What Should Educators Have in Our Heads?

February 11, 2015
Kevin Gant

Kevin Gant

Several of my colleagues, who are definitely 21st century educators, have posted or shared the diagram:

There is much to be lauded about this diagram – its focus on mindset, its push towards risk-taking, and its embrace of collaboration among all stakeholders in a school.  These are in fact behaviors that we at nex+Gen try to model for and encourage in our students.

Nonetheless, upon finishing reading the diagram, I found that it did not quite sit well, perhaps because I perceived that it was incomplete.   The head that is missing?

Teaching isn’t just meta.  Sure, I can help students understand the power of mindset. Yes, I can navigate the world of videos and blogs and twitter etc etc etc reasonably well, all in an effort to avail my students of a variety of resources, but I am a resource too, and not just of attitude or mindset.    The great educators that I know, and know of, work extremely hard learning content, not necessarily to the point of being “expert” but certainly to the point of being “well versed”. There are good reasons for this:

  1. It is very, very hard to develop curriculum and projects unless you understand the content and its interconnectedness to other disciplines.  With deep content knowledge, we can translate the work of the world into the work of the classroom in such a way that there is meaningful overlap.   Otherwise, the work of the world is often inaccessible to students because of its complexity, and because curricula developed only for the classroom is uninteresting or overly simplistic or both.
  2. Students need to see the value-add in having a teacher.  If all we can do is refer students to other resources without being a resource ourselves, then their view of the classroom experience can quickly become jaded. Students know when a teacher has deep content knowledge or not. In this world where resources are so available, having a foundational content knowledge and the concomitant ability to parse various resources is exactly the sort of value-add that can aid student learning, and help kids appreciate the need for human interaction when learning.
  3. Modeling. Perhaps my favorite head on the diagram is the one that states “Model resiliency and perseverance”, because those are exactly the behaviors that I wish to see in my students as they are faced with challenging material.  But I’m still having them engage in material.  As Bandura might say, modeling is everything. It is just as important to model deep engagement with love of, and acquisition of, content. Students often come to love science or math because they see that it can be loved, from observing their teachers.

To be fair, I don’t suggest that the author/illustrator is claiming that content knowledge is not important. But the omission, whether conscious or not, is worrisome, particularly when there’s a bevy of critics out there ready to say that 21C education is without substance, citing the notable gaps in diagrams like this. Those of us who believe those behaviors important must prove the critics wrong by generating learners who know things deeply AND love learning.

And in the author’s defense, it is that second part – “and love learning” – that makes this diagram and 21C education compelling, and worth commenting upon in the first place. Without the risk-taking, compassion, and attending to attitude, we land upon education that is frequently bereft of joy.

I also love the fact that the author asks, “what needs to be in an educator’s head?”, in a similar way that we as educators ask ourselves what students need.  To that end, I’ve often said that engagement is not enough.  Students must also emerge from my classroom with some tangible knowledge and skills that they value.  In math and science parlance: engagement is necessary, but not sufficient.

While it might be a bit of a contrived dichotomy, on the one hand there are the characteristics described in the diagram, and on the other hand, deep content knowledge.  Either hand, taken by itself, is not sufficient.  Both, however, are necessary.

Originally published on Kevin Gant’s blog.  Follow Kevin on Twitter!