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Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Two: Critically Frame 21st-Century Skills

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Aug 31, 2017

Project Based LearningThis is the second installment of a four-part, how-to blog series on overcoming the digital divide, an extension of ILA’s latest brief.

As we learned from ILA’s latest brief, “Overcoming the Digital Divide: Four Critical Steps,” teachers who have students from low socioeconomic backgrounds often assume those students have little or no access to digital technology, and then avoid it in their pedagogy.

When those students—who don’t have access at home or in class—try to comprehend technology on the same level as their classmates, they fall twice as far behind. Poor digital comprehension and skills lead to lower levels of academic achievement, social advancement, and eventually, career mobility.

In last week’s installment of our Overcoming the Digital Divide series, we discussed how administrators and educators can increase funding for technology and Internet access in classrooms. This week, we’ll shift our focus to a second digital divide that’s rooted in “weak or ineffective digital pedagogy.” As educators secure access and begin to embrace 21st-century learning, they may need to rethink their teaching approaches to better support the acquisition of these new literacies and skills.

To help you cut through the Internet’s cacophony of 21st-century frameworks, guides, and methodologies, we asked David Ross, CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), and Karen Wohlwend, associate professor in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University Bloomington, what they believe are the defining characteristics of effective 21st-century learning models.

Distributed leadership

Before leaders can get teachers and administrators to embrace transformation, they have to create a climate in which all educators are inclined to "buy in" to the vision.

“It’s very difficult to effectively run a school from the top down,” says Ross.

Earlier this year, P21 issued its first Patterns of Innovation report, which identifies five key ingredients to successful 21st-century learning environments. The report found that almost all exemplar schools embody a “distributed leadership” model, wherein all stakeholders—principals, superintendents, teachers, faculty, and students alike—share ownership over a clearly articulated mission for the school, and are actively and enthusiastically involved in execution.

For a closer look at the leadership models of successful 21st-century learning environments, check out P21’s list of case studies.

Collaborative culture

As Wohlwend notes in a report titled  "One Screen, Many Fingers," today’s students are tomorrow’s 21st-century workforce “who, very likely, will need to be experts at collaborating and inventing together...with literacies and technologies one cannot yet imagine.”

In our globalized, technology-driven world, most jobs require the ability to collaborate in both physical and virtual spaces. Today’s employers value individuals who can communicate effectively, work productively in diverse teams, be open-minded to different ideas and values, and use social and cultural differences to generate new ideas and innovate, according to a 2015 UNESCO report.

Wohlwend says she prepares students for these global opportunities by introducing “collaborative composing,” where students play together with digital apps on a single touchscreen device.

In addition to lowering overhead costs (bonus!), device sharing naturally encourages students to “listen to one another, to see from another player’s perspective, to negotiate their ideas, and to develop strategies for sharing materials and decision making,” concepts that can be applied to real-life social and employment situations.

Student agency

When students enter Wohlwend’s Literacy Playshop, they are not there to learn—but to create. In this space, they become filmmakers, performers, and designers who work together to produce sophisticated animated puppet shows, live-action plays, digital films, and more.

Through the Literacy Playshop model, Wohlwend is working to transform students from passive consumers of knowledge to “coproducers” who are actively involved in the creation of educational resources, curricular content, and teaching itself.

Wohlwend says that as students produce 21st-century texts, they not only become more proficient technology users, but also they learn how media messages are constructed.

“We need to be thinking about the ways that people are coproducing, and not just writing texts to be read silently. That is the way we operated with the printed page,” says Wohlwend. “We need to move beyond that thinking and create spaces for people to collaborate, interpret, and produce media in real-time together.”

For ideas on how to incorporate play-based literacy learning, check out The Buck Institute for Education’s (BIE) Project Search, “A Better List Of Ideas For Project-Based Learning” by TeachThought, and “The Materials of a Makerspace” by Makerspace for Education.

Teacher agency

In an Edutopia article, ELA teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron argues that in order to support the valuable innovation of their students, teachers need the freedom to be innovative as well.

“By denying teachers their chance to develop their own creativity in curriculum, we deny them the power of modeling enthusiasm for their content and the process of delivering that content. We also inadvertently cause a stagnation of imagination and critical thinking in the very troops closest to the students themselves and those tasked with bringing out those very traits in our clientele,” she writes.

Wohlwend has applied this line of thinking to her own work with preservice and inservice teacher inquiry groups. Rather than assign a curriculum, she provides opportunities for them to collaborate, create, and test-drive projects.

“Once they’ve had those experiences, they think, ‘How do I make this happen in my own classroom?’” says Wohlwend. "It’s trusting in teachers."

Emphasis on higher order thinking

Studies show that nearly 65% of today’s students will be employed in a job that has yet to exist.

Our ever-changing world demands an ability to think critically, use continually evolving technology, be culturally aware and adaptive, and make complex decisions based on accurate analysis, according to Judy Willis, board-certified neurologist and former classroom teacher.

To prepare students for these challenges, teachers are starting to ditch prepackaged teaching methods in favor of teaching higher order thinking skills.

In 2015, ILA introduced the Scaffolding Higher Order Thinking Skills (SHOTS) strategy, which provides scaffolding tools and processes—including cue cards, graphic organizers, and question prompts—that educators can use to support text-generative and independent thinking skills.

Other helpful tools for introducing higher order thinking include TeachHUB’s Teaching Strategies that Enhance Higher-Order Thinking and Edutopia’s Higher-Order Thinking Questions presentation.

21st-century professional development

With a unified vision and strong pedagogy in place, educators’ next step is to operationalize those concepts.

“You can give teachers great ideas, but then their standards response is, ‘So, what do I do on Monday?’” says Ross.

Ross has delivered professional development to more than 10,000 teachers in the past decade. He says that good PD equips teachers with the tools, knowledge, and skills they need to integrate critical thinking, collaboration, and other 21st-century competencies into all content areas. 

“As a classroom teacher, I love content. But if kids don’t have the ability to critically look at content, I can’t be a good teacher.”  

Ross encourages educators to draw inspiration from P21’s 21st Century Skills Map, which provide concrete examples of how 21st-century skills can be integrated into core subjects. He also recommends 21st-century professional development resources from organizations like Common Sense Media, The National Education Association, and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

To explore the rest of this four-part series, visit the links below:

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step One: Increasing Funding for Technology and Internet Access

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Three: Provide Resources

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Four: Advocate


Alina O’Donnell 
is the editor o
f Literacy Daily.

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