise the school grade.

But I have a hard time being entirely okay with a pre-determined plan that doesn't necessarily take into account the unique needs of each classroom.

Matter of fact, I side entirely with fellow educator and author Angela Stockman on this one:

The problem with prefabricated programs and curriculum maps is that they’re typically focused on the mastery of content and discreet skills rather than the study of learning (or metacognition)...little attention [therefore] is paid to the learner and the needs that emerge in real time.

--Angela Stockman

Going back to that conversation I was having with my fellow administrator, (all due respect, but) I was half-minded to channel Stockman in asking him:

‘is it even ethical to strive for improved test performance in ways that likely disengage students?(!)’, a contention she raises in her book, Hack the Writing Workshop.

I mean, in all fairness, the teachers don't even like the content selections they're required to teach in their curriculum sequence, so I can’t imagine what the students think.

But here's where the problem *really* lies...

Standards determine what students should know and/or be able to do at a given point in their education, so in other words, a skill set.

The true spirit of a standards-based approach does NOT mean to determine HOW these skills are taught, i.e. what content should be taught in order to master said skills.

So if school districts are telling teachers *what content to teach*, this is the definition of standard-ized, not standards-based, or standards-driven.

No wonder people take issue when they hear the words 'Common Core'... Unfortunately, it is because schools are 'sacrificing standards on the alter of standardization' (as my gal, Stockman, so aptly puts it).

Grand takeaway?

Common Core is NOT a curriculum...

So a mindset shift of epic proportions may be in order, if not for you, for the many who are being bullied into allowing standardized curriculum plans to overrun their professional ability to organize and scaffold skills.

And last but not least…

MINDSET SHIFT #4: going gradeless with grace

So Robert Fulghum was right...everything we need to know (about teaching) we learned in kindergarten.  

Consider my daughter’s report card. (She's actually in 1st grade at this point, but this is a lil' something I learned during her first year in the public school system).  

She’s not an A student. Heck, she’s not even a B or C student.  


Well...elementary schools don't get down like that.


Because that means nothing to me, the parent.


(I'm beginning to sound like my curious, school-aged darling)

The thing I'm loving about elementary schools, is they realize that an A --or an F, for that matter-- in Reading doesn't communicate which skill within the subject of Reading a child is excelling at or struggling with.

Let's think about this in the context of English/Language Arts. When your student, we'll call him 'Fabian', gets a B in your class, it might be because he's a great reader but not that great of a writer.

But a 'C' doesn't really communicate that.

Maybe, in reality, Fabian has an A in reading, but he has a C in writing, so it just kind of averaged to a B.

How's Momma supposed to know that?

She won't, because that B doesn’t discriminate skills; it just worries parents and freaks out GPA-driven students.

Another way to think about it. How many times have we had to justify the difference between Tomas' 89% and Hakima's 91%?  It's not always an easy task. So for this reason, it usually comes down to behavior, or attitude, or attendance (in which a solid, standards-based report would score out separately anyhow).

Even if we are right and fair with our grades, telling a student he has a ‘B’ in Language Arts doesn’t really pin down exactly where he’s excelling and exactly where he’s struggling.  

At the elementary level, a child's growth is usually reported out via skill or, standard. (I find myself asking, it's all the same system...where did we *lose* this magical reporting method?!)

Per her December progress report, it's made plain as day to me that my daughter is doing really well at 'producing complete sentences', but she’s got some work to do on 'writing narratives recounting 2 or more appropriately sequenced events.'

So the former skill gets a 3 or 4 (killin' it), while the latter skill gets a 2 (workin' on it). Instead of helicoptering over the school, demanding what's wrong with the teacher, demanding why she gave *my* daughter a '2' (gasp!)...

Instead, I sit back and smile because my little girl is making a 2, which means progress.


And when I check her folder a few weeks later, there it is. She IS working on it:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Willow_narrative_gr1.png

I pull out a narrative she wrote in class today, all about how she and I went to Target to get a toy (actually, we went to pick up laundry detergent, but that somehow turned into a toy); and how Phoenix, her little brother, sat like a good little boy in the cart.

(So stinkin' cute, right?!)

Now I get to watch this skill she's workin' on as it unfolds. It's not a blind acceptance that she's 'improved' this year or made 'AYP', it's concrete proof in the tangible thing she has created.

But her report card doesn’t just stop at cognitive standards.  I’m impressed to see that it’s got a whole section on behaviors that affect the learning scale.  

I beam to see a 4 for Miss Willow (as in, exceeds the standard, y'all) in things like showing effort, organizing her time, working cooperatively, and demonstrating manners appropriate to a situation.  

Get it, girrrrl! She gets it from her Momma :-)

But even if she wasn’t meeting (or exceeding) these standards, I would know. It wouldn't be something mushed into and potentially watering down her academic progress.

I’m not going to tell you to drop grades tomorrow, but I am going to encourage you to reconsider how you report progress.

Believe it or not, you can actually have the best of both worlds. You can track progress and report via standards, and you can convert these into grades to appease the GPA gods.

In fact, I invite you to watch the TEDxYouth video I've embedded below. It's called 'A Recovering Perfectionist's Journey to Give Up Grades,' and it's by AP Lit teacher, Starr Stackstein.

It's gold, baby. Her story is 21st century, solid gold.

It demonstrates just how real teachers, like you and me, are actually doing this stuff. And it's making a world of a difference.

A grading mindset shift is in order.

To wrap it all up...

In Highfill, Hilton, and Landis' text, the HyperDocs handbook, one student is quoted saying:

teachers have a set understanding of how they want things to go instead of an open mind where they could go.  

--Jordan Moldenhauer, a high school senior sharing his perspective on being a modern student in a traditional classroom

As much as it might burn to hear it, the kid's speakin’ the truth.

So I challenge you to let it go: allow learning opportunities to emerge in real ways, in ways that reach out to the needs of your learners today because it'll help them lead better tomorrow.

Give your students permission and support to create, and to use tech in ways that’s meaningfully aligned with their dreams and hopes for the future. Give yourself permission to go beyond the Core, and to report progress in ways that are actually useful.

And sure, it’s going to take a little bit of grit to see your way through the growing pains of something new.

But once you carve out that vision and commit to it, you'll be serving your students on a more authentic, updated level, one they can connect better with and appreciate.

Drop your comments in the box below, and let's talk about it!

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