Teaching in the 21st century: challenges, key skills and innovation

Teaching in the 21st century: challenges, key skills and innovation

Teacher education expert Associate Professor Joanna Barbousas speaks with us about the future of teaching, the main challenges for teachers today, and the key skills of outstanding teachers.

What skills do teachers need for the 21st century?

Head of La Trobe’s Department of Education, Associate Professor Barbousas says the most important skill a teacher needs in the 21st century is adaptability.

‘What that allows a teacher to do is really understand the discipline knowledge one needs to adapt in different contexts,’ explains Associate Professor Barbousas. For example, information is one thing but knowledge is actually something else.

‘A teacher needs to be able to formulate, construct, arrange, modify and make sense of information so that it understood as knowledge.’

In a crowded curriculum, ‘crowded in terms of standards and content’, Associate Professor Barbousas says ‘a teacher needs to be able to adapt those imperatives of literacy and numeracy skills and the various social and cultural needs in various contexts.

‘Being adaptive and having a Phronesis stance in taking wise choices in different context’, says Associate Professor Barbousas, ‘is what determines quality practice’. In other words, a teacher who is able to adapt astute decision making to practical things, situations and events is someone who is able to provide opportunities to see things in different ways.

How can teachers address student performance issues?

Once hailed as the ‘clever country’, Naplan results are flat-lining and OECD results show Australian school students are being outdone internationally in literacy and numeracy. Why are our students falling behind while others are racing ahead?

‘It’s interesting the race-game of performance. It’s always an issue for teacher education and for education overall, but you have to ask the question: what is the race for?’

Associate Professor Barbousas says if it’s about positioning standards to optimise people in their fullest capacity, then are we actually putting things in place that do that? If it’s about measuring people at different points, in terms of their behaviour and performance that’s a different thing.’

 Associate Professor Barbousas says standards are an important part of the fabric of structures and content in education and teacher education. ‘I will never say I don’t want standards to configure what we do, but we have to use those standards to position the learning agenda that is a different kind of space today.’

Associate Professor Barbousas says standards are being used today as measurements and ‘yep, you’ve done that’ rather than actually engage. ‘

‘How can you, firstly, write a standard that gives the educationist a tool to engage and innovate? If you want to say a standard is about quality, how can a standard actually give a teacher an opportunity to innovate?

‘If we use standards in that way, I think we’ll progress in this learning space, which is ever-changing. But if we’re still positioning it only as ‘okay you’ve met it’ then there’s no space of the standards being just themselves a toolkit of practice.’

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What are the main challenges for teachers today?

Associate Professor Barbousas says one of the biggest challenges is that teachers are working within a structure that is based within the 19th century.

‘We are determining practices that are fundamentally within a paradigm that was constructed in the Industrial Revolution. Students are coming into or engaging in a learning space that is actually not constructed by teachers or educators at all.’

In universities, for example, we have blended learning, a mix of face-to-face and online learning, with student cohorts setting up their own Facebook private groups, for example, to shares study tips and discuss course material. That’s a learning model tailored to how today’s students best learn and understand coursework.

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Can we learn from our overseas contemporaries?

Associate Professor Barbousas says Canada and Northern Europe are great examples of teaching methods that emphasis enquiry and project based learning that’s inter-disciplinary.

‘It’s working towards not a product but an actual kind of engagement of knowledge. That’s the kind of learning space we’re moving into, rather than understanding or compartmentalising knowledge in very specific ways that don’t necessarily relate to another space.’

However, discipline knowledge is still important for future employment but it is strengthened by skills that diverse, social and often political.

Associate Professor Barbousas points out that Australian research into teacher education is referenced all over the world. ‘Canada uses our research and our practices immensely, and so does the States, the UK and Europe.’

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What will 21st century teaching look like?

Associate Professor Barbousas says the education sector will be challenged to really think about the technology of learning – and not just online learning in a structured way.

‘There’s all sorts of interesting and a little bit confronting practices happening around the world, even here in Australia, such as AI tutors and fully robotic learning instructors.’

‘Will there no longer be classrooms? Will there be schools? Will there be virtual schools or travelling schools or will students actually have learning passports that they move around with and make choices and will families be the ones that make those choices?’

Associate Professor Barbousas says digital innovation is pushing the boundaries of the 19th century paradigm, and teachers and teacher educators ‘can’t be doing things the same way anymore’.

Associate Professor Barbousas will be speaking at our free panel event ‘Education Revolution – What happened to the clever country?’ alongside Rosa Storelli, John Marsden and Francis Leach.