How to Future-focus ELA Teacher Candidates

Big Shifts for Deeper Learning

When Scott McLeod, a professor of educational leadership, tweeted a chart of four big shifts future schools will need to make to truly prepare kids for the new future we live in today, I felt a little spark. I’m poking at that spark in this post, to see if there’s something I can use in my work with this year’s crop of teacher candidates.  Scott gave me permission to use the chart, which is below.

Chart of four big shifts schools of the future need to make to make deeper learning possible.

The chart, adapted from the book  Different Schools for a Different World, is designed by McLeod and his co-author, Dean Shareski. It’s aimed at school and district administrators, not teachers. So, what is the value of their work for me, a teacher educator? The value comes in their suggestion that, to spark change, school/district leaders can identify teachers who already are building “deeper learning” practices and classrooms and draw on their expertise to help spark change across districts, buildings, grade levels, and departments.

Where do those teachers come from? I hope some of them come from my work with them. But teacher certification programs aren’t always hotbeds of innovation– they’re typically focused on prepping their candidates to pass the EdTPA, or squeezing traditional subject matter into standards-based lessons. Realistically speaking, schools of education don’t have much choice– their accreditation is linked to the performance (so-called “success”) of their teacher candidates on the so-called “objective” assessment measures helpfully supplied(imposed)  by state and federal education departments.

When it comes to this reader, McLeod and Shareski are preaching to choir. The question is, can I use their ideas about the 4 Big Shifts to prepare my teacher candidates to ignite their own classrooms?

What ELA World Are They Teaching Toward?

Most ELA teacher candidates are comfortably rooted in secondary English as a discreet academic compartment, in a school day organized by clock and bell. The teacher delivers content; the students consume what’s delivered. ELA teacher candidates typically share a passion for literature and an industrial-era belief that reading it makes us more humane. Today’s teacher candidates often seemed best prepared for the industrial era, with the internet tacked on.

Big Shifts or Big Simulations?

More often than not, teacher candidates are using a variety of internet tools in their classrooms; they often feel good about how engaged the students are. The challenge of the 4 Big Shifts is that it can look like a teacher/school/district is actively engaged in any or all of the shifts but what’s happening is one of the following (Lankshear &Knobel, 2007):

  • Digital busy work: learners use new technologies to perform lower-order tasks (e.g., research using teacher-assigned sources.) A higher-order challenge would be “conceptualizing an issue or problem, designing strategies for addressing it, and evaluating the outcomes of implementing these strategies” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2007, p. 101). Or, students could do the latter and be assigned to report on it in a 5 paragraph essay done on a Google Doc;
  • Digital pretend work: students work within a teacher-determined scenario to devise a (teacher-determined) concrete product; 
  • Digital conserving work: teachers have students use new technology tools within the existing curriculum to achieve traditional, often standards-defined, aims.

It’s hard to unpack any of these points with novice teachers, especially if they unquestioningly embrace the historical premises of ELA, or are working in a classroom or district that does. But what all teacher candidates care about is 1) whether their secondary students like them, and 2) whether the secondary students pay attention to their lessons. Accomplishing these could easily become the candidate’s M.O. for the entire teaching internship.

One Step Beyond “Engagement”

I’m the pushy type when it comes to teacher candidates. Here’s one way a post-observation conversation might unfold:

Candidate: “Yes, I think the lesson was so much better this time– the students seemed to be having a good time!”
Me:  “Ah, so what you’re teaching toward is student entertainment?”
Candidate: <thinking>
Candidate:  “Teaching toward? What’s that mean?”
Me: “It’s a different way of asking you what your larger goals are for your students.”
Candidate: <silence, perhaps a ripple of irritation> (because their objectives are obviously stated right at the top of their lesson plan)
Me: “You’re teaching about content [pointing to objectives] but you’re also teaching people. What do you want these young people to be or feel as a result of your time with them? Because part of our literacy work with adolescents is to help them become more fluent in reading the world and being effective participant in it.  That takes certain capabilities.”

And so the discussion of agency begins.

Agency Begins At Home

Literacy in the digital age must include learning to be a lifelong learner. There’s simply too much data, media, opportunity to connect with others for students not be self-aware, self-directed self-motivated. I want my teacher candidates to think about how to incorporate the meta of learning into their classes.

What does it mean to be a member of a learning community? Why does it matter? What do they contribute to making the space be meaningful for themselves and their peers? Do they care? Why should they? (The teacher candidate better have some solid reasons here, because the topic will come up. What are their strengths and weaknesses as learners? What actions can they take to build one and change another? The principal of WIFM– What’s In It For Me– can help a candidate think about lesson content and personal learning processes from the perspectives of students, whose job at this stage of life is always to make everything centered around themselves.

You can’t think about these things without starting to pay attention to what students think about what you’re doing in class, how you’re doing it, assignments, due dates, late work policies, attendance…. Once that door opens, it’s natural to start thinking about building class curriculum that centers on higher-level thinking and authentic work, then drawing on technologies to forward multiple ways of communicating and interacting with the world.

This is what I want my students to understand about what they are doing. And I tell them that one day, my hope is that they have such a big Aha moment that they become a catalyst for Big Shift.

What I’ve Learned

Someone once said, “I write to discover what I think.” That’s what I set out to do after reading Different Schools for a Different World. 

The framework of the 4 Big Shifts has pushed me to articulate my thoughts differently, to streamline them. To my surprise, it’s been a little challenging. But it’s also given me ideas for some new openings, especially as my pre-service teachers tackle remote teaching.

Jeez, learning is cool.


Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). New technologies in the work of the secondary English classroom. In Teaching secondary English with ICT (pp. 107–134). Open University Press.


Image adapted from OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

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