Fall 2018

Supporting Teachers as 21st Century Learners and Creative Risk-takers

In the last two decades, there have been many educational initiatives with an expressed aim to transform teaching and learning for the emerging realities of the 21st century. The educational change being proposed is often characterized as transformational and radical. (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014) Numerous documents, whitepapers, and partnerships between educators, governments, policy makers, not-for-profit foundations, and large corporations have been very successful in shifting, on a global scale, educational goals and curricular visions for K12 schooling to what has become known as 21st century teaching and learning. (www.p21.org; www.c21.org)

Common to all 21st century learning initiatives is the central role of technology. To use one such initiative as an example, the whitepaper for the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning project (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014) states,

A fundamental premise of this initiative is that technology can play an indispensable deepening and accelerating role across all education processes. Students use it to produce work; teachers use it as part of learning activity design, incorporating multiple digital resources and strategies (from video lectures to social media to gaming to expert inquiry); new assessments use technology in myriad ways… (emphasis in original, p. 17)

In addition to enhancing learning through technology integration, teachers are expected to model 21st century dispositions that include; persistence, flexibility, resilience, independence, empathy and an entrepreneurial mindset. (Dede, 2010) The concepts of risk and risk-taking, and the development of young people as risk-takers, are featured prominently in curriculum documents and whitepapers calling for educational change.  

But in a very real way, teachers are also becoming 21st century learners who, through their learning, model resilience, perseverance, confidence in ambiguity, failure, and risk-taking. Brooks & Holmes (2014) put it this way,

Schools empower both students and teachers, encouraging them to experiment with new ideas and fail safely, so that they develop the confidence to take risks … (p. 7)

An international summit on the teaching profession held in Banff, Canada determined a key theme for future development will be “… a focus on the profession itself having twenty-first-century skills.” (Steward, 2015, p. 6)

The Risk of Shifting Identities. Just as 21st century education initiatives shift the goals of learning for students, so too do they propose a different vision for the traditional role of the teacher. Teachers are described as creatives and learning designers, activators, co-learners, learning partners, coaches, mentors, artists and innovators. (Brook & Holmes, 2014; IDEO, 2016; Ananiandou, 2009)

Perhaps no where does this shift become apparent as it does in relation to technology experimentation, uptake, and integration. Research has been conducted to explore teachers’ experience of risk in integrating technology. It concludes that teacher’s may have; negative perceptions of technology, a skeptical attitude about the value of technology in teaching, and a general aversion to risk-taking in teaching (Howard, 2013; Howard & Gigliotti, 2016). Each of these provides barriers to technology integration and teachers becoming models of 21st century teaching and learning.  

Other research concludes that to support teachers it is important to understand the experience of risk-taking in teaching. Understanding more deeply the experience of teacher creative risk-taking has educational significance. (Howard, Becker, Carter, Wiebe, Gouzouasis, McLarnon, Ricketts & Schuman, 2018)   Notwithstanding the repeated calls for the development of risk-taking students through the example and modeling of risk-taking teachers, the experience of risk in the classroom is an important pedagogical question as it relates to educational change and transformative teaching and learning. Curriculum documents, whitepapers, and summit do not meaningfully take up what is meant by teacher risk-taking.

Orienting to Risk. The psychology of risk examines how individuals think and feel about risk and how they act, as well as analyzing institutional and societal assessments and reactions to risk. (Breakwell, 2014) Thrill seeking and adventurous behaviour is highly recognized. The derring-do of Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneurs and those who exhibit an affinity for living on the edge is often celebrated in our culture. The dispositions of 21st century learning are in many ways reflective of the goal to instill in the young the same courage, resilience, perseverance, and the same embrace of failure and the entrepreneurial mindset displayed by the most successful in society. (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016; Fullan and Langworthy, 2014) But is this the kind of risk-taking teachers are generally called upon to take in the classroom?

The type of risk-taking called for from teachers is not normally associated with a perceived harm or hazard.  The emotional, intellectual, relational, and creative risks associated with trying new ideas, novel approaches, experimentation and discovery are not often associated with the “running into danger” connected to physical and financial risks. But this may not always be the case in the experience of the classroom teacher as demonstrated here,

When a teacher tries something new, they are scared that if it doesn’t work a parent will call and complain. That teacher needs to know that they will have someone at their back. (Kelli Etheridge, 10th Grade teacher in Fullan & Langworthy, 2014, p. 66)

Having someone at their back and finding safety in a supportive environment is a key finding in teacher risk-taking research and in dealing with risk aversion as it relates to technology integration.

