What is 21st Century Learning?

I’ll be working with directors and superintendents this afternoon, from the Greater Essex County School Board, here in Windsor, Ontario. The theme of the entire conference is Vision to Practice, with a little dreaming, believing, and achieving thrown in. One of the agenda’d questions I’ll be asked is, “What is the difference between 20th century learning and 21st century learning?”

It’s one of those sweat questions that you’d love to sink your teeth into, until it’s time to actually munch. I’m going to take a stab at it here, ask you to comment, and hopefully use this blog post as a resource.

One of the hesitations I have about answering this sort of question — especially in front of such a descerning audience, you — is that education is complex. You can’t talk about learning, especially in a single blog post, without some fairly gross generalization. So, with your permission, I’m going to grossly generalize.

First of all, I would characterize formal learning, in the pre-digital/industrial time as:

  • listening,
  • watching,
  • remembering

In a time of information scarcity, when our futures were fairly predictably, being educated was characterised by what you know.

In the digital age, where information is abundant (overwhelming) and the future is always a BIG question, I think that learning expands out of listening, watching, and remembering to include:

  • questioning your learning experience,
  • engaging your information environment,
  • proving (and disproving) what you find,
  • Constructing (inventing) new learning and knowledge [added later]
  • teaching others what you have learned
  • being respected for the power of your learning, and
  • being responsible for your learning and its outcomes [added later]
    [All were reworded 25 aug 2009 mostly as result of comments]

I’ve had to work on the engaging part. It’s a term that I usually do not like to hear. But talking with Doug Peterson last night, over supper, I concluded that when I usually hear the term engage the students, it appears to be a verb that list linked to the teacher — that the teacher’s job is to engage the students. What I like better is to attach the verb to the students. The students will engage with their information environment (textbook, whiteboard, Internet) to learn through questioning, experimentation, discovery, and construction).

So, what do you think?

20 thoughts on “What is 21st Century Learning?”

  1. One other part of 20th century education was more participatory. I’m thinking in particular of science experiments but acting in a play, being part of a band, being part of a team could all qualify.

    During the 20 years I taught science in the 20th Century, it quickly became clear that the participatory activities provided the structure on which I could hang much theory. It also gave my students the opportunity to teach and question.

    The dimension I see added to learning is the need to evaluate, test, explore. Students can no longer assume that just because they read it or hear it on TV that the information is correct. Not only imparting the necessary evaluation skills but also the conviction that the skills need to be exercised is a primary task in the 21st Century.

  2. I like it David. Especially your phrase “learning expands out of listening, watching, and remembering to include.” There is still a need for the 20th century learning items, I believe, in order to build background in the younger student.

    Here’s a next level question for the actual teaching/learning process. What or when is the tipping point for students to actually provide high level proving, questioning, etc.? Without background knowledge, can they do this? How does a teacher recognize when to “release” the students to create and not just consume?

    I would go deeper, but again, generalizing.

  3. Ew, David. I don’t want to sink my teeth into a “sweat question.” Seriously though, I’m happy to agree with your definition. I think what educators need to realize is that 21st century learning is not about the technology. It’s not taking the kids down to the computer lab for a day. It’s also not teaching using a Smartboard. You can have the “techiest” classroom in the world and still teach 20th century style. On the flip side, I think you can have a very traditional classroom and embrace a 21st century teaching philosophy (but it would sure help to have a computer and data projector).

  4. Thanks for your list! I, like you, describe the “formal learning” aspects you cite as being appropriate for Industrial Age workers – but they have been displaced by robots and computers. As author Richard Florida has noted, in this Information and now Creative Age, innovation and creativity have become the valued abilities. Also, as Howard Gardner advances in “Five Minds for the Future,” there are 5 important 21st century minds:

    “1. The Disciplinary Mind — the mastery of major schools of thought (including science, mathematics, and history) and of at least one professional craft.

    2. The Synthesizing Mind — the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.

    3. The Creating Mind — the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena.

    4. The Respectful Mind — awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups.

    5. The Ethical Mind — fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen. ”

    Your addition of “engaging” is important – one not included in Gardner’s list – but goes further than you suggest. Teamworking abilities have been an important new skill and disposition in the post-industrial age. Yet educators largely consider “teamwork” to be “cheating.”

    In educating the whole person, families, communities, and educators must be concerned about developing each individual’s knowledge and skills, attitudes and beliefs, motivation and behavior. Educators have limited their domain of concern to “knowledge” and sometimes “sklills.” Yet that final “behavior” is what the individual adds to the society and economy in which he/she participates; it determines an ultimate outcome of education.

  5. I agree with what you have, David, but I think that there is so much evaluation that goes on with learning today. It’s faster than “proving/disproving” and it has to be that way for someone to get by in our digital age.

  6. As a new teacher, I know I have a limited amount to bring to this question, although I can draw from my own 20th century education experience…

    I am spurred to mention that a big part of education in the 21st century seems to be access to a whole slew of media that the previous generation of classrooms did not have access to. But then, I think that the previous generation had its own set of mind-blowing tools, such as the overhead projector, which probably revolutionized teaching in its own way. So, new tools do not, by themselves, drive the meaning behind 21st century education. Even the above-mentioned understanding and engaging rather than rote memorization isn’t entirely NEW, its just becoming more widespread due to work such as Gardner’s Emotional Intelligences.

    I have to say that out of Rod’s list there, the one that resonates with me as being a truly 21st century value is really only #2, the Synthesizing Mind. Actually, it is my humble opinion that the Disciplinary Mind is taking the back burner at the moment, and that the other Minds are just kind of following along the intellectual progression of the Synthesizers rather than being fruitful in their own respects.

