Yesterday, my son and I were walking on a bridge over a river. He kept throwing rocks in and exclaiming over the number of circles – ripples his rock had created. After a few throws, he asked if I wanted to know why he was so interested in creating ripples. I did. He told me, “When I throw the rock and make the ripples, I am making a difference on the world, I am doing something and I can see the beginning of it in the ripples. Who knows where those ripples might go? Maybe those ripples will make their way to a pirhana about to eat a fish, and that ripple will push the pirhana just enough so that the fish could get away. Maybe I saved a life with my rock!” While this was unlikely, as we were on the Charles River in Newton, Massachusetts, this was not important. What he was telling me was that he wanted to make a difference in the world, to be a part of it and make his mark. This is what Curriculum21 and 21st century education is about.
Twenty first century skills, if we can still use that term, as we are currently in (and more than 10% through) the twenty first century, have nothing to do with the technology itself. We can call them “Right Now” skills, since they are skills students need now and going forward. The technologies are tools with which to learn, demonstrate and use those skills. Both the ideas of the “Right Now” skills, and the integration of technology to support them are exciting to me, and should be to everyone in education. It is the beginning of a revolution! Really, for students and teachers in Jewish schools, the skills are not so new.
What are these “Right Now” skills? Everyone who spoke with us had a different way of framing them. They all used “the five C’s,” but to which words these referred varied. This is not to say the ideas varied: collaboration, communication, creation, critical thinking, connection (around the world), culture, creativity, all these and more are the skills that students must acquire to be global citizens. This is, after all, what we are building them to be. This is a different paradigm than “How long should the periods or blocks be?” “How many pages should this essay be?” “How should the desks be arranged?” While each teacher can update his or her curriculum, really to be effective, a whole school needs to change. After all, how can a Language Arts teacher, a science teacher, a social studies teacher and an art teacher have students work together on a global ecosystem problem if they never work together or communicate with one another in real time or in digital space? Yet in the real world, for which we are preparing the students, a team working to solve an ecosystem problem would most assuredly use all the skills from all those areas and more – probably finance as well – and communicate with scholars on the subject all over the world in real time. We don’t live or work compartmentalized, why should students?
The tools that can help make “right now learning” are here. They will continue to evolve; in fact we are preparing students for a world of which we have not yet conceived. I am in the middle of my teaching career, but I remember when my high school library got its first computers for the library. When I went to college I got a very high tech “luggable” computer – portable in the same way a fifty pound suitcase is. When I went to graduate school, I got a laptop computer. I remember when email started, I remember what the internet looked like without pictures. Now, I communicate with people all over the world about information that is relevant and current. I take videos with the iPad, integrate them into presentations with other content, and collaborate with teachers, I connect and consult on Facebook with people in Israel, California, England and Australia. Learning happens best collaboratively. I assist student in finding resources all over the world – a student came in asking for information about technology in Israel and I didn’t take him to the bookshelf, I connected him with Technion Institute in Israel. I told him that any books I had would be outdated, because new technologies are always coming out, and they were a good place to start. I hope that he connects with learners all over the globe to learn about and discuss his questions. (I can facilitate that.) When he is done, I hope he creates a digital portfolio or presentation of what he learned that can be shared with the other students here, and other learners all over the world. His learning matters; not just for a grade or personal information (although both are important) but in a global way.
So: to me, the question is not why do the students need access to iPads and other technology, but how could we possibly prepare them for the skills they need without the tools they will use once they have them? To quote Heidi Hayes Jacobs, we can prepare them for the skills they need right now and the adaptablitity they need for the future, or not. We can learn with them and facilitate their production of a video teaching others about an experiment they performed and its potential impact in the world, and post it to Youtube to get feedback from the world, or we can have them write a paper that only the teacher and student will ever see. Students need to feel they have a place in the world and can have an impact. We can help them understand that their learning matters and is valuable enough to be shared, or not.
Finally, the beginning of this blog referred to these skills not being new to Jewish students at a day school, and here is why: our students are already in conversation with scholars from over 2000 years ago, from the other side of the world. They have participated in discussions throughout history and argued with Rashi, Rambam, Nechama Leibovitz, Nachum Sarna, ibn Ezra, and more. Our students know how to be part of a global conversation, they have some of these skills, they must be allowed to apply them to the world in which we live Right Now, and the world in which they will live in the future. They need the tools to acquire the skills Right Now. The need to participate in the global conversations, and make their marks on the world. They need to be able to make ripples in the water that can save lives.