Teachers leading the way for today’s ‘digital natives’

Heather Pennie, a Grade 7/8 teacher at Assiginack Public School (APS), gives a presentation on 21st century learning to Assiginack council, staff and members of the Assiginack Public Library Board, as well as new APS principal Maria Bouwmeester .

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of an ongoing series on the future path of education in Manitoulin schools. The series will explore the impact of today’s digital revolution on the education of the 21st century student.

MANITOWANING—Gathered in the Assiginack Public Library last Tuesday night, Assiginack reeve and council, municipal staff and members of the library board listened with rapt attention to a presentation by Assiginack Public School (APS) Grade 7/8 teacher Heather Pennie on the future of public education with new APS Principal Maria Bouwmeester also in attendance.

Ms. Pennie noted that her own public school teacher, Councillor Leslie Fields, was in the audience and chuckled at the irony of having the opportunity to teach the teacher. “And I notice she is also chewing gum,” Ms. Heather added with a grin, an irresistible jab at the retired educator.

“We need to prepare our children for the world of tomorrow,” Ms. Pennie noted in her introduction of the new program.

She showed a video titled ‘21st Century Learning’ which gave staggering facts about the changes in the way students learn and interact with the world around them. In it, the video’s makers suggested that in 10 years, blackboards, CDs, grades, desks and textbooks might be obsolete. They also share that many students can already keyboard (type) 60 words a minute by the time they are in Grade 2 with public school students using Twitter, Facebook and text messaging instead of email and managing networks of hundreds of people. At today’s rate of change, the audience learned, technology will experience 20,000 years of growth in this century, and the top 10 jobs of today did not exist in 2004—today’s grads will have five to 15 careers in their lifetime.

“Education is about adapting to a changing world and how and what we teach has to change as well,” the video states. “21st century learning must be student-centered and personalized, provide experiences and opportunities to apply knowledge, be accessible seven days a week, 24 hours a day and 52 weeks a year, anywhere, anytime.”

Ms. Pennie explained that children born today are called ‘digital natives.’ “But this does not mean that they know how to learn through that avenue (digital), which is where teachers come in,” she said. Ms. Pennie shared that in her own class, she recently held a segment on ‘how to send an email,’ as almost none of her students had ever communicated in this way. It is also up to teachers to help students decipher the dearth of information available online, or digital literacy, to be cybersafe and aware of cyberbullying as well as to teach digital etiquette, such as not answering your phone during dinner and turning your ringer off at appropriate times.

“Knowledge is now discovered rather than copied and memorized,” the teacher explained. “The teacher is no longer the ‘sage on the stage’.”

Instead of the 3 Rs, it’s now the 4 Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. As an example of getting students to think creatively, she posed two questions to the group: ‘What are the contributions of John A. MacDonald to Canada?’ and asked for input from those gathered in the library. She then asked, ‘Was Sir John A. MacDonald an important Canadian? Explain.’ The latter gets students to search out the information and then actually think about the response, rather than just ‘regurgitating’ what they have found.

Ms. Pennie then handed out iPads and asked those with smartphones to log on to todaysmeet.com/assigbooks. Once everyone was signed in she asked people to post the name of their favourite book, which they gladly did, their top titles popping up on the digital screen used for the presentation. This kind of technology, she said, allows all students the freedom to comment without fear of being called on in the classroom.

This 21st century learning also extends to parents and guardians too, as Ms. Pennie showed an example of her most recent digital newsletter, which she emails home to parents rather than something that’s likely “to get lost at the bottom of a schoolbag.” The newsletter comes complete with hyperlinks that parents can click on for learning tools and more. She can also keep track of how many of those parents actually opened the newsletter, and she’s pleased to say everyone has.

Ms. Pennie spoke of the need for teachers yet who are still there to teach the basic needs, but with a lot of “other pieces” attached.

In The Expositor’s next installment of 21st Century Learning, take a tour of the digitally aware Early Learning Kindergarten class at Assiginack Public School.