In Birmingham, high school education is being redefined.Learning is no longer tied down to the traditional notion of a classroom. Lessons are shifting away from teacher’s lectures and towards collaborative student inquiry. For students, it has become rare to go a day at Seaholm without experiencing some aspect of the 21st Century Teaching and Learning initiative. The initiative’s already significant influence has elicited a broad spectrum of responses from students and faculty, and although many signs point to the promise the new approaches hold, dissidents of the program are steadfast in their opposition.
After only 12 weeks, the jury is still very much out on the success of 21st Century Teaching and Learning. The Highlander will examine four stories from the front lines of the movement to provide some insight into this deeply divisive topic.
Putting the Future into Practice
“It’s frustrating to know that there are kids that don’t want to be in your class.”
That was a new experience for mathematics department head Carol Pinneo, who was referring to her first trimester Algebra 2 class. The course, like many others at Seaholm, had adopted aspects of the 21st Century Teaching and Learning Initiative into its framework. She is among the growing number of faculty members that are incorporating the new approaches into their classrooms.
Pinneo’s course revolved around the notion of a “flipped classroom,” which relies on student-directed learning, but with more individual guidance from instructors. Each day her students received a short lecture, but the majority of class time was spent collaborating on that day’s assignment. According to Pinneo, her course was the product of extensive preparation.
“I’ve gone to a lot of professional development programs about ways to do 21st century teaching and learning. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on workshops with teachers who have been doing it for a couple of years and I’ve read a lot of stuff online,” Pinneo said. “I decided that I wanted to try this because the things that I felt weren’t working well in my classroom could be addressed by this different type of model.”
Yet as the school year began, the response was not what Pinneo had expected. Junior Anastasiya Tsuker was among those opposed to the new approach.
“It didn’t suit my style of learning,” Tsuker said. “[Pinneo] didn’t really spend a lot of time in class teaching the material. She expected us to learn everything on our own time individually. We were told to look up videos and tutorial lessons and were expected to do this every single day without instruction.”
It was not without its trials for Pinneo as well.
“I’ve never had to experience [that kind of resistance] before,” Pinneo said. “That was difficult, but I also believed that what I was putting together was helping them. For students that in the past were able to come in and just watch the teacher and get it, that’s what they want. I think that’s what students are resistant to. They can’t come in and just be passive.”
Despite the initial resistance, her perseverance with the new approach eventually paid off in the form of quantifiable results.
“My grades have been higher this year than they have been in all my years past, giving similar test and the same final exam,” Pinneo said. “Last trimester was kind of a pilot for me as well as the students. The difference from last trimester to this trimester is that I’ve felt I’ve done a better job of outlining my expectations for my students.”
For Pinneo, the changes she’s made are an effort to develop her students into more versatile learners.
“I’m really trying to empower the students to be able to learn without having to rely on a specific teacher or specific method; to expose them to a variety of ways to learn.” Pinneo said.
While Pinneo is relatively new to the implementation of 21st Teaching and Learning, Seaholm also has its veterans.
Since the third trimester of last year, Bob Carleton’s courses have become what he describes as “full-blown 21st Century Learning,” but he claims to have begun implementing the methods since he began his teaching career in 1995.
“When I was at Lake Orion we were actually required to not lecture, and we couldn’t show a movie that was over 10 minutes,” Carleton said. “We had to do activity- based, project-based learning. I brought that over to Seaholm when I came over 14 years ago.”
“It was a big deal when we did it third trimester last year, and now second trimester this year it’s become the same old same old,” Carleton said. “I think there was [resistance at first], but once people saw it in action and they saw what it was really about, which was asking good questions, getting kids to think about things and making it their own, I think they thought ‘this isn’t really that much different then what we were doing before.’”
Carleton has no qualms being candid about what catalyzed the move to a totally flipped classroom.
“We had to. It was one of those thing where [the administration] went in and said ‘This is what we want you to do.’ So I said ‘okay,’ and I went in and I did it. I’m the kind of person that’ll take chances and I’ll take risks, and that’s what I did with it.”
Senior Tyler Grinblatt was in one of Carleton’s first 21st Century-structured Vietnam courses last year, and felt the approach had considerable merit.
“It was a mix between finding the information yourself and Mr. Carleton teaching other core material in the classroom that we would research later,” Grinblatt said. “He taught very well. You could tell he knew what he was teaching because when you asked him a question he didn’t just answer it, he explained it to you.”
Carleton views the new approach as a contemporary way to tackle a timeless problem in education.
