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Teaching students to Take Charge of their Learning

  • Written by Adam Dewar
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Submitted by: Adam Dewar

Let me first start by saying I am not a teacher in the conventional sense. Why then would I seek out and take interest in a community for 21st Century teachers? It is because I know, and have known since graduating from High School that the challenges faced by the education system are many. Everything from chronic funding shortages at many schools and Universities, to a fundamental disconnect between the way education is delivered and the 21st Century.

Preparing your students for University/College has traditionally been though of as the way to guarantee their success. This is no longer the case, and in fact probably has not been for more than a decade. The problem is less in the preparation for University than with the University system itself – it is broken. Traditionally University guaranteed you a job, because it taught you one critical skill, critical thinking. At the end of four years a student was well practiced, and made a talented addition to any organizations team.

IncreaseSomewhere along the line a great deal of the critical thinking material was stripped out. Larger classes triggered all multiple-choice examinations for many courses and programs. Journal articles, which take as long as half a decade of vetting to publish, are the mainstay of major paper citations and arguments. With the speed at which things move in today’s world, which calls to question the value of material which is already five years old when it goes to print. In the age in which Twitter can bring down a government

The majority of the material my team of University Confidential ( Trailblazers has been examined upon through these methods has been centered on memorization. What sets the Trailblazers apart is the fact they took charge of their learning in a variety of ways – most will get a piece of paper from a University at the end of the day. But it is not what will get them their jobs; it is their experience, accomplishments and expertise on a variety of topics built up by taking charge of their learning.

As teachers your goal is to prepare students for the world after High School, so they become well-adjusted and productive adults. How do you bring this into your classroom? How do you teach critical thinking?

These questions are worth exploring – as part of my role as Project Coordinator with Junior Team Canada – I am involved with teaching critical thinking and its not as easy as one might think. (We teach business soft skills, communication, fundraising, and international business hands on. - I will give you the website because what we do is a paper in itself. But at a fundamental level what we teach is critical thinking) our organization uses no textbooks, or manuals. We do have a two page fundraising guide. Instead we set out goals and outcomes then provide coaching and mentorship. It is up to our students to build their own journey down the path towards the goals and objectives. To most of them this is very way of being taught is foreign and scary at first; they have been brought up on guidelines.

The graduates of Global Vision as Terry Clifford C.M. – the founder and himself a former Principal – likes to brag are 100% employed. Further they are all in highly exciting careers, because they learned to take control, to present, and to think on their feet.

Educators who want to work in the 21st century need to embrace technology instead of fighting it. Wikipedia should not be academic persona non-grate; most of it is well sourced and cited. Instead of fighting it, teaching students how to check it – and use its references as a portal to deeper information. This will teach them to gauge the quality of what they are reading for themselves.

One of the most difficult things about teaching critical thinking is it requires a less structured environment to do it well. Schools, especially Universities tend to be overwhelmed by structure and procedure. The students need to be given this freedom to allow them to innovate and explore in their learning. A teacher can still satisfy board outcomes, and will likely earn a reputation for being “fun” by redesigning the way they deliver the curriculum. Sure budgets a strained for field trips, but what if the teacher and students picked a series of these at the beginning of the year – and then raised money from local businesses. This requires the students learn; planning, letter writing, leadership, strategic planning so they don’t overlap, follow up, communication, and provides them with a network in their communities. All of these are the skills necessary to get a good job. Further if it is history they’ll learn more from a day at the site than a month of reading the textbook.

Instead of rigid blocks students should be working with their teachers to design how curriculum is delivered in order to meet board objectives throughout the year. Keeping in mind the broader set of outcomes they need to hit in order to graduate successfully. A school implementing something like this would be turning out top-notch leaders and students. It would also be preparing them for the harsh reality of the broken University system. A system in which the knowledge is on the campus – but they have to choose to take charge of their learning in order to maximize the value of being on campus. Otherwise they will likely leave campus $80,000 in the hole, with no job, and poor prospects for their career going forward.

That leaves the real question:  Who is up to the challenge?

Adam Dewar is the Co Founder and Director of Operations at University Confidential.  He is also a Project Coordinator with Global Vision and Junior Team Canada, a Canadian NGO which equips youth with the skills needed to succeed in the 24/7 Global Economy.  Through this program he has been a leader on a half dozen Trade Missions, and attended APEC 2011, IDB 2011, and the G8/G20 2010 as a youth representative from Canada.  Previously he has served on two Carleton University Faculty Boards as a student member, and two terms on the student Union Board while developing Residence Programming for incoming students.