Literacy skills for a new world

The mainstream way in which we teach our kids to read and write has changed very little in several centuries. It is, perhaps, the only teaching practice that remains unchanged as time goes by – or the one that has changed the least.

Yes, there have been some strikes of innovation here and there – but at the end, we end up doing practically the same things that have been done for ages: we teach the letters, their sounds, and the way they interact with each other. We start at six, sometimes a little later or a little earlier. We follow the same steps with all children. We make them drill and repeat. Until they can read. Or not.

Some might say, if this method is still being used across centuries, it must be tried and true. It means it works, and therefore we should keep teaching that way. Right?

Wrong. I believe our traditional systems are somewhat successful in teaching kids to read and write. But they are an absolute failure in creating readers and writers.

There is a difference between being able to read and being an avid reader.  UNESCO reports that the world literacy rate is nowadays around 86%. In my country, México, as it is in the United States, almost 100% of people 15 years old and older are literate. However, in México, 55% of the population in this group did not read a single book last year. The same is true for almost a third of Americans. At the same time, UNESCO reports that 6 out 10 children “are not learning a minimum in reading and math”

The world is changing rapidly. Our students need to become life-long learners if they are to keep up the pace with the challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already presenting them.

If you want life-long learners, then you need life-long readers.  It is that simple.

What are we doing wrong?

I believe that our education systems are teaching our kids too little, too late and too badly – at least regarding early literacy instruction.

For centuries it has been believed that tiny children cannot, and should not, be taught to read. Many have warned us against the perils of teaching a child who is “not ready”. But children are born with brains primed for language. And reading is language.

Instead of taking advantage of the powerful and plastic brains of tiny kids, we make them wait six longs years before giving them the gift of literacy. We wait until their brains are no longer as eager for language as they were on their first years of life. We allow the window of easy, meaningful language learning to fade away.

Of course, if we tried to teach a 3-year old to read in the same fashion that we have been teaching our 6 year olds, he would most certainly hate it. This is because the traditional techniques for reading instruction break apart language, presenting letters –devoid of meaning- instead of words within a context. By the way, I do not believe that we should teach the six year old this way, either.

What should we do instead?

Babies begin to learn to talk at birth – reading should not be different. We can expose tiny children to lots and lots of words, oral and written. We speak to our babies in high pitch, with lots of intonation and color. We should present reading words the same way, in large print, very brief sessions, and with great enthusiasm. When kids are young they are able to absorb huge amounts of information easily if presented properly.

We should begin early, exposing our children to a rich vocabulary within their context, enjoying language. Reading and playing are not opposing terms. They are not mutually-excluding activities. Reading is a gift and a privilege, not a task or a punishment.

Early reading could also be the answer to inequity, a way to reduce or even eliminate achievement gaps. Poor kids are lagging behind their affluent peers by the time they enter school. First grade is already too late for them to catch up.

Before becoming a teacher, I taught my own kids to read at home, at a young age, following the programs of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. The easy and joyful learning I witnessed made me fall in love with teaching.  I the following 20 years, I have taught, directly or indirectly, hundreds of little kids to read way before the age of six – and watched in awe as they became avid readers.

Last month I began a project that will last a couple of years: I will travel to as many countries as possible, visiting schools and talking to teachers, to learn how little kids are learning to read around the world, and write a book about those experiences.  Finland is, according to UNESCO, the most literate country in the world – and the place where I decided to go first.

Here is an excerpt of my interview with a very experienced Finnish teacher, Kirsti Savikko (in English, with Spanish subtitles)

New literacy practices need to be generated in our schools – and I believe that will happen somewhat soon, as brain research and innovative technologies evolve. Whether on a book or a screen, those who read will be able to rise above the uncertainties ahead. The world, now more than ever, will belong to readers.

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As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: To what extent do you believe the literacy skills required for a new world will be more or less the same as they were before? Will new literate practices need to be generated and does that mean that new literacies be required?  If so, what do you think these new literacies will be and how can they be learned?

