Transformational Change in Education

May 21, 2010 Honourable David Hancock, QC, Minister of Education

Transforming education will enable millennial teachers to meet tomorrow’s challenges

Accurately predicting the future is a daunting task. Predicting the future for education in a rapidly changing world is no exception. When we look at what is on the horizon for teachers in the K–12 system, the only thing that we can be absolutely certain of is that the future will involve change and more change. 

That is not to say that education has not already changed a great deal in the last few decades. We have moved far away from the pitcher-vessel approach to teaching that once characterized K–12 education. I believe there are few, if any, teachers in Alberta who think that they are the fountain of all knowledge, and that their role is to pour that knowledge into the heads of their students, who then parrot it back on demand. We all understand that real learning is not about students merely reproducing something they have learned, but about whether or not they can apply what they have learned generally to challenges that emerge in their lives.

Our willingness and ability to adapt our education system to changing circumstances is one of the reasons why Alberta is widely acknowledged as having a high-quality education system. We are committed to providing our students with a wide variety of educational choices supported by comprehensive, robust provincial programs of study that prepare them to respond to the challenges and opportunities they will encounter in life.

However, the question we must answer now is whether our system is good enough to prepare our students for their future. The answer to that question is no. The expectations of, and the demands on, the education system will be different. If we do not begin transforming our education system today, we will not be able to meet the demands of tomorrow.

In this rapidly changing world, it is becoming quite clear that some of the very skills and attributes that made yesterday’s teachers successful will be insufficient to produce the same level of success in the future. The need for transformational change in education extends to the skill sets of those who teach. We will need to do a thorough analysis of what skills and techniques will continue to be of value to students and where new kinds of skills and approaches are required.

During the past few years, much of the conversation about the future of education has centred on the unique attributes of the millennial learner. Based on the research that has been conducted in Canada and around the world, we know that millennial learners have different characteristics from the generations of students that preceded them. We know that their access to a wide variety of information technology has helped shape the way they learn and interact. The differences between millennial learners and those who went before them are likely to increase over time.

However, describing the millennial learner is not an end in itself. We do it because if we are going to teach millennial learners effectively, we need to know who they are, what they know and do not know, and what they can and cannot do, as well as what interests them and what they see as relevant to their lives after graduation from high school. Based on what we already know, it is clear that the effective education of millennial students requires millennial teachers. And just as millennial students have different characteristics, so too do millennial teachers.

Some argue that teachers teach the way they were taught to teach. Others say that teachers teach in the way they were taught by their favourite teachers. Regardless of the inspiration, the preparation of teachers is perhaps the most important component in the transformation of our education system. Whether teachers are finding their calling or learning their craft, creating new kinds of teachers will require faculties of education to be part of that transformation.

I think it is fair to say that if we are going to be successful we must ensure that our faculties of education are connected to our schools; know our students; and are relevant in methodology, context and technology. They must keep up with who is filling the desks in the classroom and what actually goes on there. One of the areas in which this is particularly true is the use of various types of technology as teaching and learning tools.

If we are going to ensure that students have the digital literacy competency required in the 21st century, we are going to have to ensure that teachers themselves have that digital literacy competency before they enter their classrooms. Right now, teachers who are digitally literate have often learned to be so in spite of, rather than because of, the way they were taught. This is a significant challenge. We must blend the experience, wisdom and mentoring of our experienced teachers with the need to speak the language and create engagement for the millennial student.

Every new teacher who enters the classroom should know how to use the technology that is available and should be able to recognize new opportunities for using technology to promote learning in interesting and engaging ways. However, as we all know, technology does not stand still. Today’s current and emerging technologies will quickly become tomorrow’s artifacts of the past. This means that when it comes to technology, teachers themselves have to demonstrate their commitment to the lifelong learning they seek to instill in their students.

Teaching is not about the technology, however. Technology is simply a powerful tool. The real question is how you use the technology as an effective engagement and pedagogical tool.

To be truly effective, teachers will need to be more nimble in adjusting to the learning needs of students with diverse backgrounds and levels of achievement. They must be able to implement curriculum by personalizing learning strategies to meet individual student needs to a greater degree. In doing so, they will also enhance student engagement. Two things will be significant enablers here: greater access to technology and the use of digitally based learning and teaching resources.

Globally, the availability of digitally based resources for teachers and learners will increase exponentially. Digital resources lend themselves more readily to customization and updating; these will be critical factors in meeting the diverse needs of students in the classroom. While programs of study will continue to set standards for all learners in the form of learning outcomes, teachers will have greater flexibility to look into their educational tool box and pick those tools that are most likely to help them achieve the learning outcomes based on individual learner needs.

To support this enhanced flexibility, we will look to partner with teachers, publishers, universities, school boards, resource developers and IT companies to make available high-quality and engaging digitally based resources. The goal will be to create curriculum that supports learning at any time, any place and any pace, supporting socially engaging learning opportunities with flexible timing and pacing through a range of learning environments.

As the public’s demand for an effective 21st-century education grows, so too will the demand for reassurance that we are achieving our goals. Thus, assessment will take on more importance. We need to ensure that teachers are adequately prepared for the summative and formative student assessments that will be necessary to ensure that every student fulfills his or her potential. We will also have to ensure that we are assessing the right things, the right way, at the right times.

One theme that has emerged from Alberta Education’s Speak Out student engagement initiative is the demand for relevance from our students. The trick, of course, is to take the learning outcomes we believe our students will need and make them relevant. Few students are able to determine the skills and information they will need upon graduation. That is why credibility in the classroom will be one of the most important characteristics of millennial teachers. Teachers who only know the subject matter but cannot relate that information to what students will encounter after graduation will not be able to actively engage them in learning. The millennial teacher will have to be continually on the lookout for individuals and organizations that can reinforce the long-term value of what is being taught in the classroom. An active relationship with the broad community will be the hallmark of the successful millennial teacher. Engagement, being a role model and mentor, bringing learning to life, caring about students, being passionate about subject matter and teaching—these qualities of a good teacher are timeless and will not change.

We live in interesting times full of challenges and opportunities. Transformational change in education will enable millennial teachers to meet the challenges they will face and to make the most of the opportunities with which they will be presented.

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