Tag Archives: 21st century classroom



The learning professionals within the learning environment are highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement”  http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

I was very excited to see the concept of “attunement” included in the OECD document that currently seems to be guiding the direction of education reforms in countries like Canada. But my excitement was followed by concern that this would be yet another great idea that dies soon after launch because of a lack of practical understanding of it. For those who would prefer an academic analysis of attunement, I recommend this paper by Heesoon Bai. This post will hopefully illuminate the concept in a practical way.

Last year, through circumstances that were both serendipitous and synchronous,  I was fortunate to participate in a three-day workshop with Victor Wooten,  unquestionably the best bass player in the world right now. No, I don’t play the bass and have not played the piano since I was a teen! I felt quite comfortable in the workshop, not only because Wooten was very welcoming but also because there were  a few of us there with no other instrument but our voices.

Wooten is a master teacher and amazing to watch in action. One day during the workshop I watched in awe while he “taught” the concept of attunement without once mentioning the word.  At that point he had been talking for a while and I suppose sensed that people were not fully getting what he meant.

He went into the centre of the circle and called up 5 people, 4 who played instruments and one who sang. Without any further instruction, he began to play a bass riff. After about a minute, he nodded to one of the musicians who then began to play his instrument in harmony with the bass riff. After another minute Wooten nodded to yet another musician and then another and then to the singer. Each of the 5 people joined in, adding their instrument to the music, in complete harmony. And right there, before our eyes, an amazing piece of music was performed, a piece that had never existed before that moment. A piece that just emerged from the attunement of one musician with another. No one musician dominated the piece; each listened carefully to the others while creating sound that wove between, above and below each other’s notes.

Teaching in a 21st century classroom is about being attuned to the “music” each of your students brings into the classroom and helping them to play their instrument well while at the same time playing in harmony with everyone else in the classroom.

What is critically important to being able to do this is for the teacher herself to be attuned to her own music. To know herself well, to know her own strengths and to know where she needs help and support.

The singer in that circle with Wooten had no idea what she was being called up to do in the centre of the room. She did however know what she could do. She also knew  how what she did could complement what others were doing.  She could not provide the same sounds that the bass or the saxophone did but this was true for all the musicians in the centre. Each could use their instruments as individuals but what they could create together, when they listened carefully to each other, was magical and more than any one could do.

A teacher who is attuned to her students sees each of them as individuals and yet also part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Attunement is not about what usually happens when a group of musicians get together and one  starts to play a known song and others follow along.  It’s also not the same as when one musician dominates an impromptu piece, leading the others.

Attunement requires a dissolution of the sense of separation between yourself and the other. It requires paying attention to something greater than you. Something that has to be felt to be truly known.

Which is why I’m concerned that this concept is going to be ignored or downplayed even though it is so critical in teaching and learning.

Teachers are most comfortable being “in charge” but to be attuned requires teachers to follow more often than to lead.

Teachers who want to be more attuned to their students will need courage to step down from their positions of control and to bravely step away from being  at the centre of  the classroom, literally and metaphorically.

I know how disquieting this can be and have previously written about my experience in a decentred classroom.  But I also know that going through the  discomfort is a necessary step to creating a learning environment for the 21st century.

Be the Change

Like Water

You’ve watched Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra and all the other education revolutionaries on TED talks. You’ve attended numerous professional development workshops on the “new” way to teach. You know something has to change but when you enter your room each morning, you are overwhelmed by the demands made on you by the students and the system. You don’t know where to start.

Start here.

Realize that this change, this transformation will not happen overnight. It will also not be easy. It will not unfold in simple, linearity from point A to point Z. It will be messy. You will be frequently frustrated. You will want to give up.


Your students need you to not give up. They are desperately waiting for something more than they’re getting. Some of them have given up waiting and have dropped out. Their numbers keep growing. The ones who are still in classrooms are hoping that this year, something will be different.

Take baby steps.

First change the things you can easily change. Notice how you feel when you make those changes. Notice what happens in the classroom when you introduce the changes. Be like a scientist observing an experiment.

Try titration.

Add something to the way you collect data about the students.

Add something to the way students interact with each other.

Add something to the way time is used in your classroom.

Add something to the way you see yourself as teacher.

Then watch what happens.

Make adjustments.

Evolution is a slow process.

Be patient.

There are many of us out here, working like water flowing over rock, changing the system from within.

Soon all our little molecules of change will coalesce into a stream and then into a river and the system will have been transformed, not by political decree but by the work of teachers like you and me.

Learning to Fly

cedar waxwing

When I’m not pondering how much knowledge and what kind of knowledge I should have as a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m thinking about what ‘good’ teaching is. Reams have been written over centuries about what makes a teacher ‘good’ but I confess that I find the whole debate utterly exhausting. What is ‘good’? For whom? When?  What does it even mean to ‘teach’?

