What do 21st Century Skills look like in Practice?

Guest Post – Stacey Quince – Principal, Campbelltown Performing Arts High School. (Campbelltown Performing Arts High School is a Microsoft Partners in Learning Worldwide Mentor School.)

I recently undertook Instructional Rounds for the first time and one of the key elements Richard Elmore highlighted during the training that was that “in order to learn how to do it, they (teachers) have to unlearn certain other things”. It occurred to me that “learning to unlearn” has been a recurring but incredibly important theme for the significant transformation that education has been undergoing, and continues to undergo, across Australia and around the globe in recent years. 

A combination of changing context, including rapidly emerging technologies, and an evolving understanding of neuroscience make this an exciting time to be an educator. But they also make it a challenging time. Whilst the term “21st century learning” rolls off the tongue easily, and a quick search on the Internet will provide plenty of evidence that there is a strong focus on the concept around the world, it seems to me that much of it is white noise. I believe that if we are truly to meet the needs of our “21st century learners”, then we must have a deep understanding of what these needs are as well as the tools to be able to meet them. As teachers, we must have a profound understanding of how to meet the individual learning needs of all students in our care, and as school leaders we have a responsibility to support our teachers to do so. But what does this C21st change look like in practice and how do we build teacher capacity?

There has been a significant shift at my school over the last few years, in terms of both teaching and learning, and the “unlearning” has been as important for us as educators as the “learning”. The changing approach to our pedagogy has been both research driven and evidence-based, with the research and evidence coming both from outside and within our own context.

Our participation in the Innovative Teaching and Learning (ITL) project has seen hundreds of our student work samples and learning activities coded against the 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) rubrics and, in combination with teacher interviews and surveys, lesson observations and student focus groups, have provided us with strong baseline data against which to measure our changing practice. 21CLD has provided the teachers at my school with a shared understanding of some of the key skills we should be developing in our students and, more importantly, a framework against which we can evaluate or “code” our teaching activities and student work in order refine and improve them. For example, 21CLD has supported us to work across subjects areas to guide authentic opportunities for collaboration, it has informed our choices in technology to ensure that students are using ICT to construct new knowledge and it has guided our work to build students’ capacity to be self-regulated learners. 

The change agenda in our school is also being informed by the work being undertaken by teacher-researchers in action learning research teams.  Teachers from all faculties are investigating 21st century approaches including project-based learning, personalised learning and the use of flexible learning spaces.  This work is informed by external research, underpinned by rigorous evaluation strategies and supported by strong collaboration between teachers. Action learning has been used extensively and with great success in our school in the past and the work being undertaken by more than 30 teachers currently – a critical mass – seems set to lead the way for all teachers across the school. Whilst there is still much to do, our work to date is very encouraging.

The other critical element in terms of 21st century learning that has gained traction is our school is the notion of student voice.  We have been listening to our students. Really listening. We have let them into the ‘secret teacher business’ of assessment and explicitly skilled them as peer-assessors and self-assessors. We have trained them as researchers to co-evaluate the impact of some pedagogies and we have had them nominate teaching strategies and then film them for the purposes of teacher professional learning. Recently, we have even had a team of them use 21CLD to unpack and refine the 21st skills evident in the learning activities they are undertaking. What they have to tell us about how they learn and what they want to learn is interesting, valuable and relevant. Surely, if our aim is to meet their needs as 21st learners, they should have a voice in the process. Of course, our teachers are still the pedagogical experts, but our students have a lot to contribute. This too is creating a shift – a shift in the traditional power balance between teachers and students where we are no longer the font of all knowledge, but partners in a powerful learning partnership.

A learning partnership that is also an unlearning partnership. 

Campbelltown Performing Arts High School

Stacey Quince is the Principal at Campbelltown Performing Arts High School. Stacey is passionate about improving student learning outcomes through quality teacher professional learning and empowering students as active participants in the learning process. She has collaboratively implemented practitioner research in a range of areas including literacy, cross-curriculum learning, assessment and ICT. She investigated ICT-based assessment practices throughout the UK as the recipient of the 2010 NSW Premier’s English Teacher Scholarship. Stacey has presented at many conferences at a national and state level and has published research reports on a number of case studies. Stacey is the recipient of an Australian College of Educators NSW Quality Teaching Award in (2007) and an AITSL Australian Award for Excellence in Teacher Leadership (2009).