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What every 21st-century educator should know

cheryl_lemkeEducators today are constantly bombarded with the phrase “21st-century skills,” and the message that all students need to learn those skills in order to succeed. And while general roadmaps can help educators get started on this path toward 21st-century instruction, FETC keynote speaker Cheryl Lemke provided a more narrow focus on what it takes to be a 21st-century education leader.

“It’s all about the ripple effect,” Lemke, president and CEO of the Metiri Group, said in her Jan. 15 speech. (The Metiri Group is a consulting firm dedicated to advancing effective uses of technology in schools.) “When a creative idea is born, it has so much potential, and that potential can turn into innovation. By innovation, I mean that it begins to change the entire system, and therefore causes ripples in the system.”

Lemke went on to explain that today’s students have the ability to start ripples in society, and a good education leader will know how to give students the skills they need to start those ripples.

“The first thing we need to clarify is this definition of a ‘digital native,’” said Lemke. “We’ve all heard that these digital natives are multitaskers, meaning they can focus on multiple things at once. But recent neuroscience research suggests that what these kids are really doing is jumping between different tasks and not giving each task full attention. It’s not focused, it’s distracted, and therefore reduces the overall quality of attention each task needs.”

Lemke reminded attendees that Linda Stone, former vice president of Microsoft, years ago said this behavior is really just “continual partial attention.”

“There are times when students shouldn’t be multitasking,” said Lemke. “While technology makes it easier for students to jump around between tasks, they don’t always learn what they could. So it’s our job to keep students interested enough in their tasks.”

To keep students interested, Lemke said educators first must know about students’ lives and their interests outside of school—something she called “adolescent learning 2.0.”

Adolescent learning 2.0 makes the adolescent the center of learning, while taking into consideration factors outside of school, such as their peers, communities, home life, and all their available resources (the internet, social networks, and so on). “School is just one part of what constitutes an adolescent’s learning,” explained Lemke.

She also noted several key trends that are shaping education today; trends that education leaders should be aware of:

(1) Democratization of knowledge. According to Lemke, information is readily available to students from several different sources (both inside and outside of school), and teachers need to recognize their role is evolving—from information provider to more of a mentor.

One way to embrace this role of mentor is by teaching what digital resources are available to students and how they can take advantage of those resources.

Lemke noted that many new and freely available resources come out of the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference every year. For example, one presenter at the TED conference, David Bolinsky, former medical illustrator at Yale and cofounder of XVIVO, a scientific animation company, showed attendees a film in progress called the Inner Life of a Cell. Bolinsky worked with Harvard scientists to create simulations of cell functions that educators could use to intrigue students about biology.

Lemke also noted sites such as MIT’s Open Courseware and Connexions, a “content commons” of free, open-licensed educational materials in fields such as music, electrical engineering, and psychology .

“One big goal of your classes and your teaching should be to engage student interest as much as possible,” said Lemke. “The question you should be asking is, ‘When they leave school, are they even more curious then when they began?’”

(2) Web 2.0 and mass collaboration. “One of the greatest ways to engage students and teach 21st-century skills is by using the web for collaboration,” said Lemke.

She gave attendees a glimpse into how mass web collaboration is transforming society.

One example is a resource called Innocentive, which connects small businesses with problem solvers via the web. Whoever solves the problem gets cash for solving that problem.

An example from the web site involved a small oil company in Alaska that had a problem with its oil pipes freezing in cold temperatures. After the company posted its problem online, a construction developer solved the problem in hours because his construction sites had the same problem with freezing concrete pipes. The solution was to vibrate the pipes to keep them from freezing. After drawing a proposal and calculating a few other technicalities, he submitted his answer and received $20,000.

Lemke also quoted a list from the Johnson & Johnson Co. on what defines good collaboration, which can help educators when asking their students to work online collaboratively:

1. Balance of formal and informal work

2. Positive interdependence that promotes personal responsibility

3. Considerable promotive interaction

4. Shared workspace

5. Iterative group reflection and processing to improve effectiveness

“We also need to start creating assessments for group work,” said Lemke. “Most of the time when educators grade students in groups, it’s still based on individual [contributions]. The work of the group as a whole needs to be assessed as well.”

(3) Multimodal learning. Lemke urged educators to read neuroscience research about how the brain processes memory with sights and sounds.

“Students can learn better when concepts are presented in many modes,” she explained.

Lemke gave the example of another TED presenter who showed how the world’s countries have shifted in life expectancy rates and birthing rates since the 1950s. Instead of just telling the audience, the TED presenter showed, through moving representative colors on a chart, how countries have changed.

“It’s not only students who need to think visually; educators have to as well,” said Lemke.

For more information on Lemke’s keys to being a leader in 21st-century education, go to



Metiri Group

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