Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Engagement, 21st Century Skills, and the Role of Technology

A common theme I hear (and subscribe to) concerning great teaching is that there is a correlation between student engagement and effective instruction.  In my own meetings with teachers, I use and hear some form of this in conversation often, but wonder if I take for granted that there is a common understanding of what an engaged student is and how teachers can create engaging experiences.  Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what we mean by engaged and how it may appear in the 21st century school.

For the sake of this article, let us define engaged as being involved in an activity of great interest.  In order to be “engaged”, by default, the student must “engage”.  To engage, among other possible definitions, means to take part in or be attentive to something.  The next stage of reflection now asks us to apply these terms to a classroom setting.

The application of these terms to a classroom should produce a vision or scene of the engaged class.  Your picture can be as specific or general as you want, but I have found that no matter who performs the exercise, the student engagement is only possible through an active teacher component.  In other words, there cannot be engaged students without engaged teachers.  Being engaged in class is a social function requiring more than one participant.  This reflection further clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the teacher and student in the 21st century classroom.

For the teacher, a key element in designing lessons that are likely to promote engagement is to make yourself aware of the 21st century skills whose development needs the support of professional educators.  These skills are commonly referred to as the 4 C’s:  communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.  For the student, there must be a good faith effort to provide feedback to the teacher about the effectiveness of the lessons.  Simply put; students, when engaged, must take an active role in the learning.  Only when students are making the effort to learn can the teacher gage the level of success (or engagement) that genuinely exists in the room.  That is not to say that the teacher is not the primary factor in student learning.  Rather, it is a statement speaking to the fact that a social interaction which produces an engaged class cannot be the sole responsibility of any one participant – it must be a collaborative effort.

I am also reminded that while these 21st century skills are essential to a fully developed student, the course content is just as important.  Similar to the relationship between teacher and student for engagement, developing 21st century skills without course content can lead to a class absent clearly understood directions or goals.  Often, such classes become grounds for frustration as the students and teacher eventually realize they are not all working towards the same ends.  Ultimately, a break down occurs and the class is left feeling unaccomplished – a felling that breeds lack of motivation.  The missing link, then, is how to attach course content to 21st century skill development while cultivating an environment in which engagement is not only expected, but the norm.

This is where technology presents itself as a valuable tool.  Many of the available digital tools not only were developed as a result of employing the very skills the 21st century school must support, but also work to promote and enhance these same skills.  While technology can help bridge the divide between course content and 21st century skills, there is also a need to “unplug” from time to time.  This refers to the need for schools to also be in the front of areas such as character development, promoting civility, and service learning/life skills. 

No doubt, technology can help with awareness and information – but it cannot replace “getting one’s hands dirty” and being physically involved (rather than virtually or digitally) in leading efforts to improve our communities.  Either way, we are all better off when we have engaged students.

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