“You’re trying to get the student involved more. That’s really the basis of it,” Carleton said. “Let’s try and get the students to instead of just sitting down absorbing facts, to analyze things and put it in their own learning. You’re going to have to do that whether it’s the end of the 20th century or the 21st century. That’s what successful people do.”
A Vision for Education in the 21st Century
Seemingly one of the largest hurdles in 21st century teaching and learning is that it is not easily defined. Depending upon the expert consulted, the meaning of what constitutes a 21st Century education can elicit explanations that vary wildly.
To address the ambiguity of the initiative, Birmingham Publics Schools held an event on December 8 at Seaholm entitled “A 21st CTL Community Talk”. Hosted by MSU professor and Educational Technology expert Dr. Punya Mishra, the event consisted of a presentation from Mishra with a question and answer session afterwards with a panel made up of faculty, administrators and Dr. Mishra.
Through the analysis of 14 different reports on the topic, Mishra described the three big ideas behind learning in the 21st century: foundational, meta and humanistic knowledge. Foundational knowledge involves the basic knowledge of content and the ability to seek out and analyze information. Meta knowledge is the skills necessary to implement foundational knowledge through critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. Building upon the two previous types is humanistic knowledge, which is the ability to make value judgments and be ethically and emotionally aware.
“Another way of thinking about it is: What do we know, how do we act on it, and what do we value?” Mishra said.
Mishra also argued that fostering the concept of “deep play” when developing a 21st century approach was vital to success.
“When I’m talking about deep play I mean a way of constructing and seeing the world that engages deeply with the ideas of the field,” Mishra said. “So how do we get our kids to do that? I think that’s a very important challenge that we face.”
Spearheading the effort to bring Birmingham’s classrooms into the future is David Reed-Nordwall. As Director of 21st Century Teaching and Learning for Birmingham Public Schools, Reed- Nordwall was selected from a sizable field of applicants after multiple interviews.
A former Flex and English teacher at Seaholm, Reed-Nordwall introduced the Apple tablet devices, iPads, into his classes last year. The device’s implementation has proliferated to Seaholm’s faculty, with the district purchasing iPads for members of the 21st Century cohort, a staff think tank.
Reed-Nordwall views his position as the product of a world that is rapidly changing.
“The world, to some degree, is forcing us to look at some of these changes,” Reed-Nordwall said. “Information’s changing, jobs are changing, and students have changed themselves. We’re having an information revolution. The pressure is all around us.”
The future of education has also become a topic of national conversation. On October 22, Stanford University broadcast a roundtable discussion entitled “Education Nation 2.0”. Moderated by PBS host Charlie Rose, the discussion brought to together influential individuals on the forefront of contemporary education.
One of the panelists was Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit website which provides free videos of over 2900 “micro lectures” on various academic subjects. Khan discussed how a new approach to traditional classroom structures (i.e. “flipped” classrooms) can actually foster a more intimate environment for students.
“Where we have every student working at their own pace, it’s making [the education] a more human experience. You don’t have a teacher lecturing anymore, now you have a teacher sitting sitting next to the students, you have the students interacting with each other, they’re all engaged the entire time,” Khan said. “There’s a lot of debate about the student-to-teacher ratio. What’s important is the student-to-valuable time with the teacher ratio. It’s increasing the humanity in the classroom by an order of magnitude.”
Another panel member was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory A. Booker. Under his administration, Newark has received over $1 billion in new economic development, with Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg donating $100 million to the city’s schools. Booker emphasized that the future of education cannot hinge on a single idea or approach.
“To systematize great education, we’re going to have to find a model that works and can be sustained over long periods of time. That is sort of the tumultuous cauldron of conflict that’s going on,” Booker said. “In the end, we cannot be loyal to a single distribution mechanism. We have to be, as a nation, loyal to the results that are produced for our children.”
Reed-Nordwall echoes that sentiment, and emphasized that the initiative’s purpose is not to produce a product.
“What this issue is not trying to do is homogenize instruction, because nothing about that is best practice,” Reed-Nordwall said. “If it’s a product, and it’s a one-size-fits-all sort of thing, then it goes completely counter to the concept that each student has strengths and weaknesses. Teachers are the same way. They learn differently, they have different methods. They’ve been hired intentionally for their expertise and their ability, but never because they’re all the same.”
For a Complex Concept, Simplified Rationales Foster Resentment
21st Century Teaching and Learning is for the most part the brainchild of various visionaries, experts, and academics. Because of this, the ideas behind the name are strewn with jargon and complex rationales are often presented in a succinct manner that leaves many questions unanswered.
