Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

What is 21st Century Learning?

February 5th, 2011 at 9:35

A recent Ed Week online article, “How Do You Define 21st Century Learning”, featured the thoughts of eleven people connected to the US education establishment as teachers, consultants or educrats. I was intrigued how each would frame this topic, relative to my own framing as a parent and more of a many educational paths (including unschooling) advocate. (FYI… to see my own thoughts on this topic click here.)

Here is the article author’s framing of the question…

The term “21st-century skills” is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world. In a broader sense, however, the idea of what learning in the 21st century should look like is open to interpretation — and controversy.


I take some solace that Ed Week thinks that what 21st Century learning will look like is still open to interpretation and controversy, rather than putting this topic into a neat little box and getting back to rearranging the deck chairs.

Not that their framing doesn’t contain a very obvious bias and “box” in using the phrase “schools need to teach” rather than “students want to learn”. The bias is still towards schools as venues for mandated external instruction rather than enriched environments for self-directed learning, what I see as a kind of hubris that we older types know what our kids’ generation needs to survive in this new century.

Also it is interesting to note Ed Week‘s focus on their magazine’s customers in the breakdown of the eleven responses, which includes (besides one of their own columnists Diane Ravitch)…

3 education foundation leaders
2 education consultants
2 federal education bureaucrats
2 college professors
1 K-12 teacher

Not sure how to best synthesize and parse these responses. Seems to make sense to frame them within the context of the transition (or not) from an authoritarian (adults controlling youth) paradigm to an egalitarian (adults facilitating youth) alternative.

The Control Paradigm

In the control paradigm, to use a religious analogy, the focus is on the people who are delivering the sermon to the flock and the book they are reading from…

Calling out the education gap between haves and have-nots, Steven Farr, the Chief Knowledge Officer for Teach For America, author of Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, gives what sounds pretty much like the Obama administration line…

Twenty-first-century learning must include the 20th-century ideals of Brown v. Board of Education. Sadly, we have failed to deliver on that promise. Our system perpetuates a racial and socioeconomic achievement gap that undermines our ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity. As we study what distinguishes highly effective teachers in our nation’s most challenging contexts, we see that education reform requires much more than lists of skills. We need classroom leaders setting an ambitious vision, rallying others to work hard to achieve it, planning and executing to ensure student learning, and defining the very notion of teaching as changing the life paths of students. What will make America a global leader in the 21st century is acting on what we know to educate all children, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Crack the whip on all those teachers so they “leave no child behind” and their students are compelled to continue to “race to the top”. Despite the important egalitarian “only us” rather than “us and them” framing, it seems still rooted in the control model.

Responding to that whip without a hint of the outlaw libertarianism of another National Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, says…

Twenty-first-century learning embodies an approach to teaching that marries content to skill. Without skills, students are left to memorize facts, recall details for worksheets, and relegate their educational experience to passivity. Without content, students may engage in problem-solving or team-working experiences that fall into triviality, into relevance without rigor. Instead, the 21st-century learning paradigm offers an opportunity to synergize the margins of the content vs. skills debate and bring it into a framework that dispels these dichotomies. Twenty-first-century learning means hearkening to cornerstones of the past to help us navigate our future. Embracing a 21st-century learning model requires consideration of those elements that could comprise such a shift: creating learners who take intellectual risks, fostering learning dispositions, and nurturing school communities where everyone is a learner.

Somehow to me, her first four sentences don’t seem to be the path forward to achieve the self-directed learner envisioned in the fifth.

Barnett Berry, the founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, has the too pat ed consultant and “tools” salesperson elevator speech hitting all the appropriate notes (including even the traditional “three Rs”)…

Twenty-first-century learning means that students master content while producing, synthesizing, and evaluating information from a wide variety of subjects and sources with an understanding of and respect for diverse cultures. Students demonstrate the three Rs, but also the three Cs: creativity, communication, and collaboration. They demonstrate digital literacy as well as civic responsibility. Virtual tools and open-source software create borderless learning territories for students of all ages, anytime and anywhere.

He then swings radically and goes on to try to reinvent the traditional teacher as a “teacherpreneur”, a sort of digitally enhanced sci-fi successor with a wider purview and purveyor of “powerful learning”…

Powerful learning of this nature demands well-prepared teachers who draw on advances in cognitive science and are strategically organized in teams, in and out of cyberspace. Many will emerge as teacherpreneurs who work closely with students in their local communities while also serving as learning concierges, virtual network guides, gaming experts, community organizers, and policy researchers.

Countering this futurism is Lynne Munson, President and Executive Director of Common Core who sees the path forward as being all about continuity with the past including reinforcing education’s traditional role training students in the approved knowledge of the culture…

I define 21st-century learning as 20th- (or even 19th!-) century learning but with better tools… But being able to Google is no substitute for true understanding. Students still need to know and deeply understand the history that brought them and our nation to where we are today. They need to be able to enjoy man’s greatest artistic and scientific achievements and to speak a language besides their mother tongue. According to most 21st-century skills’ advocates, students needn’t actually walk around with such knowledge in their heads, they need only to have the skills to find it. I disagree. Twenty-first-century technology should be seen as an opportunity to acquire more knowledge, not an excuse to know less.

