Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Collaboration Fluency: Creating a 21st Century Learning Environment

I am sure you have heard a lot of talk about 21st Century Learning environments and collaboration fluency.  I am also sure that you have heard that all of this is very important in the future of education.  But have you been told why all of this is important?

The following blog post is a summary and reflection of a presentation given by Lee Crockett at ISTE 2011 in Philadelphia, PA.  The title of the presentation is Collaboration Fluency: Creating a Learning Environment for the Digital Age Classroom and can be accessed at http://www.isteconference.org/ISTE/2011/program/search_results_details.php?sessionid=60754937&selection_id=82645652&rownumber=7&max=54&gopage=.

We are now well into the digital generation and because of that, we face a world on the move.  In addition, we now face a different kind of student.  These students are not just a little bit different, but are completely different than we are trained to teach and how we expect them to be.  According to Crockett, these students are even different neurologically.  They way they think and learn are different.  Because of these two factors, literacy is no longer enough.

Crockett asked the audience the following question:

Is the focus of your school and in your classroom on short or long-term goals?  Do you have a balance between short and long term goals?  Many of us are focused on short-term goals (focus on the "now" and getting our students ready for the next day, test, etc.  We take previous test data and use it to determine how to prepare our students for the next test.  However, we keep revising the curriculum

Long term goals are future focused unlike short term goals.  They cause us to think, "What are the critical skills students need to be successful in life beyond school?"

  1. Problem Solving 
  2. Creativity - in digital and non-digital environments - create new and useful solutions to problems that do not exist yet
  3. Think analytically - compare, contrast, evaluate, synthesize, and apply without instruction and supervision
  4. Collaborate - seamlessly in physical and virtual spaces with physical and virtual partners
  5. Communicate - in multiple multi-media formats
  6. Ethics, Action, Accountability - personal responsibility, global accountability

Where are the above in the curriculum guide?  They're just not there.  People are still debating over what 21st Century Skills are.  If we are not measuring how our students are getting the above goals according to Crockett, then this means that we are just focused on short term goals - the "here and now" as opposed to life beyond their schooling.  These six things listed below are the 21st Century Fluencies and are processes as to how students will master the skills listed above.  How do we teach creativity as a process by problem solving?  If the above goals will be our long term goals, how do we align our short-term goals with them?


According to Crockett, many educators state that they want to help their students master 21st Century skills; however, they are prevented from doing so by the state mandated "bubble test" or state standardized test.  Teachers feel "hand-cuffed" into the curriculum because they must focus on the students spitting back as much content as fast as possible because they know they don't have enough time to "cover" all of the content.

How do we do it all?  How do we deal with the short-term goals and with the long-term goals?  How do we make the change?  In short, by making a change to a 21st Century Learning Environment.

The Elements of 21st Century Learning
Defined by Richard Saul Wurman, "Learning can be seen as the acquisition of information, but before it can take place, there must be interest - interest precedes learning."  Wurman calls this "Velcro Learning" as our minds must be stimulated in some way in order to learn.  Learning must be sticky.  

This is all part of personalized learning.  In order to teach our students, there must be some sort of relevance in our lesson content.  If there is no relevance towards our students, learning simply will not happen.  The first element of 21st Century Learning is relevance.  

Bloom's Digital Taxonomy
The bottom levels of the pyramid (Remembering, Understanding, Applying) are referred to as "Lower Order Thinking Skills."  The upper levels of the pyramid (Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating) are known as "Higher Order Thinking Skills."  

As we move up the taxonomy, the skills move from left brain to right brain in focus.  The highest level which is creating, refers to the ability to create new ideas, products, ways of viewing things, designing, constructing, planning, and producing. Crockett suggests that if we want to cultivate higher order thinking skills, why not just start at the top?  Why not just have our students create?  Creating is the second element of the 21st Century Learning Environment.  