A Holistic Learning Approach in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The best, the worst, and the future

“Strong academic skills alone are not enough for young people to become successful adults”, states a recent publication from the University of Chicago. The report, entitled “Foundatons for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework”, then goes to stress what is important: “experiences combining action and reflection (to) help children develop a set of critical skills, attitudes, and behaviors”  and “supportive relationships and an abundance of these developmental experiences through activities inside and outside of school.” (2015, Nagaoka et al)

Fair enough. But, how can these findings translate to real ife in classrooms around the planet? How are the world’s teachers helping their students face the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? And why are most educational systems still focusing on accountability measures when research clearly shows a different pathway to success?

The accelerated pace of technological advancement implies a choking pressure on education. Now schools must have a lab were students can experiment with drones and virtual reality, or else they are declared outdated and unmodern. But, in truth and honesty, how many schools, public or private, can afford such labs? Very, very few. And for the many others left to watch from the verge of modernity, what is left?

There is hope. “Even in environments devoid of technology, excellent pedagogy is still leading to astonishing student learning outcomes”. (Guerra, in Doucet et al, 2018, p. 40) Just as academics are not enough and everything to achieve student success, technology is neither the magic answer for education.

Last month, our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the precipice” was launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.  Among the many questions lurking around education today, we wanted to explore how are we preparing our youth for 2030 and beyond – with or without technology, and above academics and accountability. For my chapter, “Education Today: A collection of snapshots”, I interviewed experts, researchers and teachers from around the globe, and ended up with a collection of “best and worst educational practices” in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The worst

As reported in our book, there is a consensus on “the dark side”:

  • Static learning vs. engaged learning,
  • Treating schools as factories or bussinesses
  • Too much “curriculum- oriented instruction”
  • One-size-fits-all teaching
  • Teaching to the test

The Best

  • Balance of cognitive and non cognitive learning
  • Focusing in teachers’ quality as opossed to teachers’ perfomance
  • Empowering students
  • Using a wide inventory of teaching strategies – with, or without, technology
  • Building strong relationships with students

The future

“What, then, should students learn to be better equipped for the challenges of our times and for the future? A whole new world opens. Teachers’ responses were as enthusiastic as theywere diverse: global citizenship, soft skills, environmental awareness, digital literacy, critical thinking, relationships, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and even meditation!” (Guerra, in Doucet et al, 2018, p.39)

Koen Timmers and Armand Doucet sum it up nicely:

“As the world continues to become more globalized and interconnected, the ability to understand diverse perspectives and work with those that have divergent worldviews will become increasingly important.

Without great pedagogy, technology integration is worthless.”

 

References:

Doucet, A., Evers, J.,  Guerra, E., Lopez, N., Soskil, M.,  & Timmers, K. (2018) Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the precipice. London, Routledge Education.

Nagaoka et al (2015) Foundatons for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework. University of Chicago. Retrieved on April 24th, 2018 from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/foundations-young-adult-success-developmental-framework

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What should a holistic approach to learning look like and how do we shift the focus from the accountability measures in existence now to ones that are relevant for all students in a changing world? 

Taking Climate Change Seriously in our Schools

I am one among the couple thousands of teachers sitting in awe as former US Vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore is passionately talking about climate change. We are at the Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF), just last week in Dubai. The theme of the conference is: How are we educating our children and young for 2030?

During the sessions, and lingering in the many hallway conversations, two themes keep standing out among the many issues facing education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One is technology. The other, climate change.

Will the world in 2030 be a better place for young people? This is the hot question at the GESF debate chamber just one day before Al Gore’s appearance. The main concern seems to be whether robots will eat up our jobs… and whether we will still have a planet to live on.

Is there a way to embrace technology to its greatest advantages, and still turn our eyes towards nature, environment and life? How do we make sure we do not deplete our resources before it is too late? These questions belong not only in political arenas or international summits: they must find their way to our classrooms. Here are some ideas on how to make it happen.