“So much of good teaching and best practice has been done for years. Now a new term is coined, gadgets are pushed down our throats and you’re not a ‘good’ teacher unless you ‘flip’ your classroom 100 percent and stop offering your expertise to students. Am I obsolete?”
This comment, received anonymously from a recent Highlander survey, was an example of the concerns that some faculty members feel towards 21st Century Learning. The survey of 17 members of Seaholm’s staff made evident that while the majority of faculty members are either indifferent to or in support of the initiative, some are resistant to the changes sweeping the district.
Yet Reed-Nordwall, when interviewed, had a considerably different idea of what the staff perceived the initiative to be.
“My feeling from the staff is ‘Ok, it makes more sense to me.’ To the faculty [the definition of 21st century] means great teaching, rich content, the best practice stuff, and when technology is used it’s leveraged,” Reed-Nordwall said. “Versus ‘It’s students teaching themselves, it’s chaos. The teacher doesn’t even matter anymore, and it’s all about the computer. As long as they’re on the computer they’re learning.’ Everything that any teacher has ever known is that that can’t be true.”
Even among Seaholm’s faculty, it’s evident that there can be a considerable disconnect between the perspective of teachers and administrators. Business Technology teacher Leisa Passarelli is another member of the 21st Century Cohort. She believes the initial perceptions of the initiative may still hamper it.
“21st Century, even before it was formalized as an initiative, everyone took to mean technology. I think that resentment … is really more a communication issue,” Passarelli said. “It wasn’t explained, and still isn’t really explained what is meant when we’re being told ‘No, that’s not 21st Century,’ there isn’t a follow-up ‘If you were to do it like this, then that would be 21st Century.’”
Passarelli said she understands the frustrations some faculty members face.
“It’s all of us trying to struggle with that when we’re being told ‘No, you’re doing it wrong, you have to figure it out, you have to take that journey,’ so you could get very pessimistic. But I’m not that kind of person.”
One of the few faculty members who openly opposes the initiative is Scott Craig, and he is unabashedly vocal in his dissention.
“We were told we had to begin integrating 21st Century Learning into our curriculum as of this year. There wasn’t much discussion about whether it was a good idea or not, we were just told we had to do it,” Craig said. “I think that the teaching staff knows best what works in a classroom and I think that there should have been way more consultation and discussion about what really works.”
Craig claims that open dialogue about the initiative’s validity has been repressed by administrative officials.
“We were told we can’t really discuss whether 21st Century Learning is good or not. I’ve been told that in more than one meeting,” Craig said. “Let’s just say that certain administrative entities have tried to squelch discussion about whether we should or should not go in this direction. They don’t want to hear evidence that is contrary to this.”
However, other survey responses also brought out staunch defendants of the initiative. Mitch Nobis put his name next his survey’s comment.
“The concern about ‘21st Century Learning’ is misplaced. Schools reflect society. As societies change due to new technologies, so do schools. The invention of the pencil rocked school’s [sic] world. The same is happening with the Internet,” Nobis said. “Change can be uncomfortable, but progress is impossible without change.”
How Do Students Feel?
At the Stanford roundtable in October, Salman Khan lamented about a group that he saw as disenfranchised from the dialogue surrounding the topic.
“Way too much of the debate on reforming education is on the educators, the administrators, the politicians. It’s amazing how little you hear about the students themselves,” Khan said. In order to produce a barometer towards the initiative A Highlander survey of 154 students produced findings that show student opinion was polarized in almost every aspect.
When asked “How much did you enjoy the [21st Century] class, compared to one in a more traditional format?” 29 percent responded “a lot less,” with 20 percent for both “somewhat more,” and “somewhat less,” 15 percent for “about the same,” and 12 percent saying they enjoyed the course a lot more.
In terms of learning, 27 percent placed the amount they learned on par with a traditional classroom, with 24 percent responding “somewhat less,” and 22 percent gauging the amount learned as much less.
Echoing Pinneo’s statements about students no longer being passive, 45% of students said that they had to put forward more effort than they had in other classes, with an additional 20% reporting they they had to put forward an equivalent amount.
Even so, the Highlander faculty survey found that comprehension levels and test score for the most part were not adversely affected, if not improved by the initiative.
Like his job entails, Reed-Nordwall is already looking ahead to the future.
“Change is uncomfortable. Change causes frustration,” Reed-Nordwall said. “We have to look at this frustration and think, ‘why are we frustrated?’ and what’s the next thing we’re going to do.”