Supporting Creative Risk-taking. Teachers require on-going support and encouragement to take creative pedagogical risks and that includes experimenting with and integrating technology. The struggle and anxiety characteristic of some teachers’ risk aversion as it relates to technology can be understood as an opportunity and used as a space for growth and learning. It is this “in-between realm of learning” English (2013) that is the space of struggle, discomfort, frustration and potential negativity, yet teachers can make important break-throughs in learning when they openly embrace the risk and feel supported in a space that values creativity, discovery, experimentation, creative collaboration, and the possibility to fail safely. (Howard, et al 2018)

Research shows teachers fear the risk of “being seen” in their perceived lack of technological skill and knowledge. The teacher experiences a sense of being exposed.  A teacher fears ‘being seen’ by her students, by other teachers, by the administration and the risk is physically discernible; “my cheeks flushed, and my voice cracked, I was sure I was going to cry” was how one teacher described the experience. The risk is embodied in a fear reaction.

Risk aversion can be overcome by thoughtful attention to the nature of risk in the lives of teachers. The risk may be perceived in adopting new classroom identities, creating new pedagogical strategies, or taking up innovative technological applications to enhance teaching and learning. Open communication about anxiety and developing professional training that incorporates “… conscious risk communication about technology integration…that includes appropriate coping strategies such as managing technology failure” (Howard, 2013, p. 369) are necessary to create open, honest dialogue about the nature of risk and the fear it often engenders.  Providing a safe environment for teachers to experiment and achieve success, communicating clear goals and objectives for aligning curriculum with new approaches are examples of ongoing approaches that support teachers. School leaders who understand the meaning of risk, the potential that risk and anxiety provide for deep and meaningful learning in a safe, supportive environment can have a lasting impact on not only the professional development but the emotional well-being of teachers. Risk, fear and anxiety are a part of the human condition; they are not problems to be solved once and for all, but an ongoing challenge to school leaders to deepen professional learning and human relations in an environment of open dialogue and mutual support.

References
Ananiadou, K. and M. Claro (2009). 21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries. OECD Education Working Papers, No. 41, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/218525261154
Brooks, M. and B. Holmes. (2014). Equinox Blueprint: Learning 2030. Waterloo, ON: Waterloo Global Science Initiative . http://www.wgsi.org/sites/wgsi-live.pi.local/files/Learning%202030%20Equinox%20Blueprint.pdf
C21 (2017). Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation. www.c21canada.org
Dede, C. (2010). Comparing Frameworks for 21st Century Skills. In Bellanca, J., & Brandt, R. (Eds.). 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn (pp 51-74). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
English, A. (2013). Discontinuity in learning: Dewey, Hebart, and education as transformation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fullan, M. and M. Langworthy (2014). A rich seam: How new pedagogies find deep learning. London: Pearson. http://www.michaelfullan.ca/wpcontent/uploads/2014/01/3897.Rich_Seam_web.pdf.
Howard, P., Becker, C., Wiebe, S., Carter, C., Gouzouasis, P., McLarnon, M., Richardson, P., Ricketts, K., & Schuman, L (2018). Journal of Curriculum Studies, https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2018.1479451
Howard, S. K. (2013). Risk-aversion: Understanding teachers’ resistance to technology integration. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 22(3), 357–372. https://doi.org/10.1080/1475939X.2013.802995
Howard, S. K., & Gigliotti, A. (2016). Having a go: Looking at teachers’ experience of risk-taking in technology integration. Education and Information Technologies, 21(5), 1351–1366. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-015-9386-4 P21(2016). Partnership for 21st Century Learning. www.P21.org
Steward, V. (2015). Implementing highly effective teacher policy and practice: The 2015 International summit on the teaching profession. Asia Society. http://cmec.ca/9/publications/?searchCat=29 Retrieved March 15th 2017.

AUTHOR BIO:
Patrick Howard is Associate Professor of Education at Cape Breton University. Dr. Howard taught for 25 years in secondary schools. He has published on topics related to literacy, digital media, and sustainability education. He is co-editor of Phenomenology & Practice.