Flexibility in 21st Century Learners

Why Their Ability to Adapt Might Save Them From Extinction

When we talk about forging a student who will invariably become a citizen of the 21st century, two of the most important skills we can and should imbue our kids with is flexibility and adaptability.

Rigidity in most things is never a particularly good thing. Dogmatic adherence or allegiance impedes the natural evolutionary process in all its forms and stymies meaningful change and reformation. A student who is rigid at a young age will more than likely only continue to calcify as they get older, making them all together inflexible at a time when perhaps that lack of flexibility might be costly to them on a professional level.

It has been predicted that many of the jobs our kids will have or seek have not even been invented yet and that many more occupations will inevitably see parameters and responsibilities shift over the course of the next several decades. This means that many of our kids will have more than one career, and some of them might actually have to change careers multiple times during their lifespan, which is a daunting if not downright terrifying proposition for those unwilling to embrace change.

Flexibility and being amendable to change is all about emotional adaptation and the ability and willingness to evolve if and when the need arises. An example of this happened recently on a massive scale when the widespread closure of public schools forced teachers of all types – from luddites to technocrats – to adapt a fully digital model to accommodate distance learning. Like a meteor striking the earth and causing a potential extinction-level event, the response from educators varied and was a mix of panic, fear, and outright bedlam. For some teachers who had wrongfully shunned all but the most perfunctory technology in the classroom, theirs was a profound struggle to implement even the most basic and rudimentary technological lessons, exposing an inflexibility that no doubt made them feel outmoded and outdated.

That feeling of fear, underscored by an abject defeatism rooted in the belief of their own impending obsolescence, is something no child should have to experience as they move towards their own chosen career paths. Kids need to understand that change is often a good thing and their ability to shift alongside their environment will make them invaluable in the long run. This focus on flexibility is also important because that ability to adapt is a natural outcome of students who have been well-versed in the full spectrum of 21st century skills.

For those teachers looking to contribute, collaborate or merely pull some resources, Edtopia offers an exciting, centralized hub that focuses specifically on the skills children will need as they progress through this century.

Beyond tests and rote memorization, we need our kids to be highly adaptable organisms so that their flourishment – rather than their extinction – is guaranteed.     

Truth is Non-Negotiable

Why the Recent Antics of Donald Trump Reinforce the Need for Information Literacy

On January 27th, 2017, when responding to critics of White House Secretary Sean Spicer’s vociferous defense of Donald Trump’s demonstrably false claims regarding the number of attendees at his inauguration, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to rebuff those who cited irrefutable evidence that Trump and Spicer were indeed lying. This term sent the media into a tailspin and forever cemented Conway as little more than a grifter and sycophantic shill for her boss. Yet, in the nearly four years since her mind-numbing utterance, the gradual erosion of the importance of truth – already diluted from more than two decades of a largely unregulated digital space where fact and opinion often fuse into something impossible to separate – has brought this nation to a place where a fair and incontrovertible electoral victory is being challenged by a sitting president; one who has also taken to the airways and the information superhighway to spread falsehoods, disinformation and outright propaganda in a transparent attempt to subvert the will of voters and sadly, millions of Americans believe his fiction.

So how in the hell did we get here?

In truth, Trump and his lies are merely a symptom of a much larger problem and that problem is that a large and growing percentage of Americans cannot tell the difference between verifiable fact and opinion, lies and manufactured fantasy. We have raised an entire generation on media that bombards them from a million different points of digital origin, each designed to titillate and garner a click or a swipe and so very much of this content nothing more substantial than the ramblings of unhinged zealots spreading misinformation like disease or cleverly constructed false news stories emblazoned with factually incorrect headlines that people read, absorb, and pass on to friends and colleagues.

A few days ago, as I was discussing the promising emergence of two Covid-19 vaccines, one of my students began talking about some bizarre conspiracy theory about these vaccines. I quickly but gently chided her and then spent a few minutes explaining to her and the rest of my students that vaccines have been nothing short of one of the most important breakthroughs in human science and medicine and that vaccines had saved literally hundreds of millions of lives.

But truthfully, that is a mild example of the effect of misinformation on kids.

It gets crazier.

Three years ago, I had a student vigorously defend Flat Earth Theory and insist that everything written in science books was wrong.

I’ve had students tell me that 9-11 was an inside job, that vaccines are a global conspiracy to tag every human being with a tracker, and that the clandestine yet somehow very well-known Illuminati controls everything from the banks to the music industry. To be clear, we’re talking about more than the dissemination of urban myths but rather students who absorb and regurgitate these falsehoods, believing them to be truisms.

