My Take on Learning in the 21st Century

In my previous piece, “What is 21st Century Learning?” I tried to put a context around eleven replies to that question from people identified by Ed Week magazine as thought-leaders in the business of education. That context is the transition in American society, and the wider world (case and point is Egypt and the Arab world in the past month), from external authority to the shared authority of a circle of equals. At this time in our human history, I can think of no more profound thread in our cultural evolution.

In keeping with this developmental thread, it seems appropriate that I go beyond commenting on the thoughts of identified educational authorities on the question, “How Do You Define 21st-Century Learning?”, and put forward my own as a fifty-five year old person and parent of two now young adult children, who has done (and continues to do) his share of formal and informal (that is real life) learning.

Using the broadest brush I define “21st-Century Learning” as learning that is intentionally and unabashedly self-initiated and self-directed and begins in the home and the rest of the real world, leveraging the Internet and all the contemporary information technology, and including as needed, teachers and other mentors and enriched environments (like libraries, schools and other learning centers) beyond real world venues.

Current trends toward homeschooling, unschooling and challenging the efficacy of universal college education are likely to grow stronger as we move away from one-size-fits all to many educational paths. Additional new trends in this regard will emerge, including possibly recasting secondary schools more along the community college or YMCA model and no longer creating the expectation that young people should have 17 consecutive uninterrupted years of formal education (including an immediate transition from secondary to collegiate education) before entering the “real world”. Lifelong learning, including numerous job changes and resulting retraining, while already a fact will become the conventional expectation as well.

Unlike the 19th and 20th Centuries, when the focus was on institutions, instructors and texts that transmitted a finite artifice of previously defined “core” knowledge, I believe that the focus in the 21st Century will be on the learner and the development of their unique consciousness within a larger context of the evolution of human society.

The current standardized and rigid definition of universal mandated formal learning, including who is supposed to learn what where when and how, will gradually erode as the infrastructure to support it becomes increasingly expensive to maintain and less effective or even counterproductive in its results. In times of tight government budgets that at least at the moment look to continue well into the future, our current bureaucracy-heavy school system with all its schools and other real estate plus payroll beyond the teacher will likely be increasingly difficult to maintain.

This paradigm shift from external mandates and control to the preeminence of internally directed learning will more than likely be a difficult one, not unlike the transition from autocracies to republics beginning in the 18th Century and continuing today. Formal mandated education being a massive money-spending system in much of the world, and supported by an equally large “educational-industrial complex” of vendors, constituencies of that system will likely resist this shift. Issues regarding the gulf between haves and have nots will loom large.

But increasingly, I envision that more and more people will see how sensible this paradigm shift is, and young people themselves will become strong and effective advocates for more self-directed learning. They perhaps will barter more developmental liberty and freedom in exchange for continuing to support a growing constituency of retirees among the aging population of the US and other industrialized countries.

Call me crazy, naïve or both, but that is how I answer Ed Week‘s question. I invite you to share your own thoughts on this question with me, no matter how different they might be, and I look forward to many varied visions on this topic.

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