A few summers ago, my friend Skylark and I were on one of our regular  walks through a nearby fragment of forest when we noticed a baby bird on the pathway.  The bird still had downy feathers and seemed quite content to be just sitting there.  But sitting where it was would put it in the direct path of any one of the many dogs that also love to walk the trail. And so we had a dilemma on our hands.

I immediately announced that I did not know how to look after a baby bird but Skylark’s childhood had included experiences with her father rescuing birds and butterflies.  She began talking softly to the bird while she thought about what to do. After a few minutes, she gently picked up the bird the way her father had taught her, and placed her/him in her purse.  We walked on. When we came to a stream, she dipped her finger into the water and fed the bird droplets of water, all the while patiently talking to the bird.  Then she decided we had to find some worms so that we could feed the bird.  So there we were, scratching around the dirt looking for worms to feed the baby bird all the while mosquitoes were having quite a midday meal on us. We didn’t find any worms and so continued our walk, wondering all the way if the bird would be okay.

When we got home and Skylark went on the Internet to find out what to do about the bird, she quickly realized that we had done all the wrong things.  A bird-rescue website had helped her to identify the bird (a cedar waxwing), corrected her on what the bird actually needed to eat (berries, not worms) and advised that the bird should be returned to the place it was found so that its mother could find it and show it how to get back to the nest.

And so we followed the advice which included setting the bird back in the same area but not the same spot and waiting from a distance for the mother so show up.  We did as suggested and after waiting about 20 minutes, we realized that the bird had been safely rescued by its mother.

For me there are so many dimensions of learning and teaching revealed in this incident. There is the learning and teaching between the baby bird and its mother.  Apparently baby cedar waxwings learn to fly by first dropping to the ground which is why it was not scared to be where it was. It had not, of course, realized that its forest home also accommodated lots of humans and dogs. Although it had been born with the instinct to fly, it still  needed guidance from its mother. The ‘teaching’ by the mother bird and the ‘learning’ by the baby bird were processes that had evolved over millennia so that there are specific skills learned and taught for a specific environment.  Baby birds need to learn to  fly in order to feed themselves so that they can go on to do more bird-like things: sing, procreate, participate in an ecosystem.

To gather data about the bird as an entity separate from its environment (temperate rain forests) would provide a poor and incomplete picture of the bird, its bird behaviour (eating berries) and bird skills ( flying, nest building).  In addition, to gather data about how the bird learns and is taught without looking at the environment would be a ridiculous notion. And yet proponents of standardized teaching and testing use just such a lens when they look at students in classrooms.

What the bird needs to learn is directly connected to specific needs in a specific environment.

And when that environment changes, as it is currently for many Arctic birds, there is a level of change in that learning in order to adapt to the new environment. Many birds have adapted to living and thriving in urban environments. How did they learn how to do this? How long did the learning last?  Who/what  were the teachers of that learning? How did they realize that their environment was changing and that they would need to adapt?

Ecologists tell us that we humans too are inextricably part of an ecosystem, that without our environments, we would die; spiritual mystics tell us that there is no boundary between what we see as our separate selves and what we call our environment.  And yet we persist in seeing teaching/learning as a separate issue, extricated from the multiple places and spaces to which we belong.

Each morning we all awake to different selves (biologically, chronologically, psychologically) in a different world (seasonally, technologically, historically, politically) both outside and inside the classroom.  And yet we continue to rely on textbooks that captured what was true in an environment long-changed by new discoveries, and new ways of seeing the world.  We continue to focus on the past to prepare students for the future. If birds did this, they’d never survive!

The Information Age has exponentially generated not only vast oceans of information but also a multitude of possible places of belonging and ways of being. What determines what is ‘good’ to learn and teach in an ever-changing world?  Is it enough to know how to navigate oceans of information?  Should we learn how to live in a world of imminent nuclear devastation?  How to live in a world of dramatic weather events and climate change?  Should we teach our children how to live in a world of perpetual war? How to make a living during economic recessions and depressions? Should they know how to thrive in whatever economic system is going to replace capitalism?

What do we prepare the next generation for when we are not even certain what the future looks like?  Whose agenda do we choose and what are the implications of that for the child, for society,  for our collective future?

Next September schools will begin to educate 6 year olds for the world of 2028… who knows what they’ll need to know for the world they will face when they enter adulthood?Will we have prepared them enough so that they know how to fly in the forests of the future?

