It’s 2021, we are 21 years into the 21st century, a fifth of the way through it, and yet we still are having discussions about how to teach 21st-century skills and dispositions. The need for the skills of critical thinking, creativity, adaptability, and persistence has never been more apparent than it is now that we are living through a worldwide pandemic. And yet, our schools remain the same.
But there are many silver linings we can find within the pandemic as the world began really thinking about the purpose of school and deep learning. We saw children and adults, around the world, refining the skills of communication and collaboration in new and unique ways, helping them to also develop further as critical and creative thinkers. Students learned self-management skills as they organized their time and learning. The children and adults who most successfully navigated the changes brought on by the pandemic demonstrated true persistence, flexibility, and self-awareness. Those who had already begun developing the dispositions of curiosity and initiative were able to remain more engaged in their learning.
I think it’s time to begin looking back on our learning experiences and uncovering the silver linings we can carry forward into our changed world and build on these ideas learned during the pandemic.
And so we have done just that. At the International School of Kenya, we are lucky to be back in person after months in a distance learning environment. We considered many different options when considering how to re-open our school but one choice we made helped us to really build on those silver linings and bright spots. That choice is called Day 8.
Day 8 is what you might expect, it is the eighth day in an eight day schedule. What might not be expected is that that day is entirely off timetable. There are no scheduled lessons, there are no scheduled specialists or classes. It is a day entirely devoted to self directed learning, a day devoted to passions and inquiries, a day devoted to the children themselves. On Day 8, children are provoked to explore new curiosities, to follow a passion, to create, do, make, experiment and to plan their own days. Through Day 8 we are expanding upon those silver linings and building on those skills and dispositions.
Silver Lining 1: Teachers as collaborators and researchers
In order to provide just enough support and structures for students as they explore their own inquiries our teachers need to constantly collaborate and research. We have been taking time in Impact (our early release, professional learning days) to research ideas from other teachers who have embarked on similar journeys, collaborating across schools. We have been taking time on Day 8 to document the learning with students, as action researchers studying how our children learn so we can best respond. We have been collaborating with the students themselves to design and plan their days and their learning journeys. We have been researching the best scaffolds for facilitating self-directed learning. We have been building on that silver lining we found during the pandemic when all teachers had to truly become collaborators and researchers as they navigated a new version of school.
Silver Lining 2: Children as inquirers
We started the year with family led conferences. We wanted to partner with our community to understand what challenges and opportunities had arisen within the families at our school as they took part in distance learning. Some of the surprising conversations that came out of these conversations were the amount of projects our students had taken part in at home. Our students hadn’t spent the last months at home just staring at iPads and screens, some of them had followed new passions and inquiries through at home learning projects. Day 8 allows us to continue to nurture these passions and inquiries, to follow students as they lead the learning.
Silver Lining 3: Development of 21st-century skills
We have had several conversations as a faculty about if we should be assessing the learning from Day 8 and, if so, what learning do we assess. Our debates, discussions, analysis and reflections have led us back to the ideas of 21st-century skills and dispositions. On Day 8 we aren’t looking for coverage of the standards (although, surprisingly or maybe unsurprisingly, children are uncovering the standards on their own) we are looking for the development of a learner.
And so, we are discussing how to share with children our expectations so they can set their own goals and reflect on their own development. If we “strive to develop globally minded students who actively learn, create, solve and engage in their world,” (ISK Aims) then we should be assessing for that. We are looking towards providing choice for students to consider when designing their own learning; will this inquiry or project allow them to choose to develop as a communicator, a critical thinker, a collaborator, or will it allow them to become more creative, curious, persistent, adaptable, with initiative, leadership and/or social awareness (World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education, 2015)?
Silver Lining 4: Self-directed learning
All the 21st-century skills and dispositions together, I believe, are what create a lifelong learner. And, I would argue, this is the most important quality to embrace for today and tomorrow. Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the future are not those who can't read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Day 8 allows our teachers opportunities to learn new practices, to unlearn antiquated practices, and to relearn the joys of curiosity and creativity that may have escaped us in our childhood. Day 8 allows our students to self-direct their learning and take true ownership over the goal, the process and the “product”. They are the designers of their own learning journey: self-assessing, reflecting and pivoting along the way. As they develop these skills, and the passion for learning, they will be better equipped to navigate Days 1-7 and their own future beyond school.
Silver Lining 5: Purpose of school
As learning moved online there were many new opportunities but also new challenges for schools. We couldn’t do things the way we always had. We had to reimagine learning. And, in this reimagination around the world there is developing a new understanding of the purpose of school. It might not be a fully formed idea just yet, we might need to continue coming together, debating and synthesising the learning from the past year. But, the seeds have been planted. We’ll have to weed out those who talk about learning loss, those who are clinging to the standards, those who just want to go back to normal. But, with the rest of us who are ready to explore the ideas of creativity, passion, identity, collaboration, and self-directed learning a new version of school can emerge. We at ISK are ready to reimagine it with you… will you join us?
Ryan Hopkins-Wilcox is the elementary assistant principal at the International School of Kenya. Ryan has been an international educator for the past nineteen years in Taiwan, Cambodia, Uganda and Kenya and would like to revolutionize education through the power of connecting purpose and passion to empower lifelong learning.