Information Literacy as a Crucial Skillset

Because of this, information literacy might be among the most important skills we can teach our kids. Information literacy is, simply put, the skillset students need to navigate the ocean of information comprised of all media types in order to delineate that which is reliable, verifiable and has been rigorously vetted. Both kids and far too many adults take truth for granted and assume that if something appears on their social media feed looking official, it must be true. Case in point, a friend of mine rebutted a post I wrote about Bernie Sanders, claiming the Vermont Senator had supposedly embezzled tens of millions of dollars for his extended family. When I checked the veracity of his source, I discovered this claim had been reported by an extreme right-wing commentator who cited a debunked journalist who has already been busted for publishing false, unverified claims about other liberal politicians.

In essence, he cited not one but two confederate liars.  

Information literacy isn’t merely an academic skill but rather the fostering of a methodical and deliberately informed approach to the consumption of media. Students need to be skeptical of all media until they can verify its source and delve into their own vetting process. Kids need to know and understand that there is a monumental amount of information online that hasn’t been verified, vetted, or otherwise scrutinized and in doing so themselves, they become more informed and effective citizens.

Truth is non-negotiable. It isn’t malleable, it isn’t partisan and it doesn’t bend to the will of anyone, including the president. Truth is precious because it is pure and because, without fail, truth offers us a light out of even the darkest predicaments.

If we don’t teach our kids this important lesson, we have failed them and ultimately doomed us all.

Creativity in the Classroom

Why Kids Need More Than Tests and Worksheets

Stagnancy in the classroom doesn’t come from the children – it comes from the teacher.

Truthfully, it is so very easy to lean on what we’ve done before, especially if what we’ve done before is adequate and nobody is complaining.

But when you’re looking at your kids and all you see are faces filled with boredom, apathy or indifference, you’ve got to ask yourself if adequate is enough.

For me, the litmus test has always been thus: If I was a student in my own class, would I like it?

It’s a simple question prone to deliver devastatingly honest self-reflection if we pose it to ourselves and answer truthfully.

A colleague of mine recently opined how unfun school currently was. She and several other educators had been visiting numerous classrooms for the purposes of looking for AVID strategies and she came away feeling very sorry for the kids. In a meeting I had with her later, she admitted that so many of the kids just looked tired, bored, and inert. She lamented this and we both agreed that distance learning – imperative as it may be as we move through this global pandemic – was only making things worse.

“Where was the fun?” She asked.

Fun is a tricky word, isn’t it? It’s relative, entirely subjective, and fraught with myriad pitfalls. When we talk about fun in education what we often mean is engagement but in truth, fun is important and anyone who has ever taught knows that if you can get kids having some semblance of fun, you’ve got them learning.

Of course, let’s be honest, not every lesson can be fun. But when there is the potential for fun, how often are we exploiting that potential?

Last week I had my students do a writing prompt but at the last minute, I changed the assignment from a traditional short response to something far more interesting, compelling and dare I say, fun. Instead of writing a traditional summary and analysis about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, I had my students write a confession from the murderous narrator’s point of view. I pre-loaded this concept by showing them a picture of the DC villain the Joker and asked them to ruminate on the characteristics of this fictional individual. The students – awoken and alert by the picture and prompt – subsequently engaged in a meaningful discussion about the Joker’s insanity, which parallels the insanity of the narrator from The Tell-Tale Heart. At this point I had their attention and by the time I had explained the assignment, you could feel the electricity of synapses crackling and imagination being stoked. As a bonus I even gave students the opportunity to record themselves reading the confession as extra credit. The result was a much-improved workflow and a much larger buy-in on the assignment, along with better work product.

I could have patted myself on the back but in truth all I did something that I simply don’t do enough: I tapped creativity and fostered it in my classroom.

Creativity and innovation have rightly been identified as chief skills that every 21st learner should have and this is nothing new because creativity and innovation have always been powerful tools. Creativity propels innovation and innovation is the fuel of human evolution. We are a species that solves problems and creates solutions and then – remarkably – fine tunes those solutions even further. Our students need to be creative because they are living in a world where solutions must be created to new and emergent problems and that requires the ability to think beyond rote memorization and banal, static tests that only assess a pre-determined set of skills or facts.

But a creative classroom requires a likewise creative instructor which means as teachers we must be willing to go outside our own comfort zone and find new and exciting ways to engage our kids and their imaginations.

And that means not only teaching them about this world but letting them create a few of their own.