Unfortunately, what is happening in the classroom of many teachers is exactly the opposite.  Our students are  passive learners as opposed to active learners.  When our students are seeing and hearing us, they are actually more passive than active participants.  In order to be active participants in the classroom, our students need to be ones who are actively involved as opposed to just sitting at their desks.  The best way that students can become active learners is by teaching the task to another person, doing the action, or simulating the task.  Simulating or doing the real life thing is the best way for students to learn, according to Crockett.  

In addition, a 21st Century Learning environment gets the real world involved.

+ Creating
+ Real-world
21st Century Learning

This is a different kind of learning environment which provides students problem solving, challenges and multiple processes with real world activities.  The learning is not scripted, the problems are provided and solutions have to be developed by the students.  21st Century Learning requires that students use higher order thinking skills to create real world solutions to relevant real world problems.  We need to shift the instructional approach of us teachers lecturing all of the time to students discovering their own learning.  We need to be facilitating and guiding our students in order to enable them to become active learners in the classroom.  21st Century Learning is about our students' learning - not about our teaching.  

Many teachers doubt that this change in their instruction will work.  They are scared that their students will not be able to pass their tests with changing their methods of instruction.  I can honestly attest that using such methods of concept discovery learning and project based will indeed not only work, but they will enable our students to reach even greater heights.  Rather than our students sitting at their desks and being passive, they will be able to take a much bigger role in their learning process - they will become owners of their own learning.  

Even after students take their tests (short-term goals), by learning in a 21st Century Learning environment, they still have the six critical skills that are necessary in mastering long-term goals.  
  1. Problem Solving 
  2. Creativity - in digital and non-digital environments - create new and useful solutions to problems that do not exist yet 
  3. Think analytically - compare, contrast, evaluate, synthesize, and apply without instruction and supervision 
  4. Collaborate - seamlessly in physical and virtual spaces with physical and virtual partners
  5. Communicate - in multiple multi-media formats 
  6. Ethics, Action, Accountability - personal responsibility, global accountability
Not only will the students do better and be more engaged in their learning, but they will have acquired the necessary skills for life as well.  If we are going to prepare our students for life beyond school, then we need to teach 21st Century Fluency.  Our students need to become global digital citizens.  

Why is there disconnect in our classrooms?  Through activities such as video games, our students are constantly provided with instant feedback.  Our classrooms do not function that same way.  Our students have less interaction with their teachers and do not get instant feedback.  When our students are playing video games, they are often playing against and collaborating with other people in real time.  These people might not even be from their neighborhood.  They could be from anywhere on the planet. 

The problem with only focusing on the short-term goals and not the long-term goals is that the long-term goals are necessary for jobs that haven't even been created yet - specifically those that depend on digital literacy.  According to Lee Crockett, anything that involves routine cognitive work or repetitive mental tasks   (book keepers, data entry clerks, even teachers) can be outsourced.  Personally, as a teacher, I have a big problem with the claim that teachers can be outsourced.  Apps (and technology in general) can reinforce the content being taught - teachers still need to be the ones to teach it - but that's a separate discussion.  We are seeing more and more outsourcing and more and more private contracting.  This kind of global interaction is already happening - we are relying on technology to carry out routine tasks for us instead of people.  

The jobs that are using higher order thinking skills - specifically creativity, remain.  Creative class jobs are facilitated by technology and will not be replaced by it.  They are not being replaced by technology.  The future of this country is creative class jobs, which includes utilizing skills such as problem solving, creativity, managing people, higher level skills, on the go, complete real time, non-routine cognitive tasks.  These people  will have to work with people where the work is being outsourced.   They will have to be able to manage global partners and work with people on the other side of the planet.  This is collaboration fluency - the skill that we need to be teaching our students while they are in our classrooms.  

Everything manages to happen in a global, virtual workplace - this is our future, so it is our job to prepare our students for it.  We need to teach kids how to collaborate by giving them a process which is collaboration fluency.  

The Five "E's" for Collaboration Fluency:
  1. Establish -  Establish the group, the roles and responsibilities, the norms, the group contract
  2. Envision - look at the purpose as to why the group was set up 
  3. Engineer - set up a plan to figure out how the group is going to get to where it needs to go
  4. Execution - put the plan into action - everyone completes the tasks assigned to them
  5. Examine - were the goals accomplished successfully?
Envision what your classroom would look like if you had the above steps for Collaboration Fluency posted on your wall.  

