OPINION: What does it mean to be a 21st Century teacher?

The government through the Ministry of Education and Sports is in a process of phasing out Grade III and Grade V teaching qualifications in favor of a bachelor’s degree in Education (PHOTO/Courtesy)

In the 20th century, schools were a much different place than they are today. A small example of this is that students were arranged in groups according to the years of their birth and sat in rows facing the teacher. This was called a ‘class’. There were many classes in a single building, sometimes containing as many as a thousand students at a time.

Unlike schools of today, teachers stood at the front of a room and spent a great deal of their time verbally teaching students about different subjects: a 16-year-old might hear lectures about World War I, World War II, sonnets, geometric proof, and cloud systems in a single day. Learners, especially older ones, were expected to write down most of what the teacher said in preparation for exams that tested them on the teacher’s lectures.

Teachers and educational leaders determined what students should learn, often without consulting the students themselves. As you can imagine, this system did not create critical thinkers who were challenged to think for themselves, so as to explore problems and solutions relevant to their own lives. Instead, it left many learners with the impression that they were ‘poor learners’, because they could not tell the teacher exactly what he/she had told them a week before the test. However, the 21st Century learner cannot be handled this way-the reason teachers and/or educators at all levels of instruction need to adopt the 21st Century teaching strategies. Automatically this requires the teacher to ‘put on the gown’ of the 21st Century teacher so as to be effective in his/her work.

The 21st Century teacher is that teacher who is forward looking and fully aware of the ever-changing trends in technology, including possession of knowledge of what the future in education may hold. Generally, the 21st Century teacher must appreciate and manage change as it unfolds. Ideally, the teacher of the 21st Century is expected to pay less attention to status quo, since he/she is aware that this means no change.

By and large, the 21st Century teacher must be fully aware of the career opportunities that the future holds for his/her learners, and must also be an advocate of forward thinking and thoughtful planning, so as to ensure that his/her students are not left behind. In other words, this kind of teacher should not only be informed especially about the trending career opportunities, but must also keep on looking for the latest information so that he/she can be up to date at all times. In fact, in this information era, any teacher who sits back and simply waits to receive information will definitely be left behind.
Among the principal requirements that one must possess so as to thrive in his/her teaching career, more so, in this 21st Century, include, but not limited to the following:

Having mastery of technology (in the classroom). Technology (in the classroom) is moving at a skyrocket speed, and the 21st Century teacher is, therefore, expected to move right along with it. Classroom technology, whether meant for lessons, assignments, or grading, can be helpful to students since it enables them learn better and faster, and is also helpful in simplifying the teacher’s work, fostering efficiency and productivity at the workplace. The teacher of the 21st Century does not have to have a class set of tablets in every child’s hand, or the latest smart-board, but he/she can have a nice balance of educational tools in their classroom. An effective teacher knows what technology can be used in the classroom to truly aid the desired transformation of his/her students’ performance. He/she knows what the best tools are, and how, and when to use them for the benefit of his/her students.

Collaborating with others. Being collaborative is yet another basic requirement of the 21st Century teacher. The teacher of the 21st Century must not work in isolation, but rather work in collaboration with all stakeholders–fellow teachers, government, students, parents, the media, publishers, international community, and the local community at large. In others words, an ideal educator of the 21st Century must be able to collaborate and work well in a team. Working well with others is a basic requirement for the 21st Century teacher, if he/she is to aid the smooth flow of the teaching-learning process. In the recent past, being able to collaborate effectively in the workplace has grown quite rapidly. Learning is deemed to be more effective when we are able to share our ideas and knowledge with others. This therefore, implies that sharing your knowledge, expertise and experience, communicating, affiliating, and learning are all fundamental requirements for the 21st Century teacher.

Being adaptive. The 21st Century teacher must be able to adapt to whatever situation comes his/her way. Teaching is a career that has pretty much stayed the same over the past few decades. The instructional tools have changed over the years; for instance, smart-boards have replaced chalkboards/blackboards, tablets have replaced textbooks, and e-learning, among other transformations has taken the place of the traditional face-to-face instruction method. However, despite all these amends, the practice has stayed put. The teacher of the 21st Century should be in position to look at his/her practice and adapt, or change accordingly, based on the needs of his/her students. He/she must be able to adapt his/her teaching style to include different modes of learning; adapt when a lesson fails, and also adapt to modern technology. Indeed, the 21st Century teacher must be able to adapt to the curriculum and its requirements and must also be in position to use his/her imagination and critical thinking skills to teach students in brilliant, creative, and innovative ways.

Like Nelson Mandela once said, ‘we can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference’. Mandela further said, ‘education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. Mandela’s revelations are not farfetched, for they are supported by Waswa Balunywa, the Principal of Makerere University Business School (MUBS), who is also a renowned scholar of change management. In his own words, Balunywa says, the change process is complex and is by itself dynamic. Change has changed the way it changes itself. It is now rapid revolutionary change though evolutionary change also continues in place.

Being a lifelong learner. The teacher of the 21st Century is one who is a lifelong learner. He/she does not just expect his/her students to be lifelong learners, but he/she, as well, should stay current, and be on top of what is new in various fields, of course, paying closer attention to what is trending in education. Even though the teacher of the 21st Century may, for instance, continually use the same lesson plan year-in-year-out, he/she must know how to change it so as to keep up-to-date with what is current. A great teacher will not only embrace technology, but will also be willing, ready, and determined to learn more about it. The 21st Century teacher is also expected to look for, and find the latest information in education by use of the Internet; he/she must be an ardent reader–read newspapers (as a routine), journals, dissertations/research reports, the dictionary, thesaurus, textbooks, , novels, and any literature that can add to his/her level of competence in the classroom, and beyond.

