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Two Alabama teachers share a bold vision for the profession's future

April 15, 2011 | Tags: books, 21st century skills, teacher leadership
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Jennifer Barnett and Emily Vickery – two educators with strong Alabama roots – are among the 12 co-authors of a bold new book about the future of teaching and learning. Teaching 2030, published by Teachers College Press, is creating a lot of “buzz” in education circles and has been endorsed by individuals as diverse as conservative policy analyst Rick Hess, former education secretary Richard Riley, and teaching scholar Linda Darling-Hammond.

We’ve invited Jennifer and Emily to tell us more about the book and the changes in K12 education they and their colleagues foresee over the next several decades. We begin with some conversation with Emily. In a follow-up post tomorrow, Jennifer will tie her own experiences as a teacher leader in Talladega County to Teaching 2030’s vision of “teacherpreneurship.”


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Emily Vickery is a veteran educator who taught at Carver Senior High School and Montgomery Academy in Montgomery, served on the Alabama Governor’s Council on Education Technology, and represented the state on a task force for the U.S. Department of Education. She has also worked as a consultant for the Education Commission of the States, Apple, Inc and other private clients. She currently serves as the 21st-century learning specialist at an innovative parochial school in Florida. Last January, she represented the U. S. State Department in Estonia, working with educators in the areas of multicultural education and teacher cultural competence.

How did you get involved in the Teaching 2030 book project?

The project was conceived by Barnett Berry, president and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, who secured the financial support from MetLife Foundation that made the development of the book possible. The 12 teachers who wrote the book with Barnett are all members of the Teacher Leaders Network, which CTQ has developed as a major source of teacher voice during the past decade. We spent close to two years writing and editing Teaching 2030. It was a remarkable process in many ways and involved us not only in virtual and face-to-face discussions among ourselves but in a series of webinars with experts in many different areas of education policy and practice.

How would you summarize the book’s focus and message?

First and foremost the book takes the position that teachers and the teaching profession cannot be bypassed on the way to creating the schools our students need in the 21st century. Teaching is under a lot of criticism today. The book describes why and how teaching must become a fully realized profession that’s attuned to the times we live in now and the tremendous changes America and the world will continue to experience in the decades to come.

We ask some hard questions about American education’s sluggish response to the shifts we all see taking place in how young people live and learn as they grow up in the iGeneration. Should we really expect the schools of today and tomorrow to be like the ones we attended? Do we still believe that the number of hours students “sit” in class determines what they learn?

Business leaders in those sectors of the economy that are most likely to create jobs in the near future keep telling us that our students will need new skills that are attuned to the digital age – an era when the Internet has erased time and distance and created a connected, interdependent world. Students need to be able to collaborate with people across cultures, solve problems in teams, master the tools that control cyberspace and think critically about what they find there. Are we satisfied that today’s teachers are really prepared to help students – including all the young people who attend high needs schools – succeed in today’s world, much less tomorrow’s?

If we’re honest with ourselves – teachers and citizens – we have to admit we’re behind the evolutionary curve when it comes to teaching and learning. We are, in fact, in danger of allowing public education to become irrelevant in a time when knowledge is no longer the exclusive property of educators but readily available 24/7. In Teaching 2030 we make the argument that teachers themselves have to lead the changes by reinventing ourselves and our profession. We cannot let outdated, top-down bureaucracies, myopic policy makers, or inadaptable unions with a focus on seniority pay scales and job protection sideline the progress we have to make – and make quickly.

How does teaching need to be different?

There are those who contend that the latest banner waving for “21st century learning” will be yet another doomed education reform. But it’s a mistake to define 21st century learning and teaching as “a reform.” Reform suggests a return to something better in the past. But the past is gone forever. From this point forward the world will be constantly shifting as technology evolves, and the skills of critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, innovation, problem solving, and communication will churn and re-mix in new and fresh forms.

I would underscore that the tools at hand have changed dramatically in just the past decade – pushing the necessity that teachers must be technologically literate. As author Clay Shirky has said, "When you change the way people communicate, you change culture." And, that change in culture puts teachers in the midst of new learning, which they must take on for themselves and for their students.

What needs to be different?

With teachers guiding students (which, by the way, is not a new pedagogy) students can gain knowledge through effective Internet searches, ferreting out incorrect information and verifying facts and conclusions before putting it all to use in their own computer, the brain.

To think critically today means having the ability to interpret blog posts and comments, to master tagging, subscribing and annotating, to learn to write effectively in web contexts – all within our personal space as well as our shared learning networks.

Students still need to gain a great deal of knowledge. It’s how we gain the knowledge that has shifted. Advances in technology have tilted the earth on its edge. What was once locked away in a library is now accessible in the palm of our hands and that fundamentally changes how and what enters our world - what gets our attention - as well as how we must interpret and synthesize it. The traditional gatekeepers of knowledge are rapidly going out of business, and critical thinking has never been more important.

