Out of the classroom, into the world with the ‘Four Cs’

Rhode Island residency has been mine for only a few weeks, since I moved to the state in July to lead the Providence Country Day school. In that short time, I have found that moving to a new place eefreshes one’s perspective and renews even well-established personal philosophies.

Watching with these new eyes as we prepare for back-to-school exercises has underscored how much education has changed since my own 1980s school days — and how much it continues to evolve before our very eyes. The salient changes are more than the obvious presence of technological hardware or media-savvy students. They are embedded in how we teach and the skills that we expect our students to develop through their traditional subject-based curriculum.

Today’s kindergartners will be graduating from college in the 2020s and retiring in the 2060s. The rapid-fire cultural and technological change that has so far typified this century makes it difficult to imagine what the world will be like in 12 years, let alone after the middle of this century.

Yet schools are charged with preparing students for life in this world, and prepare we will. Though the core subject matter will always be important, we must also focus on the life skills required to succeed personally, socially and economically in the 21st Century.

Thought-leaders in what educators call 21st Century education — such people as Daniel Pink, Carol Dweck, Malcolm Gladwell or Dan Heath, to name a few — express how we think about teaching. They suggest we ought focus on the foundational skills that will most benefit students in the future. So 21st Century education is about fusing the traditional “Three Rs” with the emerging “Four C’s” — creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

The question is, how do we really teach the Four C’s? Clearly they are more difficult to teach in a regimented way, and with many school systems fixated on measurable outcomes, how do we make these Four C’s a priority when they are tough to measure? When the Four C’s lead us to consider the importance of discernment, analysis, or problem-solving on a par with algebra and history, how do we ensure that we adapt our curriculum and best prepare our students?

Some curricular changes are subtle, while others are a dramatic departure from the style of education that looks “familiar” to most parents. Driven by research rather than textbooks, experience rather than memorization, the 21st Century curriculum is linked to the community — local and global. It is project-based, aimed at students participating in addressing real-world problems. Through creative teaching and the Internet, today’s students will collaborate not only with one another but also with people around the world.

Needless to say, technology plays a huge part in 21st Century learning. The latest digital and mobile technologies can transform how young people communicate, collaborate and learn — not to mention how we form personal identities through social networking. Young people have a native understanding of these technologies and are already fluent in their mastery, yet find them
largely absent from their daily education. As we work to integrate technology into our curriculum the question is not “how does this technology help me teach?” but rather “how will this help my students learn?”

Preparing students of today for the world of tomorrow is more than integrating technology into the classroom. It’s about changing the classroom itself. No longer is the classroom to be defined
by four walls, rows of desks and a chalk board. Engaging students in the activities of their community, using the classroom as the nexus — rather than the static location — of learning makes course work more relevant and helps embed the Four C’s in learning.

Even getting outside can help students embrace 21st Century ideas. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average 8-18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week using “entertainment media,” up from 44 hours just over five years ago. And when children do go outside, they are likely to participate in a sport or some other structured activity.

The result, says “Last Child in the Woods” author Richard Louv, is that kids are out of touch with Mother Earth. Citing an epidemic of “Nature Deficit Disorder,” Louv shows how being outside for unstructured play or scientific exploration heightens connections to reality; and he explains how understanding ecology leads to understanding the connections between people and communities.

Whether indoors or out, through technology or through organic interpersonal connections, we now teach an audience that expects to connect — an audience that hungers to be creative, to collaborate, to think critically and to communicate.

As educators embark upon a new school year, the evolution of education facing us is undeniable. The fundamentals are important; what we teach students to do with them is equally so. It is our duty to prepare them not for our pasts, but for their futures.

Originally published September 5, 2011 in The Providence Journal. Vince Watchorn is headmaster of Providence Country Day School, in East Providence.

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