Teaching - Gary Tirone

A Few 21st Century School Transformation Questions

In a 21st Century world, teachers, students and families are considering increasing numbers of choices for what we call “school.” Whether it’s the traditional school that most of us grew up with; or perhaps one offering extended blended opportunities using technology; or the array of choices ranging from private and public charters to home school to fully virtual schools. As technology becomes a larger part of the teaching and learning equation, one set of central questions concerning relationship seem to emerge consistently from parents and adults who determine school funding across sectors. Those questions include:

  • With increasing technology being used in schools, how will students have enough social interaction to develop social skills?
  • Is “traditional learning” at risk and how can we be sure that learning development, that includes face-to-face feedback and support, doesn’t suffer?
  • Does the increase of technology in schools place the student/teacher or parent/teacher connection at risk?

There are certainly a host of questions to consider in addition to the critical relationship factor in schools, and I would argue that the quality of relationships leading to engagement by students, parents and the community at large has always been an issue superficially or expediently addressed long before the concerns of technology began dominating educational conversations. To me the reality of quality of relationships, seemingly at the core of many school and organizational mission statements, have less than ideal engagement from their stakeholders.

But before examining what ideal engagement might look like, I’d like to tease apart the questions posed above from my own experience and research:

  • With increasing technology being used in schools, how will students have enough social interaction to develop social skills?

The question itself assumes that virtual nature of online learning experiences is inferior to face-to face classroom experiences that may promote more social interaction and learning engagement. One also needs to examine the types and quality of social interactions that go on in face-to face classrooms, along with whether there is full participation expected or required from all; or the social interaction is exercised by a few. It is also fair to question the online experience a student may have and the amount of interaction facilitated by and between teachers and students. There are some online experiences, especially delivered by private, for profit online schools, where a teacher has 200 or more students, and parent concerns about a school’s social development value are validated. There are other online experiences where teacher/student experiences are low and quite interactive. In fact many blended models include both a face-to face and online teacher that can highly personalize opportunities for social interaction.

Another assumption is that socialization and social development only happens in schools. Yes, there are experiences beyond the classroom like athletics and student activities, but students also have increasing opportunities for developing social skills outside of school if there is flexible time that technology can provide for internships and other experiences and activities that would allow them to integrate and interconnect with the community at large.

  • Is “traditional learning” at risk and how can we be sure that learning development, which includes face-to-face feedback and support, doesn’t suffer?

An exchange of views about “traditional learning” and the assumed relational value between teacher and student would be a great place to start a community engagement discussion about what traditional schools have provided and what can be included with 21st century options. Quality feedback in any learning environment is key to motivating students, and by way of the statement above, feedback is structured to be potentially greater in a blended environment from multiple sources. Whether one looks at a face-to face or virtual option quality feedback can largely depend on student-teacher ratios and class sizes.

The context of “traditional learning” also needs to be examined since most people reading this post had a traditional K-12 experience with a three season 180 day school year that required individual students of all ability levels to start and stop a shared learning experience at the same time. Our examination and a co-constructed meaning of a traditional learning environment should start with accommodating both students who need more time to demonstrate an applicable understanding of core curriculum areas; and accommodating students who can move more quickly with their demonstrating an understanding of the same. The topics of “traditional learning” “school” or even ‘why students come to school’ requires a significant level of community engagement…a topic for my next blog post.

  • Does the increase of technology in schools place the student/teacher or parent/teacher connection at risk?

Part of the consideration here is what one means by “connection.” Technology has certainly provided enhanced opportunities for parents to be communicating with their child’s teacher whenever necessary through a variety of means ranging from email to text messaging and multiple forms of social media. Additionally, I don’t know of a school that doesn’t have a student information system that parents can access to check on up to date progress, grades, and other issues. These options are the same whether a student is in a face-to face or virtual classroom.

The question that needs to be asked though, and this is true regarding the feedback concern above as well, is what is the quality of the connection between one teacher and 20-25+ students in an elementary school classroom? Or a middle school or high school teacher who interacts with 80-120+ students a day? There are a various levels of connection, some of high quality; some that are more cursory. There are instances of virtual schools (check out vlacs.org) that require regular, synchronous contact with individual students and parents; and in schools with these expectations, there is more equity of a personal connection with all students. Again though, it is critical to have a discussion that creates a shared understanding of what is meant by connection and the expectations for such in school communities.


When discussing school transformation in the 21st century, there is an extended list of considerations beyond the topic of relationship and community engagement. However, it is best to start with how relationship, relative to ideal engagement, might look like to facilitate collective understanding and transformations to 21st Century teaching and learning options. Those options must consider more the world in which our children will live rather than the one most adults lived in last century.


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