Generally, the 21st Century teacher should have a well-stocked bookshelf, or bookstore at home. Notice that reading about your teaching subject(s) alone cannot make you a competent teacher, especially in today’s ever changing world. As 21st Century teachers, we need to heavily invest in ourselves by continually equipping ourselves with any kind of relevant knowledge such that we can keep abreast; before thinking of further studies, we can actually start off with self-education, since this is not only cost effective, but also an ideal form of learning. Indeed, the 21st Century teacher needs to be mindful of the three learning elements–acquiring new knowledge, acquiring more knowledge, and above all, unlearning what has been learned wrongly. ‘You have been lied about almost everything! The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’. Alvin Toffler.

Honestly speaking, at whichever level of study, throughout our academic journey, we have all learned about a number of things wrongly, either from our teachers, or any academic platform; take an example of our primary schools’ teachers of English Language who taught us that the conjunctions–‘and’, ‘because’, and ‘but’ cannot begin a sentence, yet in actual sense, all these words and/or conjunctions can be convincingly written at the beginning of a sentence. It is common practice to hear many people, including renowned scholars, say: ‘Birds of the same feathers always fly together’, instead of, ‘Birds of a feather, flock together’.

In both our primary and secondary schools, our teachers of Mathematics have taught us that the symbol, (/=) represents shillings, yet in real practice this symbol (/=) implies only, and not shillings, per se. Even though we are fully aware that a memo is a document meant strictly for internal use, of course, within any given organization, this has not stopped organizational managers, including head teachers and heads of various educational institutions, from describing the memo as-‘internal memo’. Definitely this is wrong because we do not have anything called ‘external memo’. Despite the fact that ‘RE’ stands for Religious Education, among other things, this has not stopped our teachers, interestingly including those of English Language, from teaching (their) learners to write the official letters this way. Arguably, this is wrong. The right thing should be ‘Re’, to imply REASON-the reason why the letter is being written and not ‘RE’-Religious Education, per se. It is only through extensive reading and/or research that learning, unlearning, and relearning, as put forward by Alvin Toffler, can be successfully achieved. Equally important, is critical thinking, for there is absolutely no way one can learn, unlearn, and relearn, without applying their critical thinking skills.

Being a strong advocate for his/her profession. It is a critical time in education and life in general, where almost everyone is looking at the teacher as the source of, not only knowledge, but also success in life. With the common core being implemented and judged, the teaching profession is being met with a close eye now, more than ever. Instead of sitting back, the 21st Century teacher is expected to take a stand for him/herself and advocate for his/her profession, in whichever way possible. This teacher is also supposed to pay close attention to important issues, especially those affecting education, and talk about them with the local community and all the relevant stakeholders. He/she should keep the parent, the student, and the local community at large informed about what is going on in the circles of education and must also address such issues head-on. Worth noting is that, 21st Century learning means teaching, just as you have done in the past centuries, but with way better tools, techniques, and styles. Today’s teacher has a great advantage; he/she has powerful learning tools at his/her disposal that he/she did not have before, or which his/her counterpart of the previous centuries did not have before. The technology advancements in the 21st Century provide an opportunity for the teacher and the student to acquire more knowledge, than ever. Indeed, the teacher of the 21st Century has the ability to move away from just being the dispenser of information to someone who can guide the student and prepare him/her for a brighter future.

Being able to appropriately make use of the teaching strategies. The 21st Century educator and/or teacher must effectively use the teaching strategies at his/her disposal to ensure that the focus in education is on preparing today’s children for tomorrow (or for the future) of where they will live, and where they will work, and not for his/her current world. To achieve this, this teacher ought to beware that in this information era, he/she can no longer be looked at as the sole master of knowledge, but must admit the fact that even the learner that he/she is teaching is equally knowledgeable and/or well-equipped with the latest information-the reason he/she (the learner) should be listened to, especially during the teaching-learning process.

Instead of using the conventional (teacher-centred) approach of teaching, the 21st Century teacher is strongly encouraged to adjust to the pedagogical (student-centred) style of teaching. Admittedly, the 21st Century teacher has a lot to learn from his/her students, especially if he/she is to remain open to learning. Consider an example of a teacher of Geography who is teaching a student about the Great Lakes region of the United States, or the Ruhr region of Germany using the books (and, nowadays using pamphlets), yet this student has actually travelled to these two countries on several occasions and, better still even physically learned about these areas (the Great Lakes in the U.S. and coal mining in the Ruhr region of Germany). Definitely, unless this teacher is open to learning, or he/she risks the opportunity of not learning from his/her student.

The conventional education system, it should be noted, often impedes the development of skills, attitudes, values, and motives necessary for production of novelty. Among other things, it also frequently perpetuates the idea that there is always a single (best) answer to every problem and that this can readily be ascertained by correct application of set techniques and conventional logic that need to be learned and then re-applied over-and-over again. This is majorly the reason why conventional teaching has been largely criticized by psychologists and education experts across the world. For this reason, therefore, teachers and/or educators at all levels of instruction, need to acquaint themselves with the 21st Century teaching strategies, as this is the only way to make the teaching-learning process more meaningful, effective, and relevant to the learner.

Jonathan Kivumbi, Educationist-communication and language skills analyst.
[email protected]

1 Comment

1 Comment


    22/03/2021 at 8:38 AM

    Hello Jonathan,
    It’s long overdue for teachers to relearn and unlearn from the environment itself. Ever-changing strategies must be put in place.
    However, stakeholders must be sought after to help propel the process.
    Thank you.
    Rose Nabisenke

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