Adaptability as a 21st century skillImage Source: www.digitalsparkmarketing.com
Many voices in the world of 21st century education are prescribing a heavy dose of adaptability and lifelong learning to students' curricula as a way of preparing them for the world beyond graduation. For example, Tony Wagner defined agility and adaptability as one of the Seven Survival Skills for Careers, College, & Citizenship in the 21st Century in his recent book Global Achievement Gap. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills similarly named flexibility and adaptability as well as initiative and self-direction as part of the Life and Career Skills needed for a 21st century education. Further defining these skills, P21 cited the need to "adapt to varied roles, job responsibilities, schedules, and contexts", to "work effectively in a climate of ambiguity and changing priorities", to "deal positively with praise, setbacks, and criticism", to "go beyond basic mastery of skills and/or curriculum to explore and expand one's own learning and opportunities to gain expertise", and to "reflect critically on past experiences in order to inform future progress", among others.
Those are great ideas, but how do you effectively teach and assess those skills? My answer: technology.
teaching & Assessing Adaptability with technologyBuzzmath's Adaptability & Flexibility Badge
I have never heard of a student with even a modicum of tech facility being unable to function on a school's Mac computer because they had a PC at home. I have, on the other hand, encountered numerous adults who insist on having Parallels installed on their single computer to avoid having to learn a new operating system (individuals forced to do so because their software is not adaptable exempted).
It is often said that digital natives can intuitively use technology. I disagree. They can adaptively use technology. Instead of being wed to a particular look and feel of a software interface, digital natives see beyond the cosmetics to the logic behind it. If changing the arrangement of my new smart phone's home screen makes it more navigable and efficient, then so be it. Give me a few minutes to explore and I'm ready.
This corresponds directly to the skills that employers report they seek in potential candidates. According to the staffing company Manpower, adaptability and flexibility rank in the Top 10 Skills Employers Want. (Notice that computer skills and motivation and initiative also rank in the Top 10.)
So how does this translate into curriculum? Looking back on my days in the classroom, I blocked off a chunk of time before each tech assignment/activity/project to do demos and I distributed packets with step by step instructions. Instead of nurturing my students' flexibility and adaptability impulses, I was herding them all into a neat line to follow my detailed instructions. Should I instead have gotten out of the way? Here are some ideas that educators can put into practice the next time they introduce a new tech tool.
- Give students a chunk of time without instruction to explore a new tech program before using it.
- Encourage students to use online resources to figure the program out.
- Create a backchannel discussion or an online forum where students can post links to helpful resources or ask questions. Encourage your tech savvy students who get it faster than the others to monitor the boards and answer questions electronically. Using an electronic forum with delayed responses instead of face-to-face assistance will encourage adaptability and eliminate the possibility that a tech-light student will sit back and let the tech-savvy student fix the problem or do the work.
- To avoid frustration, stop after 15 minutes and distribute a self-assessment rubric on adaptability (see my example below). Debrief with students about their experiences. For those who fall in the flexible and adaptable category, what strategies did they use to navigate through unfamiliar interfaces? For those who didn't, how can they improve their experience for the next time?
What about Adaptability in teachers?
As an edtech director, part of my job is to shield my teachers from any and all tech problems and then to walk them through solutions when issues arise. The reasoning behind this suggests that teachers are fragile, unable to absorb setbacks, and ready to gasp in despair and throw their laptops out of the window at the first sign of a problem. Reflecting on this point of digital literacy has me thinking of applying the same methodology to a tech inservice. After all, restart a teacher's Smartboard and they're good for a day, teach a teacher how to restart their Smartboard, well then... maybe the students would notice.