  1. Instill inspiration, not fear. One thing I learned from Al Gore is that, while the situation on climate change is serious, there are plenty of opportunities to take action and make a difference. Yes, it is crucial that our children get to know the facts – but only to understand the importance of intervention. Fear creates paralysis. Inspiration provokes change.
  2. Make climate change part of your curriculum. Otherwise it will not just pop in there. We incorporated the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals so they no longer are “special activities”, but a core part of our program. We even created our own textbooks, -just published- on Language and Communication, in which the SDGs –along with climate change- make a prominent appearance. You can always lean in great work already out there. In our case, we took Harvard Professor Fernando Reimers’ book on global citizenship “Empowering students to improve the world in 60 lessons” as a starting point.
  3. Take part in international projects. When kids find out there are many other classrooms and schools working towards the same goals, they will feel compelled to do their part – and gain a sense of belonging at the same time. Two great projects to consider are Koen Timmers’ Climate Action Project, and Aggeliki Pappa’s #SOS4LoveProject. Of course, you can also create your own!
  4. Make it personal, make it real. In other words, practice what you preach. Get your school – or at least your classroom!- to recycle. Explore the many things both adults and children can do (we like the resources from the American Museum of Natural History)
  5. Speak out. Change will only happen if we succeed in bringing along as many people as possible. Children can become the best climate change advocates: after all, they will be the ones inheriting the planet. Our school is preparing a TEDx event where our students will share many ideas about pressing issues – climate change being one of them. Students will get to develop public speaking skills – while defending the earth.

The best way to celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd is to know that we are already doing our share in nurturing the planet – inside and outside our schools.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: Taking Climate Change Seriously in our Schools.  What are your best Tips for Teaching About Climate Change in Your Classroom?

From Armand Doucet: Six things my students teach me

Armand Doucet is a Canadian teacher, Global Teacher Prize finalist and coauthor of the book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. As a guest blogger, he writes for our series “Six Things my Students Teach ME”

All students are curious. It’s up to me to personalize the content and make the classroom a safe place for them to want to ask questions.

Passion will get any student to push outside of their comfort zone and try to reach new heights.

To be human, first and foremost, don’t take myself too seriously and make sure that every day I greet them at the door with a smile asking them how they are doing.

That I am not the smartest person in my classroom, at first this scared me, but growing from the sage on the stage to the guide that will help open the doors for each student, gives them the chance to reach their true potential.

Leadership is doing what is best for my students, no matter what.

Teaching is not and will never be just the transfer of curriculum content you are a teacher 24/7, 365 days of the year and you will wear a different hat (sometimes many hats) for every student in your classroom. Don’t underestimate the impact of a conversation in the hallways, checking up on the child who has been sick or giving some positive feedback on the students last extra-curricular activity. Sometimes you are the only one paying attention.

Promoting well-being in our schools

“Is this the place where you come when your heart hurts?”

Luisa was just 8 years old but she was well aware of the perils of emotional restlessness. She was standing at the door of Paty, our school counselor, a warm, caring grandmother with a PhD in psychology and a special way with children.

No school can do its job of educating youth without seriously taking student well-being into consideration. A heavy heart is rarely compatible with a focused mind. But, how can we reach the whole child? The exquisite complexity of human beings – and the overflowing of young ones at our schools – makes this a difficult task. At the same time, its relevance makes it impossible to dismiss.

Our school is far from perfect and there is still much to be done, but here are some of the things we do to promote happiness, well-being and health in our classrooms.

Create relationships. It seems obvious, but being able to form strong connections with our students is crucial. Only when there is a climate of trust will they be able to open up and let us in if they need help. Every child should have at least one adult at school that is close to him. Some years ago, I learned a strategy to make this happen. When there is a staff meeting at school and all teachers are reunited, write the name of each student in the school in a post-it. Display all post-its in a large wall. Give each teacher a colored felt pen, and ask them to mark their name in the post it of each student that they are particularly close to. Each kid should have at least one mark on her name. If that is not the case, find the children with no marks and make a plan to create the lacking connections. Very large schools could do this if they divide by sections.