Ed Week contributor Diane Ravitch, seconds Munson with a laundry list for a broad standardized liberal arts education (and then some)…

To be prepared for the 21st century, our children require the following skills and knowledge: an understanding of history, civics, geography, mathematics, and science, so they may comprehend unforeseen events and act wisely; the ability to speak, write, and read English well; mastery of a foreign language; engagement in the arts, to enrich their lives; close encounters with great literature, to gain insight into timeless dilemmas and the human condition; a love of learning, so they continue to develop their minds when their formal schooling ends; self-discipline, to pursue their goals to completion; ethical and moral character; the social skills to collaborate fruitfully with others; the ability to use technology wisely; the ability to make and repair useful objects, for personal independence; and the ability to play a musical instrument, for personal satisfaction.

Finally, Susan Rundell Singer, a college science professor at Carleton College, envisions a one-size-fits-all, best-practice social engineering that rises above all the current debate about what constitutes a good education…

Adaptability, complex communication skills, non-routine problem solving, self-management, and systems-thinking are essential skills in the 21st-century workforce. From my perspective as a scientist and science educator, the most effective way to prepare students for the workforce and college is to implement and scale what is already known about effective learning and teaching. Content vs. process wars should be ancient history, based on the evidence from the learning sciences. Integrating core concepts with key skills will prepare students for the workplace and college. We need to move past mile-wide and inch-deep coverage of ever-expanding content in the classroom. Developing skills in the context of core concepts is simply good practice. It’s time to let go of polarizing debates, consider the evidence, and get to work.

The Facilitation Paradigm

To continue the religious analogy, think Buddhism or Taoism here, where there is more of a focus on the individual on their path to enlightenment, with perhaps facilitative gurus or teachers along the way, as in “when the student is ready the teacher will come”…

Steve Hargadon a “Social Learning Consultant” and founder of “Classroom 2.0” puts forward more of the learner-driven unschooling approach as a clear challenge to the traditional centralized control model of education…

Twenty-first-century learning will ultimately be “learner-driven.” Our old stories of education (factory-model, top-down, compliance-driven) are breaking down or broken, and this is because the Internet is releasing intellectual energy that comes from our latent desires as human beings to have a voice, to create, and to participate. The knowledge-based results look a lot like free-market economies or democratic governments (think: Wikipedia). Loosely governed and highly self-directed, these teaching and learning activities exist beyond the sanction or control of formal educational institutions. I believe the political and institutional responses will be to continue to promote stories about education that are highly-structured and defined from above, like national standards or (ironically) the teaching of 21st-century skills. These will, however, seem increasingly out-of-sync not just with parents, educators, and administrators watching the Internet Revolution, but with students, who themselves are largely prepared to drive their own educations.

Milton Chen, the former Executive Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, also focuses his thoughts on the quality of the environment of the learner without any mention of educators…

Twenty-first-century learning builds upon such past conceptions of learning as “core knowledge in subject areas” and recasts them for today’s world, where a global perspective and collaboration skills are critical. It’s no longer enough to “know things.” It’s even more important to stay curious about finding out things… The Internet, which has enabled instant global communication and access to information, likewise holds the key to enacting a new educational system, where students use information at their fingertips and work in teams to accomplish more than what one individual can alone, mirroring the 21st-century workplace.

Karen Cator, from the US Department of Education Office of Educational Technology does bring the educator back into the picture, but in terms of creating an enriched environment for the student…

Success in the 21st century requires knowing how to learn. Students today will likely have several careers in their lifetime. They must develop strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills in order to be successful in an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.

Keith Moore a Director at the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Education sees things from the point of view of the student in disadvantaged rural communities and focuses on the nexus of education between students, teachers and parents…

Students in the 21st century learn in a global classroom and it’s not necessarily within four walls. They are more inclined to find information by accessing the Internet through cellphones and computers, or chatting with friends on a social networking site. Similarly, many teachers are monitoring and issuing assignments via virtual classrooms… Many of our Bureau of Indian Education schools are located in disadvantaged rural and remote areas. The BIE is working with various stakeholders to ensure that our schools have a Common Operating Environment so that students and teachers can access information beyond the classroom… Within the federal BIE school system, we must rely upon the vision and the ability of our tribal leadership, parents, teachers, and students to work with the federal leadership to keep education a top priority.

Finally Richard Allington, a professor of education and early-reading expert at the University of Tennessee. Though he calls out his old-school bias saying he’s never “Tweeted, Skyped, or Facebooked”, he still is talking his version of an enriched environment for learning to read rather than a focus on instruction…

I think we actually could teach everyone to read (the old way) and for the life of me I cannot understand why schools would spend funds on computers when their libraries are almost empty of things students might want to read. I cannot understand why classrooms have whiteboards but no classroom libraries. The research, to date, has provided no evidence that having either computers or whiteboards in schools has any positive effect on students’ reading and writing proficiencies. But school and classroom libraries are well established as essential if we plan to develop a literate citizenry.

There are certainly other ways of parsing and organizing these thoughts on our educational path forward than the framing I have chosen. But I think the transition from direction by authority figures towards more self-direction is a compelling one that gives a lot of clarity and meaning to this range of statements on that path forward.

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One Response to “What is 21st Century Learning?”

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