Patti Grayson is a 3rd grade teacher at Virginia’s Hampton Roads Academy and a member of her school’s digital learning leadership team. She blogs at Patti’s Ponderings. In 2011-12, she’s looping with her 3rd graders into 4th.
I have the joy of spending every day with an energetic, fun, curious group of 20 third graders. They ask great questions and are truly excited about learning. In fact, sometimes it feels like they are 9 going on 29. They seem to enjoy playing “Stump the Teacher,” and I’m ok with that! They understand that many days I’m going to be learning new things right along with them.
Every now and then, I try to imagine what the world will be like when these little guys graduate from college in 2025. When I look at the advances we’ve made in the last dozen years, it’s hard to fathom where we’ll be in another dozen.
The realization that we have absolutely no idea what kind of world these children will find as they enter adulthood means we can only guess at what knowledge and skills will be important. And yet I have a role in preparing them for this world of tomorrow. This version of “Stump the Teacher” is not fun at all . . .
What does it mean to be ‘educated’ in the 21st century?
When I was growing up and struggling through pre-calculus, I asked the question all students ask – “Why do I have to know this? When will I ever use it?” One of my parents’ favorite replies was that it would help make me a “well-rounded individual.” This, of course, was very important for receptions and cocktail parties; I must be prepared to look and sound articulate. Educated. Well, I’ve never really found a need to discuss pre-calculus at a dinner party, and I’ve never used it in my career. But in principle I do understand the value of being educated.
Here’s the dilemma: With the world changing so rapidly, being educated takes on new meaning. First of all, I think even the word “educated” is outdated. It conveys the message that if you complete a certain number of steps or reach a certain level in the system of diplomas and degrees, you can relax and make a living from what you know. Not so today — the demand to master new knowledge and skills is neverending. If you want to be successful, you never finish your education.
So my mission (and I choose to accept it) is not to educate students, but to cultivate learners.
I don’t need to spend precious classroom hours cramming disconnected facts into kids who will then memorize them, regurgitate them, and promptly forget them before the year is through. I need to build on kids’ innate curiosity and excitement for new knowledge. But I’m realistic. I know I’m not going to get kids hungry for deeper understanding with topics that have no interest or relevance for them.
I can help pique interest by presenting the material in a creative way. I can create challenging and intriguing problems that require basic math and literacy skills to solve, and show kids why knowing certain material or possessing certain skills is valuable. But that’s not enough. I’ve got to give students time to pursue learning in the areas that interest them NOW.
The era of “well-roundedness” is quickly passing
Is the connected world too vast and full of information to develop “well-rounded” individuals anymore? I suspect it is. The availability of knowledge is unlimited. What combination of this knowledge would now form “well-roundedness”? (If you have an answer, please share here in the comments. I’d love some lively debate!)
If we concentrate on fostering curiosity and exploration in the early grades, and guide students to find joy in learning and discovery through their passions and interests, then as those interests change (and the world changes), they will possess the tools and insight to continue to seek learning opportunities. If my 3rd graders graduate as passionate learners and innovative problem solvers, they will be an asset in the future – no matter what that future may bring.
As adults we make our own decisions about what to learn on an ongoing basis. We have only so much time, money, and energy. We assess each learning opportunity and ask ourselves: Is this something I really want to know? If we want to lead students to define their passions at an earlier age, at what point do we allow them to start making these learning choices? With my guidance I know my 3rd graders are ready to benefit from options about the information they want to pursue.
Many folks think the education reform movement is largely about technology, but it’s much bigger than that. With the above questions in mind, it becomes clear that the framework of education must change so that we are much more intentional about creating “lifelong learners” who leverage the technologies with passion and purpose.
If I’ve done my job and helped prepare my third graders for the future, they won’t remember that I taught them long division (even though I did). They’ll remember me as the teacher who opened the world to them — who encouraged them to seek learning with tremendous enthusiasm and to relish the deeper understanding they gain as a result.
[Image from Personalized Graduate Gifts]