To many in Catholic Education, Greg Whitby is better known as the Executive Director of the Parramatta, however his passion for 21st century learning, and for changing schools to meet the needs of today’s students is known to any who read his blog, Bluyonder, or follow him on Twitter (@gregwhitby). He has crystallised his thoughts on this in his recent publication, Educating Gen Wi-Fi, which extensively describes the challenges for schools who still operate in the ‘factory model’ of the 19th century, and some ways in which some schools have answered this challenge. With extensive case studies and chapters addressing who today’s learners are, learning spaces, assessment and parents as partners in learning, it is an easy to read book for anyone interested in education, but specifically for those who are keen to make a change to their ways of operating in the school arena.
The book begins with a whirlwind tour of the development of education from Ancient Greece to present day. Whitby challenges readers with the fact that ‘we cannot continue to deliver an ‘analogue’ 20th century curriculum when the world is ‘digital’, exploding with information that can be accessed by increasingly smaller and more powerful mobile devices’ (p.50).
Whitby speaks about the use of digital tools to share learning to a real and worldwide audience, and the ability to harness this sharing of learning through the development of Personal Learning Networks via platforms such as Twitter. He explores how students today need to be critical thinkers and be able to analyse, evaluate and remix information in order to solve problems. As technology has flattened our world, there is an increasing the need for global literacy, as we work and play with others across the world.
The increased use of technology brings about challenges for schools, one of which is the need to develop a sense of digital citizenship within students and staff. The common solution for many schools faced with issues of cyberbullying and distraction by social media is to ban access to sites and tools such as mobile phones. Whitby argues that this is forcing an old model onto new learners – and that the connected learners of today should be encouraged and indeed able to use the tools that are most natural to them in their learning. He argues it is up to teachers to develop their skills and comfort levels with technology, and to harness these powerful tools that students use so naturally in their everyday lives.
The diversity of learners in schools today is one issue that is handled very well with technology. It allows teachers to collaboratively construct curricula that meets the needs of learners at a variety of levels, and indeed Whitby even suggests that the learners themselves should have input into what and how they learn – something leading educators such as Ewan McIntosh, and his work with Design Thinking echo.
It’s not just a room full of computers and tablets that makes for 21st century learning. Whitby makes it clear that it is the relationships between teacher and student, and the strength of the pedagogy that truly makes the difference. He bases these claims on the work of John Hattie, as well as his personal experience of over 30 years in education. Teachers should embrace new technologies as just another resource in their arsenal – and let student learning drive the focus rather than technology.
When it comes to assessment, Whitby is a great proponent of learning portfolios, and questions the place of external exams such as Naplan. Rather than focusing on teaching to the test, he believes that students who are encouraged to develop their critical thinking and creative skills through broad and engaging pedagogy will enable students to achieve in all manner of assessment. He is also quite critical of how the media and public relations generally focus purely on academic results, ignoring the many other terrific achievements that occur in schools, as well as the achievements and contributions made by those students who do not follow the academic path, but choose a vocational route. Emphasis on traditional areas of education such as numeracy and literacy narrows the focus and denies the outside world a true view of the many areas schools support.
Another area addressed by Whitby and one that is mentioned frequently in the research around contemporary learning is the influence of open and flexible learning spaces, which allow teachers and students to work collaboratively and in many different ways. A number of case studies illustrate how schools can be redesigned physically to allow students and teachers to escape the four walls of the traditional classroom. He writes also about the positive impact of close collaboration with parents, and how new tools including social media can be used to communicate and inform parents.
Whitby closes the book by reviewing the commonly held myths about the type of change in educational landscape he is suggesting. Responses commonly heard in the media and in carpark gossip including ‘it’s been done before’ and ‘the curriculum won’t allow it’ are addressed comprehensively. He suggests that hard questions need to be asked, and that for schooling to change, we must once and for all move beyond the information transmission model, a model that is clearly outdated in the age of Google.
This book is an excellent overview and introduction to the challenges facing schools today. While some educators who remain informed about changing technology and who are actively implementing new ways of teaching and learning in their schools will find nothing new, for those who are just beginning the journey, or who want to find the words to express the impact of these changes to others, it is certainly a worthwhile read. The evidence he provides through the many case studies demonstrates the amazing things that can be achieved with creativity and vision, and hopefully schools will continue to take on this challenge and provide engaging, relevant and rigorous learning for this connected generation of students.