Expert Q&A | Samuel G. Freedman

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Q: What skills or qualities must a teacher possess to be a positive role model in the 21st century?

A: I don't think there is anything so unique or brand new about what it takes to be a great teacher. It's high standards that you yourself have to exemplify, relentless work ethic and a really deep concern about the lives of all your students. I think those are part of human nature that great teachers anywhere, anytime and anyplace have had to possess. It kind of reminds me of what a good clergy person needs to be—a great teacher, a great preacher and a great pastor—and all those roles are true of a classroom teacher as well.

One thing a teacher has to model is ethics, especially since classrooms operate on a system of honour. For instance, on the assumption that a student is handing in only the work he or she has actually done, not a classmate's work and not work that's been downloaded off some website. A teacher also has to model ethics in terms of the fairness with which they treat students, the efficiency in which they return work to students, and the care they show in editing and responding to student work—all that is part of what a teacher has to demonstrate.

If there's anything that's new, it's that the teachers today are encountering students whose attention span and concentration are under greater assault than ever before from electronic media and digital innovations. Those things can be wonderful teaching tools themselves; they give students access to more information more rapidly than ever before. But they're also distractions, they're also competition for the human voice or the human presence and sometimes they literally intrude in the classroom. Think of how many kids are on their laptops seemingly taking notes but maybe actually looking at their smartphones in any given time under the table. So in a way teachers have to be even better than ever because that's what's competing for the attention and for the intellect of the students we teach.

Q: What key 21st-century skills or literacies will students need to be successful in the future?

A: I think precisely because writing is less valued than in the past since the advent of visual and digital culture and communication, it's a rare and thus more valuable commodity to be able to write in a really clear, accessible and readable way. Those who do that well are going to be in demand. That's how you get your ideas out there, and how you get your information out there to the world.

The successful student is also going to have to learn how to sort through the flood of information that is out there on the Internet and how to determine what's accurate, what's not accurate, what's overtly biased, what isn't, what's trustworthy, what's not, because when you look at a web page you don't know really what you're looking at—whether you're looking at something that's gone through copy editing, peer review and journalistic rigour. Or whether you're looking at something that one person who can build an appealing-looking web page has put up that only reflects their own personal likes, dislikes, prejudices or biases. So the ability to sort through information with a critical intelligence is going to be a huge importance for the students of today.

Q: What advice would you give schools and educators to help students acquire these vital 21st-century skills?

A: Make the technology available, but teach students that technology is only a tool. It's not a value in itself. It's all about how intelligently you use it. And a teacher always has to be an example of the best practices of being an intellectual and a good citizen. There's a great Stephen Sondheim song called "Children Will Listen." And what it means is that even though you don't think you're giving an example to young people, you're always giving an example to young people, and so that song could be a motto for teachers in the 21st century.

—Samual G. Freedman
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