Teacher’s well-being is important. Stress is contagious. If a teacher feels anxious, it will be almost impossible to keep a positive classroom environment. Schools are live, organic entities. If there is a problem somewhere, it will eventually hurt the whole system. Sean Bellamy, a UK based teacher and founder of Sands School, is currently working in partnership with The Well Being Project  to develop strategies that support teachers’ well being in schools – he believes this to be a pre-requisite for quality teaching and learning. “The programme is still in its early stages” -he says. “And the people at The Well Being Project have been extremely helpful”.  Sean’s forward-thinking TEDx talk about risk and the teenage brain is available at TEDx Talks YouTube Channel:

Mindfulness works. Back to our school counselor, Paty. Some years ago she began to have weekly mindfulness sessions with whole groups – especially those with troublesome issues, like bullying. She also works with teachers at our monthly staff meetings. The results have been encouraging. When issues are faced and treated, school climate improves, which decreases stress and improves well-being. The whole system thrives. But not all responsibility falls in the counselor. Teachers – and students need to learn the tools that will help them to self-regulate and de-stress.

Create a rich, stimulating and wide learning environment. No school day should be complete without daily exposure to arts and opportunities for physical movement. If possible, spend some time outside the classroom: sunlight is great for improving health – and mood. Exciting lessons from passionate teachers will chase away boredom and inertia, so strive to create fun, engaging experiences – for everyone, including parents!

Happiness and well being can’t happen by decree – they are part of a very personal journey for each one of us. However, the environments we create and the relationships we build will have a definitive impact on the way we experience life. So let’s make the most of it, for us and for our children. They deserve no less.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question:  How are you promoting well-being, health and happiness in your classrooms?

Six things my students teach me

Don’t think the kids do all the learning at school. Teachers get their very good share of it as well. These are some of the most important things my students have taught me.

1. Curiosity fuels learning (Passion can take you a long way)

It is extremely difficult to teach bored brains – but it is nearly impossible to keep aroused minds from learning. For too long I strived to make my lessons perfect, structured and uneventful. I’m a recovering control freak, and those carefully planned lessons made me feel safe. But it was the times when something wild happened – usually by accident – that my students enjoyed and learned the most. Eventually, I began to plan my lessons in a very different way. Instead of thinking by means delivering content, I asked myself: How can I make this lesson enlightening and irresistible?

2. Movement wires the brain

Just about every time I tried to arrange my tiny students in a quiet and peaceful circle for reading, 3 year old Carolina would decide to run around us, her little feet pounding as fast as her heart. I tried everything to get her to sit and join the group, but most of the time I failed terribly. I gave up to her, mostly out of tiredness and fear of losing the rest of the class. It was my first year as a teacher and I was struggling to survive.

As weeks and months went by, I realized that even if apparently distracted, Carolina had listened to every word of the stories and remembered many details that even I had forgotten. At the same time, I began to notice a surprising pattern: the kids who moved the most in my class not only had better motor skills but also seemed more articulate than their peers. Movement feeds, grows and organizes your brain.  And better brains allow for better learning.

3. Curriculum must meet the child (not the other way around)

Too many classrooms resemble a frantic race in which all students must meet the curriculum as fast and efficiently as possible. Children are judged upon their ability and compliance to do so. Teachers are measured against how quickly and how many of their students achieve that goal. Curriculum becomes the ultimate god: the reason for schools’ existence, the shrine of the enlightened few and the penance of the troubled many. We push our kids to meet the curriculum, when we should be harnessing the curriculum to meet the individual child.

Our students are alive and changing, each one exquisitely unique. Shouldn’t they have their own path and pace to experience learning and knowledge?

Teaching for the curriculum (or the test) is not only ethically wrong, it is also pedagogically inefficient. Children, and the relationships we form with them, are much more important than the curriculum. I am not saying that content is irrelevant, and I am not implying than schools are little more than social clubs. But, if we are willing to go slow to then go fast, as Armand Doucet describes in our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the time spent developing relationships will pay off – and we may end up in much better terms with the curriculum as well.

4. School is Life

Have you ever noticed that we tend to speak to children in future tense – a lot? We tell them to eat well because then “you will grow healthy and strong”. We ask them to stop horsing around because “you will fall and hurt yourself”. We insist that they study because “school will prepare you for life”.