With this revolution in using digital tools, equity becomes an even more important concern. Students who do not have the skills to navigate a digital world are at a disadvantage and may well become the next underclass. Teachers must begin NOW to use digital tools in the context of everyday learning. It’s not an add-on or a "nice thing" to enrich or extend learning. It is an imperative – as much so as a teacher being able to read.

All this change is very unsettling to many – including many teachers, parents, and other citizens who grew up in a different era.

These changes in the world may sometimes seem like negatives. But my co-authors and I not only see the inevitability of rapid technological change, but the potential. We now have the potential to explore history from a different vantage point via gaming and sensory interaction. To see and manipulate the elegance and logic of science and math through interactive online activities. To understand philosophical debates by not only studying them but also engaging with others though digital learning networks. To mash-up ideas, create new ones, and broadcast them out with the whole world as our audience of “critical friends.”

What are some of the new skills teachers need to acquire or that need to be included in teacher preparation today?

While some of today’s teaching skills are timeless and well-recognized, there are stark differences too. For example, effective teachers of today must be knowledgeable about cultural shifts brought about by technological advances, specifically those found in a participatory culture – a term coined by Henry Jenkins. This new culture calls for new media literacies - an outgrowth of a media-rich society. One is digital citizenship – how we conduct ourselves in a time when online communications are "instant, global, and nearly permanent," as Clay Shirky says. In a global culture where we’re all subject to being Googled at any time, students must learn to cultivate their “digital footprints” carefully.

We need to help students understand that they are in the midst of an upheaval of "how things have always been done" and what that means for society and themselves. We must share these lessons with students as we are learning them ourselves. As teachers we must commit ourselves to be constant learners, scholars of change, asking the right questions, building far-flung personal learning networks, and retooling and remixing our skills to meet change head on.

In Teaching 2030, you and your colleagues use the expression "teacherpreneur" to describe a new kind of teaching role. Some teachers have reacted negatively to the term, saying it’s too suggestive of self-interest. What does it mean to you?

Teacherpreneurs are drivers of change ¬– risk takers – who transcend the social customs, constraints, and constructs of today's schools, which were designed on a 19th century blueprint. Teacherpreneurs no longer consider themselves, nor are they viewed, as at the bottom of a school system's organizational chart. They are servant leaders, innovative and collaborative in nature.

Teacherpreneurs are first and foremost teachers, whether in face-to-face contexts, virtual spaces or both. Teacherpreneurs not only participate in the marketplace of ideas about teaching and learning but may offer customized, personalized, place-based, and mobile learning. They herald a time when having a passion for the teaching profession and earning a professional income are no longer mutually exclusive.

We envision many teacherpreneurs in hybrid roles, both teaching students and leading in other important ways in the education enterprise. They are knowledge brokers with fluid and pivotal roles engaging students, parents, community members, researchers, and policy makers. Teacherpreneurs participate in learning decisions for not only individual students but also act as mentors to other teachers and policy makers. They are designers of effective 21st century learning systems in local to international contexts.

As digital tools grow more sophisticated and teachers build intricate virtual networks, the world’s great teachers – teacherpreneurs – will have a range of options in hanging out their real and virtual shingles; advertising their talent, knowledge, and abilities. They may offer their services as a solo venture or band together with others, forming collectives, to provide learning opportunities. Some collectives will have loose affiliations, while others will be sustained for the long term. These novel forms of learning organizations will press the creation of fresh forms of financial compensation.

Teaching 2030 describes several "levers of change" that could lead to a stronger teaching profession. Give us an example.

The proverbial picture of a teacher standing in front of a chalkboard and lecturing is perhaps the one that is in the mind's eye of most people. Teachers must crack this stereotypical notion by "showing, not telling" their expertise as effective practitioners who have a lot to say about effective school policy.

Teachers have long worked in isolation, leaving their work largely invisible. Their expertise has seldom been observed, discussed, examined, extolled, or valued. Using digital tools for communication and connectivity, teachers can break this isolation and make the complex components of great teaching much more visible, so as to be taken seriously as professionals whose opinions about effective teaching and learning are valued.

What happens if public and independent school educators don't change? Or don't change enough?

As I said earlier, the learning environment is changing, whether we like it or not. The “market options” for learning are expanding rapidly and will soon look extremely different from what is offered today. Perhaps it will be a veritable buffet of offerings from which to pick and choose to create a "learning experience" (not defined by a number of hours in a class but by what is learned), for children as well as adult learners. The financing of learning (not education) will be more customizable, with learners able to buy opportunities to learn in discreet increments, from many sources.

To change in this context means to comprehend cultural shifts and make wise adjustments to those shifts by upgrading our professional skills and knowledge. Change requires us to be steadfast, continual learners who keep up with emerging digital tools and the latest in learning science.

Simply put, those unwilling to undertake change within themselves and their own profession will no longer be marketable and will become obsolete. And I predict this time will come much more quickly than many believe.

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