An innovative and potentially ground-breaking approach to 21st century education is placing baby boomer retirees from STEM fields into “learning teams” with educators in an attempt to give students knowledge from real-life science and math experts.

Spearheaded by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), these learning teams pair experienced STEM retirees with classroom teachers to inject compelling real-life lessons into classroom instruction, while at the same time giving teachers valuable support.

“Every day that we give a standalone teacher a standalone curriculum, we’re recreating this [outdated] model–we need to start thinking about transforming these learning organizations into a 21st century learning system,” said Tom Carroll, NCTAF president.

“We’re living in the learning age,” he said. “The standalone teaching model is no longer sustainable, and teachers need a collaborative team environment–it’s not fair to the teachers or the students.”

Carroll compared the outdated system of solo teaching to professions that have evolved to incorporate a team approach, and asked why the nation thinks teachers are the only professionals who should work without teams to assist them.

For instance, he asked, would we visit, and have confidence in, a doctor who worked completely alone with no nurses and no technicians who are well-versed in important specialties? And if we lived in a society without schools, and had to invent them, would we invent the same kind of schools that we have today?

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To that effect, Carroll is proposing a new kind of collaborative approach to teaching, in which educators will have support and learn from seasoned STEM professionals who, although retiring, have much knowledge to share and are not ready to stop working.

“There are 78 million baby boomers in the workforce, and they will be the largest, healthiest, most accomplished generation of retirees we’ve ever had,” Carroll said. Many of those baby boomers are not ready to stop working and would like to work with children, as they have years of knowledge and skills to share, but do not have the teaching certifications required to educate.

“It creates a powerful learning environment for students, it gives teachers the support they need, and it’s giving those retirees an outlet,” said Carroll, who founded the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program and created the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants Program at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The rest of the world is already creating 21st century learning environments,” Carroll said. “We need to create true collaborative learning environments–it’s a community responsibility.”

As an example of NCTAF’s vision, NASA scientists and engineers are working with ninth grade earth science teachers in Maryland on project-based learning modules built on NASA education content.

The goal here is to give teachers strong professional development in science content, give students a stronger learning experience, and help NASA employees learn about pedagogy.

One important aspect is that this team approach need not be “just a recruitment effort–it’s creating an effective structure, curriculum, and instruction activities, and that’s essential for its success,” Carroll said.

According to Carroll, three forces are driving change in education: a new learning age, an open learning economy, and a growing number of young educators leaving the teaching profession.

The new learning age requires competencies in core areas, such as creativity and communication, if students are to successfully participate in a globally integrated learning culture.

“For young people to develop these skills, teachers need to have those skills and need to be able to organize a learning environment that mirrors where these young people will live and work in their lives,” Carroll said.

An open learning economy surrounding schools today makes many powerful resources and network learning opportunities available to students and teachers outside of school, therefore schools will no longer be “the” learning place, Carroll said. User-driven and user-created content is happening constantly on Facebook, YouTube, and SecondLife.

“An open learning economy allows for deep personalization, more participation, and new education roles and learning relationships,” Carroll said.