    What I see as a direct result of the Synthesizing Mind is a new, 21st century awareness of global citizenship, and I am interested to see how this plays out. I don’t just mean how much electricity will students save as a result of trying to live greener, but how will students’ understanding of global issues change their own ideas about politics, religion and technology? I truly believe that our education’s system will affect these disciplines very much. As one small example, Canada Day is not celebrated during the school year, but Earth Day is, and with much exuberance, and I am willing to bet that students know more about Earth as a concept than they do their own country’s history, and that, as they grow, they will be more Earth-minded than the previous generation.

    Rod, I am interested in your thought about how education is instilling teamwork as a new skill; I wonder what will be the consequences of teaching students to depend on each other – a new brand of employee, that’s for sure. I just hope the ability to work independently is not lost.

    Ric, in answer to your question about when to allow students to create rather than consume, it has been my experience that teachers are encouraged to get students to create questions of the higher order as early as possible – background knowledge apparently is gained better through exploration of a question or task than as a prelude to the question or task.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. After our discussion at supper last night, David, I did some mulling about the word “engage” and gave some thought to it for my blog entry for today. http://bit.ly/RYqO7 Consequently, I tried to avoid using “engage” in my part of the presentation today. This is going to take some work! To your list, I think we need to add an element of Citizenship. With an increasing amount of information (you used the term exobyte), comes the responsibility to use the information properly. In an environment where students create knowledge, comes the responsibility of doing so in a ethical and honest manner.

    1. No! I’m coming to like the word “engage.” I think that the distinction I finally came up with for the afternoon is a simple and useful one — that engage is something that the students do, not something that the teacher does. We talking about integrating Cell Phones, because it’s our children’s tech-of-choice (or it appears that way for us.) I think that what we need are learning experiences where the students are engaging with their information environments — whether they be computer software, collaborations over the Net, chemistry lab, or textbook. It needs to be a going back and forth. It’s conversation.

      You point about citizenship is an excellent one. I’m not sure that citizenship is the right word, because I think more about politics when I hear it. I prefer your use of the word, “responsibility.” I think that 21st century learners need to be responsible for their own learning and its outcomes.

  8. Great post! I think it’s very interesting, considering how much the learning environment has changed for students between centuries. I think a key difference is engaging, because teachers try to engage more nowadays since students learn better in this way because they are actively participating in the classroom. I know quite a few people who would be especially interested in this post, so I can’t wait to share it! Have you considered creating a http://bit.ly/4bybHr poll for your readers? I find them useful and also fun for voting!

  9. I like your definition David. There are a few points that stick in my mind that I would like to share.

    1. I believe the use of the term ’21st century learning’ is inclusive of embedding the technology tools that we have access to as part of the learning process. It is not about the technology itself, but rather strategic integration of the tools we have (now or at some future point) to foster the best possible learning environment and opportunities. Certainly, we have those that embrace, and those that do not and perhaps this comparison drives our notion of 21st century learning.

    2. I also think that there is a potential to make today’s curriculum more individualized for the independent and collaborative learners we develop.

    3. In some ways, we reference 20th century learning as if was all bad. This is certainly no so in my mind. I expect we could make a good case to revisit a few areas we excelled at before the ‘digital’ time began.

    Our journey is all about the learner. Creating the best possible learning environment covers the ‘whole playing field’ – curriculum design, building design, teacher training, assessment, changing with the times, best use of technology and steady, reflective incremental improvement. After all, we are life long learners!

    Mark Carbone

  10. Let me dissent, somewhat. You start off talking about learning, but then proceed to talk about education. They aren’t the same thing. We hope that education will lead to learning, but it often doesn’t. Learning today is the same as it has always been for humans. We observe, we try, we practice, we get it wrong until we get it right, and then we usually get it wrong again.
    The environment changes, but we learn it in the same ways.

  11. I think that the difference between 20th century teaching and learning and 21st century teaching and learning in the learners. We no longer expect the learner to bend to the lesson, we bend the lesson to reach the learner—for better or for worse. A positive spin on this idea is that we are now interested in meeting the learner where he is—we have digital age learners, so we often use digital age practices to engage them.

    Check out these two sites—one on the “new” Bloom’s taxonomy where creating is the highest stage(no longer so new) http://www.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm and one on Bloom’s Taxonomy in the digital age http://www.techlearning.com/article/8670 which includes new verbs to use when lesson planning and describing intended learning outcomes.

  12. I’d like to expand Kevin’s thoughts (comment #11) to include the notions of persistence and perseverance. He wrote, “we try, we practice, we get it wrong until we get it right, and then we usually get it wrong again.”

    Those I know who are literate with and able to use today’s technology to learn are those that don’t give up when the technology, for whatever reason, doesn’t work. It’s that determination to continue on with technology despite glitches, etc., that seems to be a dividing factor between those who are or aren’t 21st century learners.

  13. Coming from a fellow student, I think ‘connecting’ is the key word. The ability to connect the new material with our prior knowledge is the key to learning or learning effectively. This can be done several ways, some of which you have already covered such as Constructing (inventing) new learning and knowledge and proving (and disproving) what you find. While there are many ways to ‘connect’ the material, it is important to recognize that the basic process is synthesis.

  14. I don’t think Socrates, Dewey, Vygotsky, or Piaget–educators in the 20th century and earlier–would have limited learning to listening, watching, and remembering.

  15. I feel that with the 21st century teaching and learning approach is extremely different because the new technology has changed the way students learn. If we as teachers don’t keep up and recognize the fact that students today have to have so much more stimuli (such as the video games they play) just in order to keep their attention. I like to create web-quests, web-based research projects as well as using the many educational programs and games found on-line.

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