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Making schools relevant for 21st-century learners: book review

Jack Goodman

Jack Goodman

Aug 8, 2013

I just finished reading Educating Gen Wi-Fi, Greg Whitby's new book, and thought I'd share some thoughts.

The subtitle of the book is: "How to make schools relevant for 21st-century learners," and I should have paid more attention to it than to the word "Wi-fi" and the giant photo of the teenaged boy staring at his mobile phone on the cover. If I had, I'd have realised sooner than page 115 (about half-way through the book) that Whitby isn't really interested in technology per-se at all. In fact, what he's trying to figure out is how to make schools work better for kids in the year 2013. And, as it turns out, he has some interesting ideas about what needs to change.

Back to page 115, where, Whitby explains:

"The role of technology in learning is to engage students and to enhance the efforts of teachers. It is the skills that are developed, not the technology itself, that is important. We must keep our eye on the end game at all times -- delivering relevant learning to set our children confidently on the path to lifelong learning to ensure they are equipped for life and work in today's world."

Technology is a means to that end, and an essential one, as it increasingly consumes all aspects of children's (and adults') daily lives in Australia. For schooling to be relevant to children, it must incorporate the technologies that a growing majority of us, young and old, are embedding into the fabric of our daily existences.

But that's not the solution to the "flatlining" of our schools' performance on international benchmarks over the last decade or so. Rather, the solution lies in changing the way teachers teach, and creating environments in schools that induce teachers to improve their skills and capabilities. And how does Whitby suggest we get more out of our schools and, in particular, our teachers? Refreshingly, he doesn't call for more funding to resource the nation's schools. Money's not the issue, he says, because if it were, results would have improved over the last decade.

Rather, schools need to be reimagined for our post-industrial, information technology age. And by reimaginging, he means walls need to be knocked down. Yes, physically knocked down. Whitby wants to see the traditional classroom for one teacher and up to 30 students smashed open and combined with adjacent spaces to make double and triple sized spaces for teams of 2 or 3 teachers and upwards of 90 students to work together in ways that are more collaborative and communicative than in traditional schooling environments.

Whitby gives lots of reasons for this type of change to the physical environment, though it seems to me the main one is the benefit gained by having teachers observe and learn from each other. Whitby is too diplomatic to say so directly, but one of the learnings he has drawn is that poor teachers who are siloed in individual classrooms are less likely to address their weaknesses and develop their skills than those in group teaching situations. And because teacher quality is the single greatest determinant in student outcomes, finding ways to improve teacher capabilities is of paramount importance.

Where does technology fit into Whitby's vision? Embracing technology is about embracing change and making school relevant and meaningful for students. The subtext of Whitby's thesis is that teachers need to change their attitudes toward change, to transform their classrooms and teaching environments to meet the needs of their students in the second decade of the 21st century. Educating Gen Wi-Fi identifies the challenge. We'll need Whitby to write its sequel to explain how to transform a traditionally conservative profession (with a mission of passing learning from generation to generation) into a revolutionary vanguard.

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