Mindsets for Modern Learning

Technology in education must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.

– Chris Lehman

What’s the challenge? 

As educators in the 21st Century, we want to synthesize and manage the best practices of effective traditional learning models, contemporary learning design and “oxygenated” technology use. Our ultimate goal? To create creators, inventors and discoverers: the kind of men and women who, like the student above, will explain the historico-economical theory of the world system through the metaphor of a calculus formula.

The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.

–Jean Piaget

Not every learning environment is conducive to such creative endeavors.

Our desire to create contemporary learning environments (what is commonly referred to as 21st Century Learning and what Will Richardson calls “modern learning”) is often dramatically different from our own educational experiences, at odds with student and parental visions of formal education and unsupported by our schools, boards and districts. When schools and stakeholders do encourage modern learning environments, it is too often by ill-conceived mandate with little attention paid to planning and training–and achieving informed buy-in from the teachers expected to metamorphose overnight. (For our best effort at a thoughtful process, please see our site: Instructional Technology Integration: A Comprehensive Approach). Hasty and poorly planned implementation generates skepticism and reluctance among teachers further hindering buy-in and transformation.

These challenges and their impact on the development of contemporary learning environments, skills and habits notwithstanding, many educators recognize the value of modern learning approaches and embrace them. Let’s review some of the objective benefits and obstacles to transforming teacher practice, habits, mindsets and environments to enhance student learning and foster creative growth.


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The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.

– John Dewey

Basic Understandings and Essential Questions

  • Students, and let’s be honest, all of us, have daydreamed, doodled, or otherwise not paid full attention in class or meetings long before iPads were around. However, most instructors feel that “iPad doodling” is different, more of a problem.
    • Why?
  • Many teachers feel that taking a photo of lecture notes or recording classes is not as effective as handwriting the notes.
    • Is this true? Do the benefits of handwriting outweigh the benefits of digital storage, sharing, interactivity and access?
  • Many teachers feel that students can’t learn unless they are paying attention or otherwise engaged in direct instruction. iPads and cell phones compete with teachers for students’ attention in class.
    • Is this an accurate assessment? 
  • The presence of iPads creates a physical barrier between students and the instructor. The instructor usually can’t see what the student is doing on the iPad.
    • Is this also true? If so, how do we resolve this issue?

Here are lists of additional potential benefits and obstacles to learning created within the contemporary learning environment.


When you bow to the universe, the universe bows back

– Morihei Ueshiba

Mindsets for Modern Classroom Management

We recommend positions that establish growth mindsets (and we use the term purposefully) for managing the contemporary learning environment. The mindset of the teacher must provide a model for the creative, growth mindset we want to foster in our students. Inventive interpretation, design and use of the learning environment creates a space that fosters further creativity.  A fixed learning environment results in fixed learning.

Mindset #1: See and Show the Stars

Two men look out through the same bars, 
One sees the mud, and one the stars. 
–Frederick Langbridge

Far and above the most important position teachers and learners in the modern learning environment must take is one of positive curiosity, collaboration and challenge. We recommend that teachers embrace the characteristics of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” profile and model that profile to their students.


Teachers who avoid the challenge of learning new technology tools and classroom interaction systems…; teachers who give up the first time Evernote erases one of their notebooks…; teachers who feel the effort they expend on learning how to screencast will be wasted or unrecognized…; teachers who get tetchy and refuse to listen when someone shows them a better way to organize their iPad screens or why Google Apps provides solutions that Managebac cannot…; teachers who grow hostile to comments about how well a colleague is running her classroom with the new technology, or annoyed by students who ask to photograph the lecture notes and add them to Evernote, “like on Ms. Smith’s class…” …are teachers who pave the way–who lay the concrete, really–for fixed mindsets among their students. As young people, our students often resist change, preferring the comfort of the familiar and lacking long-view notions of change and growth over time. Any educator who gives them an excuse to do so by refusing to adapt their practice, learn new technologies and techniques or by making statements like, “Oh, I don’t have time to learn that,” is a teacher spreading a picnic on a plateau.

On the other hand, teachers who embrace the growth mindset for the modern learning environment, exemplify confidence, free-will and continuous improvement and achievement. This is not to say that such teachers become exemplars due to their expertise and perpetual success, but that in maintaining a positive attitude in a challenging environment they motivate their students to persist in a modern world of flummox and flux.

Mindset #2 You are the Architect of your Classroom Anthropology

Getting the tech in the room is only a small step for modern-learning-kind. In fact, adding technology to a classroom without considering adapting environmental and management policies is like adding oil to water. The term “classroom anthropology” conveys that how you mold your classroom impacts the human culture within it.

  • Consider and reconsider your classroom design: Start by reflecting on how you and your students interact with the environment via your seating arrangements. Let the activities and goals determine how the students sit and how you move in the classroom.
  • Visible rules and symbols that establish the classroom as a learning environment: One of the key techniques employed at our school is the use of the Aditi Rao’s traffic signal system for grades 6-8.
    • Read a full description here.

Mindset #3: “Do As I Say & Do As I Do”

The rules you set should be the law of the class, but you should abide by them too! Also, students respect teachers who recruit them in devising the classroom social contract.

