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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Remember the shipwreck coast

Digital technology gives educators the opportunity to embark on a different journey with their students. Jillian Dellit explores this new way.

We all accept the need for change in schooling. Adaptation is a teaching essential. Faster or slower, cautiously or recklessly, we do it constantly. Digital change, however, is reconceptualisation.

As educators we are good at designing purposeful activity then adapting the design to particular students and curricula. Many of us are rapidly adapting to using data that, because of digital technology, is more readily and quickly available from assessment and diagnostic processes. The rate of change is exhilarating for some, stressful for others.

The major change from the application of digital technologies, however, has so far been staved off in schooling. Schooling’s place at the centre of our democracy makes conceptual change difficult.

We have seen significant transformation of transactions right across our society as a result of digital technology, but while as individuals, as a staff, a school or a profession we continue to adapt, we haven’t used digital technology to transform schooling itself. Some argue that this is a good thing— schools conserve social structures and basic values—but defensiveness puts at risk the dynamic alignment of schools with society.

Like Argonauts, educators are inspired by the values and noble intentions of the leaders, system or institution for which we work— whether we are in a teaching, policy or support position. We believe in the future and want to be part of the journey. We band together in tribal agreements that allow us to undertake our heroic journey as part of a company and we will perform mundane tasks for the leader as required. We do our bit within our allotted space and trust the system leaders to make the big society decisions and to take care of our context.

Our schooling model carries us along swiftly for much of the time—when the tide is high and the wind is predictable. When conditions are less favourable, when we are becalmed or in a storm, we expect to be told when to row together in time to the drum, reserving the right to complain. We might be individual adventurers or even heroes along the way but we don’t much influence the journey itself and we await instructions to move forward. We are part of a system and we expect the system to make the major directional and timing decisions.

Changes in the world in which we live suggest this model may no longer work and will increasingly alienate us from our society where digital application stimulates more independent activity.

Education systems and individual learning

Governments are appropriately conservative about reconceptualising services they control on behalf of the public and for which taxpayers are the prime funders. However, our failure to reconceptualise education in the light of digital technologies is likely to render current education systems redundant. Current systems encourage educators to remain with their ship, sailing with the wind and rowing when asked. The systems may take too long to change.

Governments, non-government education sectors and unions appear locked into a model of tribal fealty. All agree that education must move from an ‘industrial’ model of mass education to one, made possible by digital technologies, in which programs and services are organised seamlessly around the student.

To do this, however, everything must change—not just curriculum and cohorts and classrooms—but fundamental organisation, not just of schools, but of education systems and of the profession. If individual students need their own learning pathways, individual teachers need the capacity and freedom to develop new ways of ensuring this, taking advantage of digital storage, retrieval, connection and transfer. This requires the deconstruction of the current work of teachers, administrators and support professions and reconstruction of more flexible, adaptive, fluid and creative networks.

We have adopted the term ‘personalised learning’ as our code for this change. It is an unfortunate and telling choice. An adaptive and passive term, it conjures images of standard merchandise with an individual’s name added. We can now stamp an individual name on our cohort-based practices. Such digital trivia is easier than reconceptualising our education systems with digital capability, resourceful professionals and a student at the centre. We focus on a basic standard for a cohort, supporting individuals along the way, rather than on maximising learning for each student, and monitoring the performance of a cohort along the way.

Few of our current policies support such change. It cannot be achieved if teachers remain locked in a model of generalists and content specialists with a 9–4 timetable of sessions with ‘classes’. To maximise learning for every child requires a flexibly organised workforce in which teachers can develop and use their individual competencies (for example, diagnosis, program design, tutoring, coaching, remediation, behaviour modification, use or design of particular media and tools) along with a structure that supports the use of digital technologies to bring programs, services, expertise and resources to the student. It requires teachers who set directions, choose the vehicle, gather the expertise and navigate the journey.

Avoiding the shipwreck coast

There are great and also terrible navigation stories. The shipwreck coasts of South Australia and Victoria are littered with the remains of ships whose captains and navigators were unaware of the small differences in their compass readings that resulted from the effect of the new, efficient iron-hulls of their ships, causing them, towards the end of their long journeys from Europe, to turn north before they had cleared the southern coastline. Captains and navigators who trusted what they were given without researching and triangulating with their basic knowledge of the stars, died, along with their crew and passengers.

Early aviators, if they could afford it, used the new wireless technologies for navigation, especially in mountainous areas or across the vast oceans. But, like Kingsford-Smith and Ulm in their trans-Pacific flight, in the end it was their capacity to get their bearings using a ruler and compass that brought them home–their own capacity, not a system.

Becoming navigator–teachers

My point is not that we should eschew, or beware, technology. On the contrary, digital technologies, by allowing us to access, move, repackage and connect, make navigator–teachers conceivable. Navigation requires agreement on the basic coordinates, knowledge of navigation principles, instruments and transportation options as well as a willingness to adopt and adapt promising new technologies— professional initiative rather than tribal practice.

We need to embrace digital technology right across the education enterprise: access data we have never had, expertise we didn’t dream possible; make connections we have never been able to make; organise our days and work with students in different and unimagined ways; improve our accuracy and reliability; use our strengths and find others to balance our weaknesses. In short we must boost our capacity to make better professional decisions and provide better guidance to our students, their parents and the community.

The community is no longer served by established, industrial and paternal models of schooling. Systems evolve slowly and don’t easily deconstruct themselves. We need digitally powered navigator– teachers to set the pace and direction of change, to open new routes and opportunities for our students, our profession and our society.

author picture Jillian Dellit is the director of The Le@rning Federation Secretariat.