But school is life for our students -and they are living it right now.

I learned from my students that “now” is as important as “tomorrow”, if not more. Adults tend to live either howling the regrets of the past or shouldering the anxieties of the future. Children know better. So learn from your past and let it go. Allow your dreams and goals to propel you in motion. But live in the present, and be your very best today.

5.Teachers are still important. Technology is not a one-size-fits-all resource. Sometimes, plain old good paper, scissors, glue and tempera paint will awaken creativity more than any app could do. Screen time is no replacement for climbing a tree. And while technology surely empowers us to connect in many ways that were not possible before, there is still a world of unbeatable non-digital experiences – and no computer will ever replace teachers.

When I first designed my online History and Geography lessons for secondary school students, part of the plan was to eliminate classroom time completely for those subjects. Students would interact with me and among them exclusively online, much in the way I had completed my graduate degree. But very quickly I learned that my 12 to 15 year old students still needed live mentorship, and that they did better if they had it. My online course became a flipped classroom –technology is still big, but the teacher is still important.

6. Every child bears the seed of genius within. Each day I am reminded of just how amazing children are, and I marvel about the great privilege educators have in helping them achieve their dreams. And in doing so, we also grow into our own, never-ending human potential. In other words, learning makes us grow, but teaching makes us great.

The curriculum that changes itself

Every ten years or so, a new curriculum for basic education is published in my country, México. Usually, the document, hundreds of pages long, is announced with great fanfare.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to keep up with the pace of our world nowadays. Unfortunately, even before the ink of the newest curriculum dries, it is already outdated, irrelevant, or both.

If I had the unlikely power to change the school curriculum, I would try to design the curriculum that changes itself.

The curriculums I have known are completely sequenced, lineal and mostly fixed. There is very little room, if any, to take exciting detours towards student’s interests.

My curriculum would be based on passion projects, aimed at gaining knowledge and abilities, but also at discovering whatever fires a student’s heart. Enlightening the mind would be hand in hand with caressing the spirit. Each child or teenager would have the liberty and responsibility of choosing his or her own educational path. The passion projects would give them the basics of many subjects, from reading to math to arts to science, and tease them to come get more. Instead of the lineal ladder, we would see a capricious web with many lines, different for each student. All would start at the center, the core of the web, but move outwards in many directions, even taking jumps and turns.

The curriculum would be huge, but only to accommodate the diversity of student’s interests. It would not be expected from anyone to cover it whole. You could easily go in depth to a subject that called you and cover the ones which did not in a more superficial way.

Four core elements would guide the flow, but they are not to be confused with “subjects”: Technology, Global Citizenship, Thinking Skills and Reading.

Technology would be the platform, the rocket that carries content. It would not be the teacher or the content itself. Technology – even great technology – will not replace teachers, good or bad. But it will certainly change the way we teach.

As we continue to evolve into a kind of worldwide school, Global Citizenship is a must to guide our students into the hyper connected and multi demanding society we are already immersed in. Religious tolerance, gender equality, inclusion, respect for diversity, responsible use of our resources, and yes, knowledge and caring about the world’s most pressing problems –both global and local- are far more important than, say, memorize the date in which Columbus arrived to America (something Dr. Google could easily drop in).

That brings us to critical thinking skills. Knowledge remains being very important – but along with it, the ability to tell the truthful from the inaccurate. Google indeed has all the answers: including many wrong or biased ones. You don’t need to know everything, but you must know where and how to find the reliable information you need.

Tomorrow, children will have to constantly reinvent themselves to keep up with the challenges of this fourth industrial revolution. Therefore, autodidacts are in demand. If you want lifelong learners, you need lifelong readers. Our school systems have been somewhat successful in developing people that can read – but not into developing readers. There is something completely wrong about that – and we need to find solutions now.

Is this proposed curriculum a utopia? It might well be.

But hey, I’m just a teacher.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: Do you believe curriculum needs to be more relevant for a 21st century world?  If you had the power to change the school curriculum, what would you change?

 

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