How much should a teacher know?

civic mirror

Recently, when faced with students who were quite apathetic about their Social Studies course, I decided to integrate a web-based simulation called The Civic Mirror into my teaching plan. As all teachers know, there is no way to accurately predict the outcomes of any planned teaching activity.  I had expected that students would be excited about the simulation and that they would be deeply engaged in it – they were part of the digital generation after all –  but what I did not expect were my own reactions.

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues.  Students “live” in a simulated country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world.  They each have 7 family members for whom they have to provide food, shelter, education and health care, as well as a good standard of living.


Their simulated country is divided into 36 property units called hexes. There are wilderness hexes, business hexes and housing hexes. As in the real world, there is scarcity within the simulated country and so the student/citizens have to compete for certain resources. Because everyone is affected by the decisions of the owners of the farm, energy, security and insurance hexes/properties, conflict arises as citizens debate over how these owners should manage their property and assets.  Citizens may appeal to the government for changes to legislation or they may take  each other to the National Court.   These are the issues that  provide fuel for the debates and discussions on an online discussion forum, a space that in some sense can be seen as a classroom in cyberspace.

Throughout the semester I had several taxing experiences in this classroom in cyberspace. For one thing, my role was not always clear. When the scene was the online ‘classroom’, students were in charge of the ‘curriculum’ and they wrestled with its direction and I was left to follow along, offering advice from the side-lines or more often from the back.  I felt out of my depth when the merits of mercantilism and Machiavellian politics arose as themes in both the traditional classroom and the cyberspace classroom. I tried to just hang on and go with the flow as I had never seen students so absolutely engaged in learning.

But when the scene changed to the traditional classroom, I was on familiar ground and my role was clear, as was the direction we would go: I was teacher, charged with delivering a synthetic set of information, the approved curriculum. This state of ‘stability’ would last  until once again fluidity would enter the classroom when students set up and ran a Town Hall discussion or processed cases in a National Court. Although it was deeply satisfying to watch them passionately debate, discuss, and dissect many contentious issues, it was a challenge for me to keep up as the theatre of learning was in constant scene-change mode and my role was constantly shifting.  Sometimes I was an onlooker, wondering whether to intervene or not, resisting the temptation to “play god” when ethical questions arose, such as this one, posted by  Ryan in the discussion forum:

What should I do? Use information that may hurt someone to get more money or think of another way to make money? I can’t make a decision. As you can see, I have no way of income, and no hexes,[ property within the simulated country]  and not very much money at all. However, I do have a way of getting some money to help for next year. The problem I am having is it may hurt a relationship irl [in real life] or at least cause a disturbance. So I’m not sure if I should be a jerk and get some money, or just don’t worry about my income right now and hope it will get better.

I was not sure how I should have responded to Ryan.  Should I have given him a Coles Notes version of the study of ethics?  Should I have told him what to do?  Should I have watched to see the consequences of his decision even if that entailed watching another student get emotionally hurt? What is my role when my students grapple with these dilemmas? Is there a educational theory that could have guided me with this? My hunch was that I should not interfere but that I should make sure that I was available to help if that was needed.

Another incident that occurred online at midnight on a Saturday highlighted the fact that my teaching practice had taken on a whole new dimension when I found myself debating economic theory with a student who was in the midst of machinations to advance his agenda. I do not teach Economics and know very little about the discipline. There was nothing in the curricula of the courses that I taught that would provide adequate responses to his questions. I was left scrambling to find information, engaged in “just-in-time” learning,  accessing the same websites that my students were accessing.

That was when I realized that my traditional role as information deliverer was defunct. It did not matter how much information I knew about any number of topics, I could not compete with the instantaneously available oceans of information on the Internet. This was a sobering realization. If information was so readily accessible, what was my role as a teacher of students who have never known a world without Google and Wikipedia?

At the time of the midnight epiphany, there was a raging online debate on the merits of Communism, Socialism and Capitalism. According to the curriculum, all students needed to know was the definitions of the different ideologies and the “advantages and disadvantages” of each.  The curriculum did not require them to do what they were in fact doing,  applying the ideologies to the situations in their simulated country.  The elected government was socialist and the capitalist opposition was accusing them of being communist.  I had entered the debate to try to clarify some of the positions that students were taking. With my limited knowledge on the topics, I am not sure I provided much help at all.

During the simulation,  Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Restorative Justice, Keynesian economics, the seduction of Fascism, and the concept of egalitarianism, were just a few of the topics that emerged in debates and discussions.  My knowledge in all these topics is limited. They were not part of any curriculum in any of my studies, from undergraduate to graduate.  But, I wondered,  as a teacher should I know more about them? What if these topics do not arise in the next simulation when I have a different group of students? Because each combination of simulation + students results in different scenarios, how should I prepare for such a dynamic and fluid teaching-learning situation?  How much is enough knowledge for a teacher to have in a  21st century classroom?  What kind of knowledge should she have?