One of the areas of 21st Century Learning where we need our students to become fluent is the area of Media Fluency.

Media Fluency
This goes beyond being able to operate a digital camera, creating a podcast, or writing a document.   It actually has two components:
1) Media Input
2) Media Output
Media fluency requires that one is able to decode media and choose the best type of media that one can communicate one's message in.

Skills Necessary for Media Fluency:
1) Listen -   Not just an auditory skill, but really hearing and thinking of the content critically, whether it's a website, blog, TV show, podcast.  One needs to be able to really decode the message that is being said, understand it, and evaluate how well it is being said.  One needs to be able to separate the medium from the message.  What is the message that is being said?  The user must be able to verbalize the message clearly.  One must also be able to verify the message - is the message a fact or an opinion?  As far as the medium is concerned, the reader needs to consider the form and the design.  How does the content look?  Does the message flow?  Are the message, chosen medium, and the target audience in total alignment?  The students must be able to know this and analyze this.  

Leverage - We need to teach kids the skills to leverage media effectively.  How do we do that?  By teaching them to separate the message from the medium.  First, understand the content of the message.  Second, be aware of what the outcome is.  Consider the content and the outcome you are looking for.  

Kids are bursting with the desire to do more in school than to just sit and listen.  We've got to make this shift in how we are teaching them if we're going to allow them to do it.

Before watching Lee Crockett's presentation, I knew that creating a 21st Century Learning environment was important as well as the long-term skills that we need to teach our students.  However, I did not fully understand why.  I have been told many times that we need to prepare our students for jobs that have not even been created yet; however I did not realize how important that was or why.  I did not fully understand that so many jobs that involve repetitive cognitive tasks and that these jobs have no future since they will be outsourced.  If it is cheaper to have technology complete a task than to pay a person to do the same job and the technology will complete the task in an efficient manner, than it makes more sense to use the technology for the job.  I do disagree (and I am sure other teachers will as well) with Lee Crockett's statement that teachers can be outsourced as well.  I do agree in many cases that in schools using a 21st Century Learning environment, those teachers who utilize educational technology to help their students learn will replace those teachers who are not utilizing educational technology.

There are many teachers who will be resistant to the changes necessary to creating a 21st Century Learning environment.  Why?  Because change is not easy.  Many teachers will not want to change their instruction that they have been using for many years prior to this.  In addition, creating lessons for a 21st Century Learning requires time, effort, and proper training.  It is not something that happens overnight.  No effective PD (professional development) does.  High quality effective professional development takes months; it requires constant reflection, review, and the ability to modify based on the needs of the teacher's class.

I can honestly attest that I have implemented instructional methods in my classroom that support a 21st Century Learning environment.  Frankly, it works.  Using methods of instruction such as concept-mapping, -project-based learning, and the concept-discovery method of learning, we are putting the students at the forefront of their educational experiences.  We are putting them in the driver seats and we are giving them the keys to drive their educational experiences to much farther distances than we can take them on.  We are enabling them to become the "sages on stage" while we are becoming the "guides on the side."  All students want to learn - we need to believe that.  Even more so, all students want to learn when we present them with relevant content and opportunities for them to take control of their own learning.  I look forward to the challenges and adventures that lie ahead of me in creating a 21st Century Learning environment.  I also look forward to learning from my students who are my own teachers as I facilitate their learning.  Now that is priceless.  


  1. Climbing the Ladder of Educational Technology is an amazing summary of so much that is truly important in education today. Kol Hakavode lach!

    1. Glad you found it to be beneficial. Education and Technology are constantly changing - and therefore it's our job as educators to be aware of the changes and implement the necessary strategies in order to reach every child.

  2. First of all i would like to thank you for the great and informative entry. I has to admit that I have never heard about this information I have noticed many new facts for me. Thanks a lot for sharing this useful and attractive information and I will be waiting for other interesting posts from you in the nearest future. Keep it up.
    remote collaboration


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