  • Set the tone & model appropriate behavior and use: If you want your students to use technology professionally, use it professionally yourself. Don’t browse when others are speaking (not even to coordinate the lesson!), make sure your device is always charged and use your device positively all the time by photographing and recording student work, conducting research on reliable websites when appropriate and using the same apps you require your students to use, like Evernote.
  • Establish accountability measures: Whenever possible, use progressive and co-created discipline plans. Students appreciate being consulted on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and the rewards and consequences for both. They are also far more likely to remember accountability measures that they help write. (You may note that the example grade-level goal statements I have posted here do not directly refer to technology–that harks back to the Lehman quote at the beginning of this post and the agreed-upon notion that these rules apply to all situations in class, whether devices are in use or not.)
  • Document student behavior rigorously (using technology!): At our school we use the log function on Jupitergrades to keep track of student behavior. Whenever a student exhibits inappropriate behavior, I mark it in the corresponding infraction category and briefly describe the circumstances surrounding the event. Then, at the end of the week, I send a quick automated email, which automatically highlights all of the infractions, to the student’s home. This often results in an immediate and thorough response and is one of the best ways to use the extended community to the teacher’s advantage.

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Mindset #4: Manage Mobility with Mobility

The contemporary learning environment must be dynamic and fluid both to maintain the needed level of order and to foster the desired levels of interaction, innovation and invention. Establishing order through movement may seem counterintuitive to those of us educated in an environment that attempted to achieve stability by being static, but compelling arguments have been made that encourage the use of movement, even exercise, as a learning stimulant in the classroom. (Also see this Ted-Talk on exercise and learning by Dr. John J. Ratey.)

  • Move, move, move!
    • Always keep students moving between individual work, pairwork, groupwork and whole class discussions. Have them moving between stations. Have them teaching each other at their stations at the front of the room and from their desks (oh, the joys of AppleTV if you can get it).
  • “Lids on”/”Lids off”
    • Be clear when you want your students to be working with devices and when you don’t. This simple command has gained traction at our school and students with laptops know it applies to them as well.
  • Leave or take mobile devices
    • Also be clear when you are moving your students whether you want them to take their devices with them or not. Most often you will want them to have them to take notes, photos and recordings, but when I need a few minutes of clear, focused direct instruction time, I tell everyone to leave their devices at their tables and come to the center of the room. It won’t hold their attention forever, but you guarantee their primary source of distraction is nowhere near them for a while.
  • Team-juggling (counting off)
    • Every few classes or so I move around the room and have the students count off in 3s, 4s or 5s. I then reassign the stations that day based off the numbers (always be ready to make adjustments for the usual suspects and partners in crime). It adds variety to the teamwork and ensures everyone gets to know and work with each other.
  • “Screens center”
    • A useful technique during assessments. “Screens center” tells students to sit with their backs to the center of the room. In conjunction with the appropriate seating arrangement (it works well with stations) the teacher can easily monitor the students’ screens while patrolling from the center.
  • “Hand the worksheet out first, stupid”
    • This self-directed quote stems from my student teaching days in East Harlem when my cooperating teacher (now a good friend) reminded me to always hand out the worksheet I wanted the students to work on before going over the instructions rather than waiting until after the instructions to hand out the work. One day, having neglected this golden rule, my class descended into chaos as fully informed students had nothing but time on their hands while they waited for me to walk around the room and hand them their work. The class was unsalvageable and we developed that useful mantra. In the 21st Century we may have moved beyond worksheets, but the spirit of the rule remains: if you leave your students with unstructured time on their hands, you can assume they will be Facebooking or Angry-birding before long.
  • Bonus tip: “Times not lines”
    • This is how I remind myself not to assign word counts anymore. Students type and text faster than you think. Mentally, many of them still see their mobile devices more as tools of entertainment and interaction than professional work resources. Thus, in some cases, “Write on *BLANK* for at least 250 words” is an invitation to bullet out 800 characters or less of meaningless verbiage in order to get back to the riveting material on 9Gag. A better method in the contemporary learning environment is “Answer our essential question for at least 15 minutes in a new post on your blog. After writing for 15 minutes, spend another 15 minutes adding relevant and engaging media to your post.” In this second example, everyone should be occupied for 30 mins: there is no “done” until time is up.

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Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer deserves to be.

–David Thornberg

So what’s the compelling argument?

Any teacher can be plopped into a 21st Century Classroom but those who can properly manage a contemporary learning environment will find themselves safe from digital replacement.

If you look at the various images and videos from a classroom we are developing into a contemporary learning environment, you will notice little evidence of technology although technology was a key element to all of the exercises represented. To us, the technology is ubiquitous, necessary and invisible–and it also takes a back seat to any form of creation. This explains why the technology at work in the classroom (iPhone photography and videography, this blog, etc.) depicted in this article is invisible and ubiquitous–oxygenating the instruction as much as the learning.

At another time and in another place a book was the height of technology, but invention was still the goal. Are you willing to create an environment in which students can be creative? If your answer is yes, then you have already adopted a mindset that will serve you well in the modern world.



Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

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