21st Century Teaching: Are They Learning Today What They Need For Tomorrow?

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“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

Albert Einstein

Einstein’s words resonate strongly with me. On taking the first step into the world of Young Social Innovators, I have had to keep this thinking and approach at the forefront of my mind. The perfectionist in me would have liked to walk in to my first session with my YSI group and displayed a PowerPoint presentation of possible routes and themes, manipulated the focus and chose their area of focus.

Next session would have involved possible aims and objectives but do you know what? This is not what YSI is about. Young social innovators brings alive a lovely tangible, collaborative and creative process, which can feel a little messy (but that is what creativity is all about). It has such a different starting point as it comes from a dynamic energy created by the vision and culture of the programme. This student centered culture ignites ideas and possibilities within the minds of young adults.  To quote another great thinker; Education is the kindling of a flame; not the filling of a vessel. Young social innovators facilitates that necessary kindling. When I first mentioned YSI to our TY students there, were very mixed responses; is it loads of work? Can you use it for Gaisce? (By the way, you can!) Do you have to be clever? Scientific? Into debating? Confident? Good at Maths? Into that sort of stuff?

I am still not too sure what that sort of stuff is but I do know that the voices and fears expressed are ones genuinely felt by many of our young people. After three years of preparing for their Junior Certificate there was a sense of self value that was assessed and rated through exam levels and results. So many aspects of their lives are structured for an end game result rather than a process.

Depending on their intelligence, abilities, gifts and talents our young can very quickly discount and dismiss themselves as ideal candidates subjects, course, levels and careers.  An education system that measures success through narrow emphasis on academic attainment can enable self-sabotaging behaviour in young peoples’ minds. Reluctance and lack of ambition can often be mistaken or disguised as disinterest or to quote Catherine Tate’s alter ego-Lauren Copper “not bothered.” I would feel that often this disinterest stems from disillusionment, disenchantment, and disengagement with a very traditional educational programme. There is little space for the lateral and creative thinkers, the problem solvers to shine. They are lost in a system that appears to place little value on these most valuable of skills. I suppose in essence that is what I have come to admire in YSI. It lets young people know they all matter regardless of levels, subject choice or points.

Interestingly, within my own class the eight students who volunteered to try YSI, had a common thread of a willingness to try, an openness to things not working and a sense of “sure, we can learn from the whole experience and what have we got to lose?” They are open to taking risks because the Young Social Innovators’ Programme will not penalise them for doing so. It nurtures creativity, it ignites arguments, discussions, emotions and it places the students very much as the designers of their own work. Young Social innovators recognised that young people are an untapped force who have ideas and opinions. It encourages the student to be a full participant in their education rather than a passive observer. I have seen more needs of the 21st century learner met though the YSI brief than other curricula. It encourages students to think carefully about research; although not knowing the language of research they unknowingly argue about the merits of types of research from a qualitative and quantitative aspect. YSI creates a sense of action and doing, where students feel excited about their findings and want to act on it.

They do not rest on their laurels and they very much respond to research as it giving them the answer to what needs changing and bringing them to the next step of making that change. It normalises their digital world as a means of communication, brainstorming and working collaboratively. I think about the 20 points awarded to taking higher level Maths and it frustrates me that somewhere the life skills they are developing through projects such as YSI will not be recognised for entry to many universities.

In hoping for change in education, it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Leaving certificate suits many, they gain entry to college and they gain employment. There are definite skills of reflection, application and understanding. However, the employment sector are telling us is that this is not enough. Many top-level graduates struggle as entry workers with concepts like teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, lateral thinking, presentation skills and communication skills. This was very much where the Junior cycle reform was meant to take us.  This is where Young Social Innovators has already gone. If we are to meet the needs of the 21st century learner we need to go there together, student, teacher, family and society. Five months ago, the only apps on my phone were for weather and stuff my six year old liked. I teach English, Religion and S.P.H.E. I do not do apps.  I thought I was fulfilling my IT brief if I used the overhead projector.

So what has changed? I now find myself guiding a group who are creating their own app and hash tagging our every step. When we began this project, two had twitter accounts and Pinterest.  They are embracing digital language and trying their best to interact with it. I hear them talking about the possibility of maximising corporate social responsibility through their app. They talk about the business partnership relationship they have with AOL as equal partners.  

It has brought alive a confidence and belief that they can achieve and that they already are achieving. Is it perfect?  It is not without its challenges but I am trying something new, no doubt making some mistakes but a little like a join the dots picture, I have a wonderful sense of something good coming together.


Catherine Kelly is a YSI Guide and educator from Mercy Secondary School, Inchicore, Dublin 8. Her 2014/15 YSI students were winners of the Vodafone Mobile For Good award at the national Young Social Innovators of the Year Awards & Showcase for their work on creating a 21st century learning space within their school.

You can follow them on Twitter through @nulearningspace